One Employee’s (Company’s) Autonomy Dividends
Hi, my name is Deb and I’m a bookaholic. I just reserved Daniel Pink’s Drive online at my library’s website, recommended by a contact in my network last week as a result of a wonderful discussion about autonomy at work. This is after I brought home 12 books from the Schenectady Library annual book sale yesterday. And after I borrowed books from the Clifton Park Library earlier in the week. The Mohawk Valley and Southern Adirondack Library systems may arrange for an intervention soon. I blame it on my mother: she brought me to the library every week and at the age of 9, starting recommending her favorite novels to me.
Enough about my mother: I’d like to tell you about John.
John was the CFO of the company I had just joined earlier in my HR career. I reported to John, and within the first week discovered that I was the most experienced HR person in the company. We were without a head of HR, so John quickly pulled me into the fray, coloring outside the lines of my stated job description. I loved it. Working for John was an MBA crash course, and I learned so much from him from the very beginning. But the biggest gift that John gave me came 2 months into my tenure.
My previous company was a much larger international organization, with layers of HR and legal oversight. We couldn’t issue a disciplinary action without thorough legal review. So naturally, I kept John abreast of every employee relations issue at every step: I spoke to John at least twice a day.
At the two-month mark, during one of these updates, John stopped me. “Why do you come and talk to me so much?” he asked with his laser-blue stare, which served him well during vendor and M&A negotiations. I didn’t quite know how to respond. “Well, ” I said, “You’re my boss. I’m supposed to keep you updated. I was trained to get at least one-over-one approval before taking any HR action.” John lowered the high-beams and relaxed a bit. “Okay, that makes sense,” he said. “Because I initially thought it was due to a lack of confidence, yet I know you’re very self-confident.” I thought that was a compliment, but I wasn’t sure. “Thanks?” I responded tentatively.
John leaned in and delivered the gift. “Deb, here’s the bottom line. We hired you because you’re smart and you know what you’re doing. You only need to update me if we have potential legal or financial exposure. Otherwise, I trust you to do the right thing.” He leaned back. “And if you make a mistake, just know that I’ve always got your back because you work for me.” I was blown away. I grinned back at him. “Thanks John. I will not disappoint you.” He smiled slightly, and the high beams returned. “Good. Now get out of my office,” he growled. “I’m busy.”
With that vote of confidence, I was hooked. Not only did I love my job and the work that I did, it set me free to do my best work and to broaden my subject-matter expertise (SME) at the same time: an opportunity that did not exist at my previous company with its layers of oversight. There was little coaching from the layers of oversight management at my previous company to learn as a SME, since decisions were made above my head for me. Consequently, I learned more working for John and the executive team than I ever had working for the bigger international company. Without the multiple layers of oversight, I was often the SME decision-maker. And if I was that SME, I was damned sure that I knew and learned all of the facts, laws and regulations before making those critical decisions and recommendations to the executive team.
During my long and satisfying tenure, John tasked me as the HR lead for a critical acquisition (which resulted in no legal exposure) and building the company’s recruitment function, among many other projects that supported the company’s bottom line. It was a win-win that paid dividends to both me and my company, both financially and in engagement terms.
Good team members: what have you done to earn and prove your ability to accept the responsibility and rewards of autonomy?
Good leaders: what success (profit) would arise by trusting your SME employees to do the right thing, assuring your support even in the face of potential mistakes?
The potential for autonomy dividends is tantalizing indeed.