Lead by Empowering

Leadership, Organization

It was a Saturday mid-morning, my wife, daughter and I got ready to head out to the farmer’s market.  We love fresh produce!  We get there, park and then realize that we want to grab some food first.  We walk around the block and find a nice little place that serves breakfast.  We wait a few minutes before being seated, but we finally sit.  We had a great meal and it was time for us to pay the bill.

I don’t ever expect a discount, but I always ask the waitress/waiter at any food establishment if they give military discounts.  Usually, if they do give us a discount, we then give that discount amount as a tip to the waitress/waiter.   So, I ask the waitress, we’ll call her waitress 1, ”Does the restaurant give military discount?  She replied with, “I think so, but let me check.”  She took my I.D and behind her a few feet stood what looked like a manager.  They were dressed a little different and they were helping around.  Before the waitress could walk a few steps, the ‘manager’ quickly told her, “No, we don’t do that here.”  Our waitress turns around and apologizes and hands me my I.D. back.

It was no big deal, like I said, we never expect that discount.  We paid, left a tip and headed out.  We didn’t make it to the market that morning because we took too long eating, but we then drove down to another farmer’s market in the town over.  Did a little browsing, bought some vegetables and some bread and we went on our way.  We did a little bit of shopping and then by the afternoon, we were hungry again.  We headed home, but then decided to try out another place to eat.

We walked in, we were seated quickly and we began looking at the menu.  Same routine, we order, we eat and now we were ready to pay out bill.  The waitress, we’ll call her waitress 2, came to collect our bill and I asked once again, “Does the restaurant give military discount here?”  She said, “No, I’m sorry we don’t do that here.”  Again, it was okay, we were fine with at.  We’re not near a military base so we don’t expect most businesses to include that discount in their service.  When the waitress returned, I looked at the bill and noticed she gave us a discount.  While she was collecting our plates and glasses she said, “I went ahead and gave you a discount anyway.”  We gave our appreciation, paid and went on our way.

These two cases really stayed in mind.  What possessed waitress 2 to give us a discount when they didn’t provide military discount versus waitress 1 who worked in a place that also didn’t give military discount.  Now, I do know that some places provide Police/Fire Department discounts and sometimes they sort of put us into that category and that’s fine.  Maybe she did that, maybe she didn’t, but the point here is why did one employee do it anyway while the other didn’t?

The conclusion I came to was that one waitress was empowered to make decisions like that and the other wasn’t.  One asked management, one didn’t.  One waitress didn’t know if they gave discount, one did.  I’ll make a point here that I’m not bashing either of the waitresses; I’m just comparing each case.

A few weeks later, my co-workers and I went downtown to eat for lunch.  We were in uniform so it was obvious we were in the military.  We ate at a nice little cafe and next to it was an ice cream shop.  One of my co-workers wanted to grab a cup of ice cream on our way out.  We all walk in, she picks her flavor and the person helped her rang up her total.  She didn’t ask for a discount, she was just going to pay the standard price.  It was about $4.  When she paid, it happened to be less than that.  She asked, “Is there a special today? I thought I was paying 4 something.”  Of course, hearing this caught my attention and I began to listen.  The employee said, “My grandfather was in the Air Force so I really appreciate what you do so I gave you a small discount.” Of course a few questions ran in my mind.  Did she have authority to give a discount? Or did she have feel empowered to make that decision on her own?

Last quick story.  My buddy Chris and I were about to film another episode of Grounds on Leadership.  We meet at a coffee shop, we order our drinks and we began to find a spot to record.  We wanted the camera to be a little bit higher off the table so we began looking around the coffee shop to find something to prop it up.  We see this plastic box type object on a shelf.  We then ask the barista if we could use it for a few minutes to record a video.  Simple, it wasn’t being used, it was some sort of display for the shelf.  The barista replies with, “Let me go ask, I’m not sure I can make that decision.”  Chris and I immediately looked at each other and we both knew we were thinking the same thing, “He’s asking permission to make a decision.”  The barista went to ask his co-worker if we could use this object and they both come back and the 2nd barista hands us a paper coffee cup with the bottom cut out and suggests we put our phone in it and use it as a stand.  This seemed like a great idea so we messed with that idea for a few seconds and made a great make shift coffee stand.  We told them thank you and we recorded our video.


So here are 4 examples of empowerment or lack of empowerment.  Why did waitress 1 not make the decision on her own?  Why did waitress 2 make a decision without approval? Why did the barista go ask permission to make a decision?  Why did the ice cream server give a discount without anyone giving her permission to do it?  Is it the management’s inaction on empowering employees or is this type of behavior outlined in the business’s customer service approach?

I can’t say whether the reactions/actions of each employee is based off a company standard of customer service or a manager’s leadership of customer service.  The managers in these cases should be following the company’s vision on customer service, but what if the managers became leaders and not only made decisions as managers, but gave their employees the ability to decide for themselves in how customers are taken care of.  Even though we didn’t receive a discount at the first place I mentioned doesn’t mean we won’t go back.  We enjoyed the food and it was very homey type of place.  We really enjoyed it.  We were happy with our service.

I don’t want to include the company’s names.  I’m not here to embarrass or humiliate any company.  My intent is to bring up the idea of how important empowering is.  I will however say that 3 of these are corporate companies and the other is a mom and pop place.  I cannot say how well each business instills values, but even so, effective leadership is necessary to create a culture of empowering all team members the ability to decide and serve above and beyond the minimal standard.

I became amazed at this idea of empowerment when I read a story on the Ritz-Carlton.  The Ritz-Carlton is a resort that provides exceptionally amazing customer service.  In fact, it seems too good to be true.  If you click their link, you can read their philosophy of hospitality to their guests.  It’s quite refreshing to read such statements.  Their employees are given empowerment to make decisions that contribute to the care of their customers.  Employees do not need to ask permission to make a decision to make any guest a little more comfortable or a little happier.  If you read their values #3 and #6 speak volumes to the type of empowerment that employees are given.  They in a way become managers of their own domain.  They make decision for the guests, not the managers, not the CEO.  The employees!

Another thing you may not know about the Ritz is that employees are given a $2000 discretion to use if any guest doesn’t feel happy with their customer service or any complaint they may have.  The employee may use as much of that $2000 as they feel necessarily appropriate to handle the complaint.  The company’s values are very precise and clear in giving employees control in the decision making process that employees are inspired and motivated to provide outstanding customer service.  They not only do it, they also enjoy it.

What makes Ritz so different than normal business that I’ve mentioned?  We weren’t complaining, we didn’t have any issues and we still left happy, but what type of leadership would not allow furthering the satisfaction of a customer?  What type of culture makes an employee feel they can’t make the smallest decisions without asking if they can make a decision?  Customer service is a tricky business, but companies like Ritz have succeeded, even giving employees $2000 per guest to resolve their issues hasn’t bankrupt the company.  That’s because they have given empowerment to their employees to decide how their guests are treated.  There isn’t a need to use $2000 if employees are given total control of how they handle each guest instead of a checklist of this is how you will handle things.  It’s their decision, it’s their call!  That, along with their credo, motto and values that make them a successful company.

Can you imagine if every complaint or issue a guest encounter had to be run up the chain for a decision?  They’d probably have an outstanding record of unhappy customers.

I don’t want to put blame on management nor a company, nor do I want to tell anyone how they should conduct business.  The purpose of this blog is to think deeply on how big an impact empowerment can be and is.  A goal of a leader is to empower their team members.  Passing ideas and decisions up the chain of command is not always an effective process and not the quickest way to resolve something that needs immediate attention.  Sometimes decisions need to be made on the spot.  This is why empowering our team members to make wise, appropriate decisions is important.  A leader may not always be in the vicinity to make that decision.  Team members must be able to take on the issue.  Just like the Ritz, team members must own the issue as well as the decision.  Leaders must empower others to feel authorized to take on the task at hand.  When we pass power down, we also embody trust in our team.  We give them the reigns to lead.  Doing this not only empowers them, but we give them a chance to be leaders in their domain, just like Ritz gives their employees rule in theirs.

Leaders empower!

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