The Myths of the Employee Empowerment Model

Thursday 19th September, 2019

Our biggest Big Cat Anthony is talking at the next PEG event, taking place next week, to discuss the Myths of the Employee Empowerment Model. Can’t wait until then? Read on to find out more and to take a sneak peek at Anthony's views on this topic in the following interview piece.

At this event you’ll be discussing the myths of the employee empowerment model. Can you briefly explain what the principles of this model are?

Upside down management is an employee empowerment model created by John Timpson, founder and former Managing Director of Timpson’s, the high street retail brand famous for key cutting and shoe repairs.

The tenet behind this style of management is that you can’t create a great service culture by laying down lots of rules, running training courses or inventing a code of service. The only way is to trust frontline colleagues with the freedom to serve customers in the way they know best.

Timpson’s employee empowerment model puts the sales assistant at the top of the management chart with the CEO at the bottom. Like every other manager, they are there to support the people who make the money and service the customers.

What are the potential benefits of adopting this model do you think? And the drawbacks?

Giving frontline employees the freedom to do things their way and using their initiative is very empowering. I agree, that the best way to learn is to do, and that most training can be done on-the-job. Managers supporting customer service employees to be the best they can be can only be a good thing.

Timpson said that their approach took several years to fully adopt. The first obstacle he faced was getting the right people in his shops. As with most customer facing roles it takes a particular personality in order to thrive. The second challenge was to change the mind-set and style of his middle management team.

It seems to me that it is a pendulum swing too far from the factory management style of managers standing over people to optimise how they complete repetitive tasks.

What’s your stance on this?

I think the approach is too simplistic for complex knowledge-based industries. I believe in the elegance and effectiveness of simple solutions. However Timpson’s two rules of ‘look the part’ and ‘put money in the till’ are insufficient to run a creative agency, or many other businesses solving complex problems and employing cutting edge technologies.

At Big Cat, employees need to be constantly learning and evolving if they’re going to be able to keep up with consumer and market trends. As a marketing agency, our campaigns need to integrate multiple channels and disciplines. This requires systems and processes, working in collaboration and a deep understanding of our clients’ objectives and challenges.

My experience is that traditional management hierarchy works, providing it sits within the framework of a positive and meritocratic culture. Senior members of the Big Cat Pride like to share their knowledge, nurture and develop their team members and work with clients at a strategic level. More junior members want to learn, progress and be part of a team that is doing exciting and varied work.

My approach to leadership is to set the direction and objectives with the management team, and then they develop and activate plans to achieve these goals. I then provide guidance and advice throughout and attend quarterly reviews of progress against the agency goals.

Do you think too much empowerment can be a bad thing?

There are specific characteristics we look for when we’re recruiting, including personal ambition, optimism and confidence. These are the kind of creatives that need to be constantly challenged, feel like they are progressing in their career, to work with like-minded clients and colleagues and to work for an organisation that shares their values, and rewards their successes.

I believe in delegation not abdication. Empowerment can mean unclear expectations, incomplete instructions, limited support and guidance. Inevitably when the employee is told that the output or result is unsatisfactory this leads to frustration and feelings of disillusionment.

Working in a firm with unclear ways of working results in people not at odds and not to common objectives.

Do you think we need boundaries for empowered millennials?

The best creative work has very clear boundaries and rules. Whether building a bridge, launching a new software feature or deploying an advertising campaign, the most effective work is completed by teams who have unambiguous objectives, a common operational framework, and everyone has a clearly defined part to play. This requires regular training, mentoring and constant monitoring. There needs to be effective collaboration, regular check-ins and an escalation process to identify and correct any issues.

Do you think empowerment is suitable for everyone? Every business?

The short answer is no. Projects that require highly skilled people working together on complex problems requires structure, hierarchy and effective communication channels. At some point most businesses need to adopt processes that improve efficiency and collaboration towards common goals.

We’re in the process of adopting OKRs – meaning objectives and key results. Created by Intel’s Andy Grove and adopted by firms as diverse as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google and MyFitnessPal. This is a system of transparent, top down objectives whose purpose is to connect company, team and personal objectives to measurable results while having all members and leaders working together in one, unified direction.

Our version of empowerment is for employees to set their own objectives that align with the agency and team goals, have the confidence to admit if their objective is going to be missed, and the authority to reset on the fly.

What’s your approach at Big Cat? What do you feel the winning ‘formula’ is? Do you think it’s possible to adopt some of the principles from the empowerment model within a traditional hierarchal structure?

My formula has been developed and refined over 20 years since founding Big Cat.

  1. A clear and compelling vision and set of concise objectives that are transparent and realistic
  2. A CEO that is visible and active within the business who can give advice without micromanaging
  3. A nurturing culture that rewards good work, initiative and transparency
  4. A workforce that welcomes change and enjoys the pace and variety offered by agency life
  5. Client objectives take precedence over team P&Ls. This means that we’re always recommending what’s best for the client or campaign

Employee empowerment is critical to our success. People need to feel confident that that they have the authority to make decisions, and calling out issues is encouraged. Empowerment works best when individual objectives are clearly communicated and aligned with the team and agency goals. At Big Cat everyone knows that if something isn’t going to plan or if they spot a potential issue then they need to bring it to their manager’s attention.

I’m constantly looking for ways to improve campaign effectiveness and grow the agency. If we grow, our capabilities grow, which in turn allows our clients to grow. This means we’re in a constant state of transformation. This keeps the job exciting and will future proof Big Cat for challenges we’ll face in the coming years.

Written by Anthony Tattum Founder and CEO

Thursday 19th September, 2019

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