Building a Culture of Empowerment for High Impact

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Feeling empowered is a fundamental human need. It elevates our role in relation to the world around us, and enables us to overcome life’s challenges. At ZERO – The End of Prostate Cancer we persistently strive to end prostate cancer by encouraging our team members to practice independent decision-making.

Guest author Jamie Bearse, President & CEO of ZERO - The End of Prostate CancerTrusting our employees to make the best decisions, and to do what’s best for ZERO, is the foundation of building a great team. Our culture of empowerment is largely responsible for doubling of our annual budget over the last four years and landing ZERO on the NonProfit Times “50 Best Places to Work” list in each of the last five years.

French Journalist Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather the wood, divide the work, and give the orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” When it comes to prostate cancer, a man dies every 18 minutes. At ZERO, each teammate has a tangible ownership stake in helping alter that outcome. For example, we personally reach out to each family that comes to us. We take the time to get to know them and we share their story among the staff. Knowing the families we’re fighting for amplifies the cause-driven passion for our work and creates a high-level of responsibility.

Team members who take on a high level of responsibility and produce positive results are worthy of high levels of freedom. If we’re fighting for families as effectively and efficiently as we can, then each teammate is yearning “for the vast and endless sea’” and I’m not concerned with when, where, or how they “gather the wood.”

The prime examples of high freedom at ZERO are the vacation and remote-working policies, as well as our performance review process. In short, we just don’t have any of them.

We don’t put restrictions on time off. Simply put, if you have the responsibility of doing what’s best for ZERO, you have to take care of yourself to be at your best. This means you take the time you need to recharge.

ZERO - The End of Prostate CancerAt ZERO, we have very little structure as to who works in an office setting and who works remotely. A ship is not built with just a hammer. Fighting cancer is a complex problem to conquer. We need both bursts of creativity to produce innovation and the persistent drum beat that results in change. Not only recognizing but embracing the idea that each of these tactics requires certain skill sets, delivered at optimum performance times and in different environments, is important to our success. When we’re highly-aligned with this concept and connected through interactive communications tools like Slack, Trello, and Google Suite, then we’re not a three time-zone organization but a tribe where the digital director, who is best suited in a remote setting to create, can connect easily with our policy team on Capitol Hill or our chapter directors, who are grounded in the communities that they live in.

We stopped doing annual employee reviews. Who really remembers what you did nine months ago? And how is using that information helping you succeed in the year ahead? We embrace real-time feedback while the action or behavior is still fresh to guide team members toward our goals. Or better yet, we validate a stunning colleague for practicing our values and producing impact.

Ultimately, the real measure of  empowering our people is impact. We didn’t invent a new and elaborate system of managing people. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – we stripped away policies and procedures to enable our team members to innovate, hold each other up, and solve problems. And when we’re doing that, the results come.

How can you employ this culture in your workplace?

  1. Don’t hire for knowledge; hire for passion. The best thing you can do for your organization is hire high-performing team players who share your values. Knowledge and skill are important but secondary by comparison. Being among amazing teammates is the best perk at any organization.
  2. Articulate your mission and most important goals broadly across the organization. The secret to a winning team is to attract stunning colleagues, then articulate a clear mission and identify well-understood goals.
  3. Build trust. I make a ton of mistakes. The trick is admitting them openly and moving on. It shows you’re human and approachable. The demonstration of courage – and vulnerability -  builds trust.
  4. Rip up the rule book. Have fewer policies and procedures. If you trust your team, where they live and when they work to accomplish the goals of the organization don’t matter as much. Fewer rules enables the team to create and generate opportunities.
  5. Embrace technology. Advances are made everyday to make the world smaller and enable us to communicate digitally in communities of interest. Look for ways to use tools at your organization that reinforces communication and build efficiencies.

For a culture of high performance to take hold, a leader must inspire each team member to feel that the successes or failures of the organization depend on the execution of that team members’ tasks and responsibilities. Empower your team and the impact follows.


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