How Leaders Can Use Processes to Empower their Teams during Change?

When I give a minister an order, I leave it to him to find the means to carry it out.

Napoleon Bonaparte (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821), was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the latter stages of the French Revolution and its associated wars in Europe.

Image by Edwin Lee

Image by Edwin Lee

My paralegal, Laurie, has been with me for over a decade. She’s brilliant. She can handle anything. When I interviewed her for what began as an assistant position, she was painfully young, terribly inexperienced, and her professional history consisted of a brief stint as a daycare aide. One simple answer got her the job:

Question: How do you feel about doing anything needed around the office, even changing light bulbs?

Answer: I’ll grab a ladder and change every light bulb in the building. I’ll handle it.

The day she started work, I fired my paralegal and told a stunned Laurie she was now my legal assistant/ paralegal-in-training/ right hand. Training was minimal – I needed an assistant who was a self-starter and could “handle it.” Because I needed to quickly discover what she was made of, I behaved in brilliant Napoleonic fashion and threw her to the wolves.

It went something like this:

Laurie: The postage machine is out of postage and we have three certified letters that have to go out today. Do you know how to add postage?

Me: Nope. There’s a manual for it. You’ll figure it out.

Laurie: I need to calendar a response date to this motion.

Me: Check the civil procedure rule book. You’ll figure it out.

Laurie: The new phone system is dropping calls.

Me: Here’s the technician’s contact. Both of you can figure it out.

And Laurie figured it out. She learned to identify problems and solve them by utilizing available resources. Using this problem-solving method, she learned every aspect of even the most basic processes, built confidence in her abilities, and developed higher skill levels as a result.

Did Laurie ever screw up royally? Absolutely. But she had gained a skill set that allowed her to identify a mistake, own it, and rectify it. Her successes greatly outweighed her failures, and her failures became learning tools that caused her to rise to the next level in her duties and responsibilities.

Not every workplace can utilize such an extreme “do it yourself” learning process. But every workplace will benefit from leaders who can create an environment that empowers their employees (even other leaders) to continuously learn.



1. Provide resources.

Resources are crucial. For every problem Laurie encountered, there was a manual, a handbook, or a contact person who could provide information. By having strong resources, Laurie had the confidence to tackle problems and gain invaluable knowledge from which to build more skills.

2. Pay attention to the process.

Laurie was on her own, but I sure was lurking in the background, evaluating her ability to utilize resources and to solve problems. She had responsibilities and duties, but I was ultimately the person responsible for my business. I monitored her results and confirmed that she was solving problems and successfully completing projects. If she seemed to be floundering after diligent attempts to “handle it,” I stepped in and offered suggestions and support. Problem-solving is fabulous, unless it becomes a fruitless endeavor that impacts morale.

3. Be willing to let the employee fail – and identify what is learned.

Failure can be extremely positive. When I fail, I am given a unique perspective of my process. I can identify a weakness in an area that might not have seemed important – until it was. There were many times that I could have told Laurie to do something different, but she learned so much more by doing it “wrong” and correcting the situation herself. She can point out numerous potholes that she is able to avoid, simply because she, at one time or another, fell in them and had to pull herself out.

4. Acknowledge accomplishments.

Success in a vacuum does not breed further success. You do not have to break out the brass band and have a parade every time an employee learns to operate the new fax/ scanner/ printer/ copier, but an unexpected latte or a because-you-have-earned-it afternoon off simply confirm that initiative and learning are invaluable – and an employee who embraces the process and produces for the business is appreciated and rewarded.

More than a decade later, I still brag to new clients about Laurie’s work ethic, self-starting ability, and skill in problem-solving. She has heard me tell the story of how she was hired and “trained” a million times. And she will, God willing, hear it a million more.

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Katherine E. Blackmon

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