Great power, great outcomes
Bill Gates famously once said, “As we look into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”
Last year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella echoed that sentiment when he announced the company’s new mission: “To empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.”
Offering a high degree of autonomy across all levels of their workforces appears to be a strategic move for many of today’s top companies, including both Microsoft and its key rival Apple.
Apple, for example, has developed the Supplier Employee Education and Development (SEED) programme, where it sets up classrooms in supplier facilities. Workers, through their own free will and desire for career development, can take up free courses in subjects as diverse as computer skills, graphic design and HR management.
One beneficiary of the programme is Carl Yang, who started his career as a material operator in one of Apple’s supplier factories in Suzhou, China.
He was able to earn a high school diploma with a specialisation in HR over nine months of classes through the SEED programme, and even secured a position on his company’s HR team as a SEED administrator.
Today, in his new role, he pays the opportunities forward by providing guidance on courses to other workers with similar ambitions.
Yng’s story shows how something as simple as giving employees a say in their own development can boost the employee value proposition, even helping to retain talent. But as several companies shared with HRM Asia, it also leads to higher operational efficiency.
From a broader business perspective, giving rank and file workers some element of control means they are also able to make decisions quickly where needed. By moving away from bureaucracy and a top-down hierarchy, costly delays are minimised.
“If decisions are made where the opportunities and issues arise, (the company) can significantly speed up operations,” says Imre Vadasz, regional HR director for Asia, the Middle East and Africa, at Sony Electronics Asia-Pacific.
In view of this, Sony Electronics Asia-Pacific has taken a “bottom-up” business approach, and staff are strongly encouraged to take risks in their work, with accountability for both successes and failures.
To create this type of organisational model and mindset, Vadasz says HR had to “carefully align different elements of Sony’s architecture”, from performance management to leadership development, to ensure that each function gives employees the opportunity and ease-of-mind to chart their own paths within the company.
By doing so, the electronics manufacturer hopes to build a “pro-active, fast, and responsive organisation”, which it says will lead to better business outcomes and a happier workforce.
Vadasz says leadership, just as Gates identified, is the most critical element in the creation of an empowered workforce.
This is because team leaders are not only responsible for leading their people, but also encouraging, supporting, challenging, and developing them to take ownership of their work.
Vadasz recalls one of his very first conversations with a team member when he first arrived in Singapore four years ago.
“She came to me with a problem. I asked her the question ‘What options have you considered for action and what do you suggest we should do and why?’
“Her answer was ‘You are the boss, tell me what to do, and I will do it’,” says Vadasz.
“We have come a very long way since that day and now all my team members only come to me with proposals for consultation, and now we are transitioning towards using their peers as consulting partners rather than me,” he adds.
It starts with leaders
Vadasz believes that good leaders help to eliminate the fear of failure and the fear of making mistakes, which gives employees the courage to step out of their comfort zones and, subsequently, step up their efforts.
“The focus is to help employees to develop, decide, and implement their actions and take accountability for the results,” says Vadasz.
“(It is why) we put a lot of emphasis on the importance of coaching as line managers.”
This emphasis on leaders as coaches has helped to enable the bottom-up model. One way employees have been able to take charge and effect change is through determining their own training and development programmes.
Employees can view all available courses on Sony’s intranet site, before discussing with line managers which ones are in line with their career and personal goals.
Apart from pre-defined programmes, staff can also suggest other learning programmes that are deemed as relevant to their current roles.
Performance management is another area where Sony employees are able to determine their own fate.
At Sony, company and department key performance indicators (KPIs) are defined by staff themselves. Staff develop and submit their individual KPIs for discussion and review with their respective line managers.
“So again, we provide the overall direction and framework, but then encourage everyone to take the initiative and responsibility to identify how they can best support the wider effort,” says Vadasz.
“This is based on the belief that by doing it this way, rather than top down, we can create a strong commitment and ownership to deliver those KPIs during the performance year cycle.”
For a company like Airbnb, whose mission is to “create a world where anyone can belong”, enfranchising employees is a natural extension of the overall business strategy.
“We want our employees to truly feel they belong at work,” says Ken Hoskin, Head of Talent, Asia-Pacific, Airbnb.
The peer-to-peer homestay network, founded in 2008, has since achieved a valuation of US$30 billion and more than 2.5 million accommodation listings in 34,000 cities across 191 countries.
The company attributes this lightning success to how it supports and invests in the development of employees.
“Airbnb treats its employees like founders,” says Hoskin. Just as its founders took the risk to launch what some at the time called “the silliest idea”, the company also actively encourages its people to be entrepreneurs by pushing them to flex their creative muscles, stay ambitious, and constantly think of new ideas.
A big reason for this, Hoskin says, is that the company believes some of the best ideas come from people on the ground who help build the business day-to-day.
Geography is another reason why contribution from all levels is fostered. “Asia is a melting pot of cultures,” says Hoskin. “It’s important that local teams are given the autonomy to build on their wealth of cultural and institutional knowledge.”
This means ensuring that they have access to important information and open channels of communication to share their thoughts, ideas and opinions at work.
The commitment to all-level participation is evident in a new host programme that Airbnb is rolling out, based on a pilot initiative completely driven by employees in Korea. The programme connects Airbnb hosts with professional translation providers, especially in territories where English is not a primary language.
Rather than merely relying on auto- translation software programmes which can produce inaccurate transcripts, these translation services are able to capture the subtleties of various languages and closely translate them into smooth English descriptions of the listings and their neighbourhoods.
“This was a tremendous success and boon for the hosts,” says Hoskin.
Hoskin says that when people can see how their efforts are making a meaningful impact on the world, as in this example, they become even more inclined to put in greater effort.
Furthermore, the accommodation network is also big on collaboration and learning. Staff work off shared documents which are consistently open to other team members for editing.
“By combining collaboration and empowerment, the outcome is ‘accountability’,” says Hoskin.
Chung Ji Yoon, the regional head of HR for Asia-Pacific at British American Tobacco, goes back to the basics in her examination of employee autonomy.
“Think of a simple transaction that is done easily in your personal life. If the same thing can’t be done as easily in the office, as is usually possible, (employees) start to think ‘why can’t I even control this little thing,” says Chung.
This leads to frustration and indifference if the situation is not addressed.
Employees want to have a sense of control and feel like they are on top of things.
“This is fundamental to building self-belief and confidence in their ability to get things done,” says Chung.
“Autonomy starts from small things and can make a big difference when the concept meets the right employees.”
One of British American Tobacco’s four main guiding principles is “Freedom through Responsibility”, and the company has several polices and practices in place aimed at promoting a sense of employee empowerment, such as flexible working hours and work-from-home options.
The company is also currently in the midst of a global HR transformation programme, which Chung says will put employees and line managers “at the heart” of the organisation. This will enable staff to become more self-sufficient, and therefore more empowered.
As part of the HR transformation programme, a new modernised tool allowing employees to manage information autonomously will also be introduced.
At insurance broking firm Jardine Lloyd Thompson Asia, brokers are able to make policy recommendations with minimal guidance from leaders, says Regional HR Director Irene Teo.
“Our organisational structure is relatively flat,” she says.
Teo says brokers, regardless of seniority, are taught to take a cradle-to-grave approach with accounts, handling clients from when they first meet with the company, all the way to the closing of deals.
Management also assesses and identifies employees who are high potentials, then puts them in key strategic projects where they are given a significant amount of autonomy.
Teo cites the example of a graduate who is currently training and has been tasked to work on a mergers and acquisitions deal out of Singapore.
“He’s not just coordinating; he’s reaching to the sellers and he’s working with various business functions to put everything together,” says Teo.
“We don’t say they are at the ‘junior broker’ level, so they have to submit for next level approval – it doesn’t work like that.
“In that space, we’re slightly different from our competitors and people have a lot more flexibility to grow in their roles,” she adds.
Having such a flexible structure means brokers are more careful when making decisions, because they feel more accountable towards their clients.
This willingness to put people in stretch roles, and the resulting freedom has also become one of Jardine Lloyd Thompson’s key retention strategies.
“We are able to offer young people and budding talents the opportunities that many other organisations are not able to offer because of structural constraints,” says Teo.
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