The Thinker

Empowered and traveling

One of the weird but nice things about my current job is that I am empowered. In all my other jobs, I was what amounted to a flunky. I was often a well-paid flunky, but a flunky nonetheless. While I had influence over decisions, I had no actual control over them. In fact, more often than not my suggestions were given short shrift. I usually did not usually have the inner ear of the decision maker.

In my current job, I am empowered. Of course, I too have a boss. Sometimes she will put the kibosh on my suggestions. However, increasingly (particularly when there is money available) she will flash green lights. She has chosen to delegate real authority to me. While she controls the overall budget and makes key financial decisions, she largely leaves me and the other managers alone. She does her best to give me the tools (time, money, executive sponsorship) so that I am my team can soar. Even when she is very busy, she will take the time to listen to me.

After eighteen months or so on the job, I still find this exhilarating. I wonder why there is not more empowerment in government and industry. Why are so many managers micromanaging? Why are they not instead putting trust in their employees? I too am learning to empower my employees. I find that empowerment is not always easy for me. It turns out that I am a bit of a control freak. However, I am unlearning my “trust no one” habits. You do not always have to watch behind your back.

For example, I have a team leader. I do my best not to interfere with the way he does his job. I see my role as more of a coach than a boss. As my boss does for me, if he wants something, I do my best to get it for him. I try to use this same strategy on all my employees. I try to let them feel like they have a sense of ownership for their areas of responsibility. I let them know what I expect from them but try not to worry them about how they accomplish it. “Holler if you want an opinion,” is what I tell them. I already have more than enough on my plate with routine work. I cannot worry about their work too. I have to let it go.

My employees do not always want to be empowered. They often want me to make the decisions for them. Why is this? Perhaps not everyone is comfortable with empowerment. Perhaps they want to disclaim responsibility if something goes wrong. I am not always comfortable making these micro decisions. Typically, my employee has a far better understanding of the problem and the solution than I do. Unless I have a strong reason to do otherwise, I will ask for their recommendation and implement that. As much as possible I will ask them to manage it too.

Sometimes I am dinged for actions. Being empowered apparently does not mean not being insensitive to my boss’s needs and concerns. While she wants to be hands off, she needs to be very hands on in a few areas. In those areas, she is not afraid to micromanage. She is legally accountable for how our money is used. As a result, she is aware of subtleties that I am not, such as what the Inspector General might be looking for in an audit. Consequently, she is quite concerned about how and where money is spent. She insists on personally approving every financial transaction. She wants to know down to the penny (if possible) how much money is obligated, whom it is obligated to, and what the obligation means for the future. This becomes an obsession at the end of the fiscal year.

She is also concerned about the image of our department. She does not like mixed messages presented to her management. I have learned that even in innocent emails to her boss it is a good idea to CC her. It is usually better to forward a draft to her first, let her weigh the political aspects, and let her present the situation to her management.

I have also learned through a number of painful lessons to stay on my own turf. I interact with a couple peers who run their own units. Of course, our employees work intimately with one another on a daily basis. It is easy to forget to make their boss aware of these discussions. I have been known to task employees outside my unit from time to time. Tsk, tsk. Apparently my empowerment has limits. After all, I don’t want my employees doing tasks for others if it might impact our commitments.

Last fiscal year our budget was quite tight. My boss was always looking for corners to cut. One consequence of her concern was that travel became less frequent. We held planning meetings via teleconference rather than in person. The result was probably not quite as good as if we had done it in person. As a new fiscal year dawns we find ourselves in a fortunate position. Congress, for the first time in many years, has actually passed our appropriation bill. In addition, the president signed it into law before the start of the fiscal year. Amazingly, there is some, but not a whole lot more money to spend beyond cost of living raises. We frankly did not see this coming. We are now putting our brains together to figure out how to best use the money over the coming year.

With money flowing a bit freer than before, I am finding it easier to get travel approved. This puts me into a small dilemma: do I travel or not? I do not mind a couple business trips a year, but lately my business trips have been nightmares. This is perhaps symptomatic of the stress our airlines are under these days. However, it is also not hard to make a business case that I need to do a lot more traveling than I do.

So more and more I have to decide whether I need to travel on business or not. Tonight I find myself in Cupertino, California. I was invited to attend a customer advisory board meeting for a database that we use. It would have been easy to say no thanks. The conference after all is in California and I am on the East Coast. The conference lasts a day but by the time I travel there and back, it will consume three days out of my week. Cons: a lot of time in airplanes and the usual three-hour jetlag hangover. Pros: having significant influence in setting the future direction of this product we use extensively. Deciding factor: money. Since we have more of it this year, I decided to go to the meeting. It may be a waste of my time, or it may be the start of a closer relationship. It may allow us to get our needs addressed more quickly.

This too still seems strange. I can elect to travel anywhere I want for business, providing there is money to do so. I realize I am fortunate to have such freedom in my job. However, particularly when the travel seems to go back-to-back, or when the airline gods have been especially nasty, I wish I was unempowered again. Eventually the feeling passes.

I am going trying to look on business travel as a perquisite rather than a pain. I am going to try to tell myself that it is okay to empower myself by sending myself across the country to follow a hunch. When I can afford to do so, if the destination has amenities, then I will try to arrive a day early to see a few sites or to do some local hiking.

Alas, it will not happen on the Cupertino trip. It seems I have meetings to run when I get back to the East Coast, and my To Do list will doubtlessly grow longer in my absence.


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