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What Works Refreshing Lessons in Empowerment

November 13, 2001
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When I look at a huge cardboard box, I usually see. . . a cardboard box.

    Not so with Melanie. When my six-year-old daughterfixed her eyes on the huge box that had just been pushed aside in our garage,she stood in awe while surveying the possibilities. Then she declared: "Let'shave a lemonade stand!"

    Half a second later, her three-year-old sister, Annie,shouted: "Yeah, let's have a lemonade stand!"

    We were planning to hold a garage sale in a week, sothey had timing on their side. "Well, we could set it up next to the salestables," I said, trying to block out the vision of my two kids trying topour gallon-size pitchers of sticky liquid.

    Melanie latched on to my words and sealed the deal."Great idea, Dad," she said. "Right next to the sales tables."

    When the big day finally dawned, the girls had an extraspring in their step as they hopped out of bed. We rushed through breakfastand headed out to the garage and the cardboard box.

    And that's when I unwittingly gave my daughters theirfirst view of a control-minded manager. "Okay, girls," I began, "I'mgoing to take the box inside. We'll decorate it there."

    The box was nearly six feet tall and five feet across,and I wrestled it through the side door and into the living room. The girlsfollowed me.

    I got an Exacto knife and began cutting a window inthe front of the box. Annie and Melanie stood watching. Then I grabbed a markerand wrote the menu and prices down the side: Large 25¢, Medium 20¢,Small 10¢. I also wrote the words "Fresh" and "It's Delicious!"How clever, I thought to myself.

    "Now I'll write 'Lemonade,' " I said, leaningdown with marker at the ready.

    Then I heard it -- a single syllable full of indignation."Dad!"

    I turned around and came face to face with two seriouslyticked-off kids. Both were standing with brows knitted and arms crossed. "Thisis our lemonade stand. We want to do that," Melanie said."Yeah," Annie added.

    Their words were like a punch in the gut -- a well-deservedone. I've long preached the message of employee involvement, empowerment, andownership. I've read a ton of books on the topic. I've written a book. Yet hereI was, taking over and exerting complete control, operating on the premise thatDaddy Knows Best.

    The girls held their ground and waited for a response."You're right," I said. "Here." I handed over the marker.

    "All we want you to do is trace the letters,"Melanie said.

    I followed their instructions, writing L-E-M-O-N-A-D-Ein faint pencil. Then Melanie got a second marker so her sister could be equallyinvolved in the work. They kneeled over the cardboard, and together, they coloredthe letters in stunning pink and blue. In a final flourish of ownership, Melaniewrote their names on the newly created storefront.

    By 10 a.m. they were pouring lemonade -- and selling,selling, selling. They kept their store open for six hours, serving up nearly300 cups. The only time I got involved was when they asked me to run insideand mix another pitcher -- something I did 20 times.

    Yes, there were some major spills. Fortunately, theywere on a slight slope, so I looked away, gritted my teeth, and let the lemonaderun down the driveway.

    At day's end, we sat on the porch with their jam-packedtoy cash register. The girls asked me to work the numbers, and I announced thefinal tally with admiration and amazement: $61.54. Back when I had lemonadestands, I'd be thrilled to walk away with a buck or two.

    But the money didn't matter one bit to Melanie andAnnie. That spring in their step, the one that had propelled them out of bed,seemed even greater. And in the evening, when talking with their grandma onthe phone, they couldn't stop chattering about their store and theirsale and how they did it all by themselves.

    As for me, well, I'm still reeling from the in-your-facelessons I learned that day. A lemonade stand is no Fortune 500 company,but with refreshing simplicity, it reveals some of the key principles of empowerment.

  • If colleagues are hovering whileyou do all the work, chances are you're exercising way too much control.Hand over the figurative marker and let them be co-creators.

  • You might think you can do thingsbetter and faster yourself, and maybe you can. Big deal. In the longrun, you'll increase know-how, nurture a sense of ownership, and spreadthe workload only by letting go. This means accepting some short-run inefficiencyand occasional bouts of frustration.

  • Stay alert to feedback. WhenMelanie wanted me to stop micromanaging, she was as subtle as a pitcherof lemonade over the head: "Dad!" In the workplace, people willroll their eyes, walk away, and generally disengage. If you're brave, trythis: Ask employees for specific instances when you've been a raging micromanagerand when you've been wonderfully empowering. You'll learn a lot.

  • Empowerment does not mean abandonment.Employees want support if and when needed, whether it involves tracing theword "lemonade" in faint pencil, gathering important data, navigatingworkplace politics, getting financial support, whatever. Be there, but don'tbe there.

  • Hold back on the praise. Aswe sat on the porch counting all that revenue, I felt the urge to hand outglowing reviews and gold stars. Our culture is always doing that -- to sucha degree that we can feel guilty when not issuing praise. But I could tellthat Annie and Melanie had a deeply intrinsic pride that would only be disruptedby extrinsic praise. A job well done was enough.

Workforce, November 2001, pp. 24-26 -- Subscribe Now!


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