Empower vs Enable: What Kind of Manager are You?

In my early days of managing employees, my perfectionist tendencies got the best of me. Enabling was the name of my management game. My way or the highway. Success made it easy for me to justify work done my way. And unfortunately, justification is the shortest distance between point "what" and point "why."

For new recruiters, the qualifications are pretty basic: work ethic, excellent communication and negotiation skills, basic computer skills. (Don't let anyone tell you sales people make the best recruiters!) Everything else can be learned. The great recruiters learn to hone the skills that set them apart: follow-up, critical listening, cultivating long-term vs short term relationships, etc. 

I learned from some of my best hiring managers that empowerment is the better way to build and retain a great team. People like Shawn Carolan, Mason Jones, Bruce Scott and others illustrated how hiring as an art and science is about empowering intelligent people, not enabling them.

What's the difference? The line isn't so fine if you know what to look for. As defined at Dictionary.com, to empower is "to give power." To enable is "to make able." 

The difference, I hope, leaps off the page. If you've hired someone for a critical role in your company, you've already decided they are able. It's now your job to give them the tools and resources needed to execute their job. 

In 2009, when Mason and I built the development team at Kleiner Perkins-funded startup RPX Corporation in San Francisco, we recruited several talented Rails devs who, at the time, had 4-5 years of Ruby-on-Rails experience. Of all the hires Mason made, though, he still talks points to one fresh-out-of-school dev as his best. This engineer worked his way through the University of Washington freelancing as a LAMP/PHP developer. Dabbling was the extent of his Rails experience. Mason spotted talent even though it came with the risk of hiring an engineer with no local references. The engineer took Mason's offer, packed his car in Seattle and moved to San Francisco. 

Sure, this newly hired engineer had to step up and do the job Mason hired him for, but Mason worked to give him the right opportunities to prove his skills. If ever there is an argument against enablement as management, this story is proof.

My advice? When opening a position, think through the tools you have that your new hires will use. Hire based on who will make the best use of those tools and then when you've hired them, make it your practice to keep their resource pipeline full. If talent for your role is tight, ask yourself: are you hiring for talent or abilities?

As time goes by, watch your management tactics for evidence of empowerment vs enablement. Find a trusted peer or mentor who can keep you accountable and give them license to challenge how you manage your team.

And perhaps the best case for empowerment as a management tool is retention. Abilities change, but I'm not convinced talent does. Keep a shortlist of your most talented team members and plan growth opportunities to keep them interested and learning. The number one reason candidates tell me they are job searching is a lack of growth opportunities, not a lack of company stability.

Recruiting and keeping good people in a competitive industry is insanely difficult. Empowerment is your secret ingredient for success!