Burning the Pancakes: 7 Steps to Empowerment

Here is the winner of our July 2016 Guest Blog Competition.

Burning the Pancakes: 7 Steps to Empowerment by Ken Downer

Ken Downer-1

Ken is the Founder, RapidStartLeadership.com

“Accelerating the Leader to Excellence”

Ken has been a leader in many capacities, from his 26 years in the Army to his 17 years in the Scouting program. He’s excited about being able to share what he has learned about leading with others who are just starting out on their leadership journey.

“I will let your son burn the pancakes.”

This is what I tell visiting parents who are trying to decide if their boy should join our Scout Troop. What I’m really telling them is that we do our best to empower the boys, and that the process can be messy. Here’s my thinking on that idea, and why you should let your people burn the pancakes from time to time, too.

What’s for Breakfast?

As a Scout troop, we camp a lot. To me, after a good night’s sleep in the woods there’s not much better than a hot breakfast. Pancakes are my favorite. Blueberry, please!

When things are going right, the Scouts do everything themselves. As adults, our job is to provide a safe learning environment where they can try new skills, take on new responsibilities, enjoy the fun of their successes, and learn from their missteps.

Cooking breakfast in camp falls squarely into that category.   We show them how to start a fire, teach them to cook, and equip them with the tools they need.

But we’re not starting the fire or cooking breakfast. That’s their job, and they know it.

They will benefit or suffer according to the quality of their work.

When breakfast is over, we pause and get them to talk about how it went, what was good, and what they could do better. Over the course of a year, it is amazing how creative and skillful the meals can get.

On those first outings with new Scouts, though, we definitely burn some pancakes.

But that’s the key. Until they see the pancake start to burn, they don’t truly believe that future meal depends on them and that the adults are not going to swoop in and change things.

That’s when they know they are empowered.

Steps to Empowerment

What does empowerment mean?

Ultimately it means they understand that what they do matters, their decisions have an impact, and they have a say in what happens to them and around them.

Here’s how I think you get there.

Pick the right people. Start by working with the best people you can find, both in terms of competence and character; not everyone is ready to step up, and you need a mutual sense of trust for this to work.

Give them a stake and authority to act. When people have a stake in the outcome (or pancake, in this instance…) they become more committed to the process. When they see their decisions and actions really matter, they will work harder to make good ones.

Provide limits and structure. As Gordon Tredgold says, it’s not about suddenly removing all limitations and barriers; it’s about establishing a clear framework within which they know they can safely operate. As they prove themselves, you can raise the limits. Start with pancakes; omelets can come later.

Train them. Clearly you can’t just launch them and hope for the best. Start by equipping them with the knowledge and training they need to do the job and make the decisions. Invest in their development so the decisions they make are more likely to be good ones. We use the EDGE method as a simple way to make sure they know what they are doing.

Back them up. Don’t second guess their decisions if they are working within the framework you establish. Support them. Expect that they may make honest mistakes, but don’t start the blame game or they will be afraid to try again. When they see they have burned the first batch of pancakes, they will be more careful with the next.

Give them the credit. Sure, you were the smart one to empower them, but if you steal the credit, you are breaking the bond of trust. Make sure that they get the recognition they deserve when things go well – it is one of the strongest incentives you can offer.

A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit. – Arnold H. Glasgow

Provide Feedback.   And of course all of this should not be occurring in a vacuum; give them regular and timely feedback on how they are doing, both good and bad; keep the tone positive, add training where needed, and keep at it.

Praise in public; criticize in private. – Vince Lombardi

Empowerment – The Takeaway

Empowering is an investment in others, not delegating and running. When you take the time to establish an environment of trust, provide training, and give needed support, you are planting seeds of leadership on your team.

When they see how their decisions, truly matter, you might be surprised at how quickly they can rise to the challenge.

I said one of the best things to do in the morning when camping is to eat a well-cooked breakfast. But do you know what to me the best sound to hear is?

“Mr. Downer, would you like some pancakes?”