Think Like a Startup: 5 Ways to Empower Your Team

Startups set out to change their markets — and sometimes the world — with a handful of bright, hungry staffers and a shoestring budget. Tiny startups can move metaphorical mountains because they’re way more motivated than the mountains. How do established businesses get staff not only to work harder and smarter, but to want to work harder and smarter? By empowering them like a startup.
Traditional hiring goes like this: You need someone to sit at a desk and process a certain defined workload. So you hire someone who used to sit at a similar desk somewhere else and process a similar workload. Your main hiring criteria: “So, I see here you’ve processed a workload like ours and not gotten fired for it. Welcome aboard.”
Richard Branson talks in Entrepreneur Magazine about the perils of micromanaging:
“Employees will not take responsibility for their actions if the boss is looking over their shoulders all the time. They will not take the initiative to work that extra hour, make that extra call or squeeze that little bit more out of a negotiation.”

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey lists his methods of employee empowerment for Success Magazine:
“As much as possible, we decentralize back to the regions and the stores. They have a real sense of psychological ownership. It’s their store. It’s their region.”
In contrast, a startup hires people not to process a workload, but to build a company and further a vision. They hire people to innovate, to make the company better, stronger, faster — and to roll up their sleeves and implement those ideas. If established businesses want workers to stop acting like little cogs in a big, slow machine, the trick is to stop treating them like cogs:
Hire Entrepreneurs. Startups tend to hire very smart, very enthusiastic people. They don’t necessarily hire the best fit for the current, limited definition of a job. They hire people with the potential to grow, and contribute more. Start looking for those qualities — and be willing to retool job descriptions to attract such people. If you want your new hire to think beyond the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ baskets on the desk she’ll inherit, you’ll have to, as well.
Instill Your Vision. When a startup does mighty things with very lean staffing and operational budgets, it’s often because the singular vision of the founders inspires their staff to new heights. Tell people how what your company does matters, and then tell them how what they do matters to the company’s success. Do this regularly, and leave the door open for two-way communication. Engage your workers, ask them what their vision is, how they see the company’s goals and where they feel they can best contribute.
Expand the Vision. A lot of established companies think of themselves as … established. “This is what we are; we’d just like to do 10% more of it next year.” A startup says, “What we are today isn’t what we’re going to be — we’re building something bigger than this.” Do more than maintain the success you’ve already achieved. Reach for the next plateau, not only in sales or market share, but also in excellence. Refreshing the goals and expanding the vision keeps your team engaged — especially when you’re beyond the point of relying on profit sharing to motivate your employees.
Don’t Fear the #Fail. oDesk CEO Gary Swart likes to say that “experience is what you get what you don’t get what you wanted.” When things don’t go according to plan, startups see opportunity to learn, iterate and improve. Encourage your employees to come up with new ways to serve your clients, enter new markets or improve internal processes. Give them the opportunity and resources to implement these ideas, and if they do their best with an idea you signed off on, don’t punish them if it doesn’t pan out. Congratulate their willingness to take risks, and encourage them to bring you the next idea.
Adjust for Inspiration. Don’t stick with old systems because they’re the systems you know. Hiring smart, enthusiastic people means listening to their ideas and encouraging their enthusiasm. Don’t be afraid to change — job descriptions, titles, department configurations, your online presence, your product lines. Change is essential, so seize an inspired opportunity.
On the whole, startups rely on empowered workers at all levels of the business. Have you ever called a big corporate bank to complain about some two-dollar charge or a late fee, only to be told, “There’s nothing I can do about that”? You don’t hear that at Zappos, the shoe-retailing startup whose customer service representatives are famous for their excellent service. Zappos’ service team is empowered to solve problems, and proud of their ability to keep their customers satisfied — the company’s entire brand is built on it.
You don’t have to install a foosball table in the break room or start an employee book club; making your employees happier comes naturally when you make them feel important, engaged, and invested in the company’s success. The best startups not only know that, they thrive on it.

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Jon Danzig - July 03, 2011

Readers may be interested to watch the educational documentaries I wrote and directed, ‘People Power for Staff’ and ‘People Power for Managers’. They are now free to view on my YouTube channel at

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