A Culture of Empowerment

When I was younger, I was a part-time employee for my father’s commercial fishing business. He would pay me one dollar for every fishing line that I would clean up by removing the knots and arranging the hooks in a special tray for easy baiting, plus fifty more cents for each line that I would bait. Not only that, I would also get a small cut (about 5%) of the profits from fishing from those lines.

As a twelve year old boy, I thought this was the best deal in the world. Here was a task I could do while listening to baseball in the radio. I could work as much as I wanted or as little as I wanted. Unsurprisingly, during lazy summer days with nothing else to do, I would often start in on the lines at nine or so in the morning and keep doing them until he pulled out of the driveway, on his way to put the lines in the river. If I was really on the ball with this task, I could earn an amount that almost added up to minimum wage for the day.

Looking back, I see now how this was just a simple side job to keep me busy, but at the time, it really empowered me. I didn’t just learn to do the necessary tasks – I wanted to know how to do them better and do them faster. The faster I got a line finished, the more lines I could get finished that day. The better I got a line finished, the more I would earn from my cut of the profits.

My father’s fishing business was imbued with this culture of empowerment. It stretched to every aspect of the business.

For example, every employee was given a commission-based opportunity to be a salesman. If a customer referred to one of the employees during a sale, that employee got a rather nice cut of the profits from that sale.

Another example: he gave huge opportunities for innovation to his workers and his customers. If one of them developed a fish bait and wanted to try it out, he’d give them an opportunity to try it out. If it proved to be more successful than his own baiting tactics, the employee who developed the bait would get a very handsome cut of the next day’s profits.

My father did these things because it allowed him to focus on other areas of the business. He no longer had to be a salesman – he had an army of part-time employees doing that for him. He no longer had to study fishing innovations – the best innovations found their way to him. He didn’t have to concern himself with running and baiting lines – he had people happy to get these tasks done for him. He had empowered employees to go far beyond the minimum to do these things for him – and, at the end of the day, his employees loved him for it.

This left my father in a great place. He could focus his energy on growing the business. He had the time to adequately study how the business was doing – and put his investments in the right places. He had the time to negotiate with suppliers to get better rates. He had the time to make intelligent, well-considered purchasing decisions. He had the time to throw himself into the individual tasks that he loved doing.

In short, his business was built by a culture of empowerment. And it’s been going strong for more than thirty years.

What can you do today to empower your employees to go beyond the minimum?

Join in the discussion about this article over at the Open Forum!