The Care and Feeding of Your Company’s HEROes

Jan 24, 2019

By AMA Staff

Customers have more power than ever thanks to the unprecedented amounts of information and connections available via the Web. Their complaints are easily made public and can quickly go viral. Josh Bernoff, coauthor with Ted Schadler of the new book Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, Transform Your Business, spoke to AMA recently about customer and employee empowerment and how to create an environment where innovators can shine. Following are excerpts from that interview.

The new empowerment
Although “empowered” is not a new term, we use it in a new way in the book. We believe that the trend of individuals becoming empowered is really happening because of the social media and other technologies that they have accessible to them. Now that we have smart mobile devices and media like Facebook and Twitter, we see customers now expressing themselves in ways that basically take your brand and do whatever they want with it.

These empowered customers can be a real challenge for companies. The same technologies that empower customers also empower employees to solve the problems that those customers have.  However, the only way a business can deal with it is to empower those employees by allowing them to use technology to reach out; and so it’s empowered employees and empowered customers that we’re talking about in the book.

What we’ve found is that, in contrast to the way it used to be, where technology was something you got from the IT department, people now use these technologies on their own in business to solve customer problems. These things don't require some sort of tech wizardry. Anybody who can use Facebook or a video camera is starting to have these ideas, and that’s where the empowerment comes from. So, this is not just about management saying, “Hey, we’re going to give you the power to solve problems.” It is now about people taking technology and doing incredible things with it that customers need right now.

Here’s an example of this new customer empowerment that if you’re a business, will really scare the heck out of you. United Airlines, for example, had a customer, Dave Carroll. He took his guitar on United Airlines—he’s a musician—and had to check it.  They broke it, and he was not able to get satisfaction, so he created a video called “United Breaks Guitars” that nine million people have now seen on You Tube. So this is what happens now. Customers have the ability to really change the way that brands are perceived. And with that kind of power in the hands of customers, you’re just not going to be able to manage things in the old top down fashion anymore.

Looking for HEROS
We use another term in the book, “HERO,” which stands for “Highly Empowered and Resourceful Operatives.” This refers specifically to people who have both the desire and the ability to take technology and solve problems with it. So, HERO is basically somebody in your company who’s trying to solve customer problems and has used technology to come up with a project to do just that.

So, if you can use a video camera to videotape your kid’s birthday, then I think you can use it to do training. If you can connect with people on Facebook, you can imagine creating a Facebook page to connect with your own customers.

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that many of the people who come with ideas like this are younger. Although not 20-year-olds, they are, nonetheless, more likely to be 30 than they are to be 60. Also, managers don't have to have mastered all of this, but the manager’s job is to sort of impose some discipline on this. I don't mean saying “yes” and “no.”  I mean saying, “Let’s be clear about our thinking. What exactly is this supposed to accomplish? How many people will it involve? What other departments will we need to contact?  How much will it cost? Is this a project that’s going to take two days, or is it going to take six months?”

Moreover, it takes a kind of initiative that’s a little bit harder to find because these projects, no matter what kind of company it is—can often go against policies. They may run afoul of the PR department, the legal department, the regulatory affairs department, the accounting department. So, it takes political skills and perseverance to actually go forward with these projects.  The Website offers help to those who have project and want to explore how best to put it in shape.

So, how do HEROes, IT, and management work together? We rapidly realized—Ted Schadler, my coauthor and I—that this was not a problem that could be solved on an individual basis.  Companies need to behave differently. The heroes themselves—these individuals with creative ideas—have to say: “We’re using this technology to actually help the business. We’re not using it to play around.”

The changing role of IT
IT departments used to be in charge of all the technology in companies. These days, it seems like all they do is to say “no”: “No, you’re not allowed to do that,” “No, that’s not part of our company policy,” “No, we’re afraid that might violate some rule we have for security.” So IT has to change to become more supportive, basically to say, “All right.  We’re not going to run your project, but we can give you some advice. We will help you to assess whether there are actual risks associated with this. It’s up to you to decide whether to go forward with it when you hear what we have to say about risk.” This is this is how we free IT. IT is not in charge of everything that goes wrong. IT can tdescribe what might go wrong, but it’s really up to the managers and the HEROes themselves to decide whether they want to go forward.

Where are the HEROes?
We surveyed over 4,000 information workers to look at what sort of behaviors there are within companies. The industry that has the highest proportion of HERO employees in it is not too surprisingly technology, products, and services. So, if you work for a like Cisco, you’re getting encouraged to innovate all the time.

We also can tell you that there are different places in the organization that are more innovative. Marketing people and nonretail salespeople are actually very good at coming up with solutions and very innovative and energetic. Down at the other end is customer service people, which is really a tragedy because a lot of the problems come from customer service issues.

Empowering your HEROes
If you’re looking at you own company, you want to ask yourself, “What happens when somebody comes up with an idea?”  Scott Cook, who is the founder of Intuit, had a nice rule of thumb. He said, “Suppose somebody wants to come up with something and it costs $5,000. How easy is it for them to go forward?” If the answer at your company is, “Sure, we’d let somebody try that,” then you’re probably doing pretty well. If the answer is, “It has to get through four layers of management and get approval from two vice presidents,” maybe you’ve to think differently about why your company is having trouble with innovation.

I was recently asked, “What can a manager do to help a HERO, if he or she has an idea and wants to pursue it or if wants to demonstrate collaboration, particularly in a company that’s siloed, or to help a stagnant company renew and start to grow again?” The person said, “I’ve determined that this kind of change can only happen from the top down.” That is so completely wrong. In fact, the best, simplest thing to do is to just find one or two people who’ve got these ideas and to support them. Then once they’ve succeeded, you should make it as visible as possible: “Here is Sara. I want you to see she had this idea.  We helped her. She implemented it, and now as a result of this, we’ve got this great business result. So, everyone, let’s give Sara a round of applause.”  Then, what happens is that other people say, “Oh, you know, I could do that, too.” That’s how change starts.

Listen to the complete interview with Josh Bernoff.

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.