The installer arrived on site with a truckload of lumber and immediately discovered a problem: no way to drive to the back of the house. He and the helper would have to carry every stick, which would take about two hours and add that much time to the job — a custom deck — possibly setting the schedule back a day.

He went next door and rang the doorbell.

The neighbor was accommodating. She said that he could drive over the lawn. So he drove over the lawn —slowly. The boards were unloaded and building began.

This is where it gets interesting. The company, which builds decks in Michigan, has a policy whereby crew leaders send flowers and a thank-you note to clients at some point in the job process. Crew leaders can call the florist directly and simply tell them where to send the bouquet. So, in this case, the crew leader called and arranged to send flowers, with a thank-you note, to the neighbor.

The point is that instead of doing nothing or calling the office and waiting for the owner to tell him what to do, the installer made an independent decision. Not once, but twice. His decision was, in effect, a business decision, one that saved the company money and may well generate some additional deck or sunroom business.

Lots of company owners would like to have employees act like that. Yet managers rarely know how to make it happen. They see themselves as responsible for all the ideas that make a company productive, efficient, and growing. They have no notion of how to create a culture where employees participate and take charge.

How do you make it happen?

First off, employee empowerment must be part of a larger strategy of customer satisfaction and teamwork. Coach your employees to know they're allowed to make decisions. Let them know what kind of decisions are appropriate for them to make, and when. Don't second-guess or micromanage those decisions. Instead, back them up. Publicly. And acknowledge their actions with praise. (This company owner did.) Nothing, including money, motivates like a well-placed compliment. (But, hey, money, in the form of bonuses, plays a role in this too.)

If you invest your time and dollars in the ongoing growth of your people, their talents and skills, you'll find them more than willing to take on increased responsibility. Better still, you'll keep them.

Jim Cory