No matter what anyone says, there are ways to get things done without compromising who you are. And you want your people to be empowered in the same way—to act like themselves, but bigger. This is the foundation of what everyone in my office calls “The Katelyn Rule”:
If I have to answer something or do something that you should be able to answer or do yourself, then why do I need you?
Here’s how the rule got its name.
From time to time, I'm asked to consult for high-growth companies—businesses I call “Big Dogs.” Big Dogs are the cornerstone of our motto at The Hayzlett Group’s TallGrass Public Relations: “To run with the big dogs, you got to learn to piss in the tall grass.” I have a team that backs me up for these Big Dog consultations, and our work begins before we get the business. The team assembles background information and presentations, sits in on meetings, takes notes, and helps me do the deep dive into the work that needs to be done. We then meet with CEOs and their teams to lay out our plan and define what our value proposition is in light of what they have to pay us. We call this our “Big Dog Plan.”
Expectations are high for these type of meetings, which they were for the 2 p.m. presentation the day our newest employee, Katelyn, walked into my office about 15 minutes before we had to leave. In her hand was the single color copy of that day’s Big Dog Plan presentation.
“Should I bring color copies of our presentation to the meeting?” she asked me.
Before I continue, let me tell you how Katelyn became part of our team. About a month before this moment, I'd given a talk to a group of college students considering advertising as a profession. The advertising group that invited me had started social media activation in the weeks before, and one woman was doing it consistently and smartly: Katelyn. That got my attention because I'm always looking for talent when I work.
After my talk, I found Katelyn in the audience. “That young woman is going to go places,” I told the entire audience. Later that day, I talked with Katelyn, told her she should come work for us, and made it happen.
And now Katelyn—the woman who was going places—had gone someplace she never should have: into my office, 15 minutes before a Big Dog Plan presentation, asking me if we needed color copies of that presentation.
“Katelyn, you're fairly new,” I said. “You and I haven’t really had a chance to talk much about expectations and promises. So here's what we are going to do: Let’s imagine that you only get to ask me 21 questions a month. They can be about anything you can imagine, but you get only 21 questions. Are you still going to ask me right now if we should take color copies to a meeting that we’ve been preparing for since you started? Do you really want to use one of your questions right now?”
She took a breath. “Probably not.”
“Good move. Because if I have to answer that question, what the hell do I need you for?”
I could see my words start to sink in, so I continued: “This is what I pay you for. This is what I expect from you. I hired you because you’re going to be a superstar in this company, and I have to answer a question like that? That is not a Big Dog question. That is a question that no one with any experience should ask. Now, will we look better if we bring color copies instead of black and white?”
“Of course we will. Will anyone die if it's in black and white?”
“So it's adequate.”
“Yes, it's adequate.”
“Now let’s imagine I answered your question, ‘Yes, we must and should print color copies because that’s what Big Dogs would do.’ Do you have time to make them before we go?”
“So why would you want me to say yes and then not have the ability to deliver?”
She looked at me, and it became clear that Katelyn now owned the rule that bears her name: If I have to answer something or do something that you should be able to answer or do yourself, why do I need you? In fact, Katelyn never violated her namesake rule again. She's now a superstar. That’s the reason the rule is named in her honor— not because she continued to fail. In fact, her mistake helped me define my expectations for any team:
The people who work for you need to be empowered to create and own what they do in support of you, your team, and your customers or clients. Otherwise what do we need them for? If I am going to own it, my team needs to own it too and know:
- They must think things through and first ask themselves the questions they want to ask me. They're empowered to make decisions, because that’s what I pay them for.
- Moments like these allow them to break free from limitations and lead to new stories, bigger thinking and action, and their own “because I can” attitudes.
I'm constantly amazed at the self-imposed barriers smart, capable, willing, and especially young people put up for themselves. It’s like an invisible force field around their bodies. But it’s all in their heads. Who said they couldn’t do that? Who put up those barriers? I hate to watch people miss out because of voices in their heads that say they can’t. Few things make me angrier. All I can do is my part: Make sure I don’t beat them down. You shouldn’t, either.
And don’t get me started about the youth of today being entitled and lazy and blah, blah, blah. More often than not, the issue boils down to the fact that we want them to own our stories instead of learning, understanding, letting them create their own stories, and figuring out together how their stories fit in with ours.
Make sure your people know what your story is and understand their stories, too. Give your teams the tools to succeed, make sure they understand what you expect, then let them put their stamp on it so they work hard and own it to win. Without that, you can only expect them to own your story, not theirs.