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  • Teresa Carey

Leading with Guardrails Provides the Key to Empowerment

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

On a recent adventure, my husband and I drove to the top of Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the Northeastern US.

On the 6,000 plus foot ascent to the summit, the roads were harrowingly winding and narrow. Having grown up close to the mountains of NC, I had taken many trips up the Blue Ridge parkway, into the Great Smoky Mountains and through the Appalachians. This particular trip was one of many mountainous regions explored as an adult.

Yet, this was different. There weren’t any guardrails along the entire roadway. Not one.

One wrong move could be fatal. There was zero margin for error. As much as I implicitly trusted the driver, I was on high alert and white-knuckled all the way to and from the summit.

Upon reflection, the parallel between this experience and the guardrails leaders need to establish with team members was undeniable. Typically, it’s one extreme or the other – either too many rules, as well as a command and control bent toward micromanaging, or not enough check-ins and too many assumptions regarding ability or progress.

The balance lies in having the appropriate guardrails in place, so team members are empowered to make their own decisions, while also honoring the need for some parameters to stay within the intended scope. There are two kinds of guardrails we can use in guiding and keeping the team on course.

The first are immutable guardrails, which should include:

  • Values – the compass that points the organization in the same character and moral direction.

  • Purpose and Mission – keeping the focus on the WHY to reinforce that what you do matters.

  • Pillars – the strategic foundational focus areas that priorities and goals must align with.

The second type of guardrails are tied to decision-making. How these guardrails are defined depends on:

  • The team member’s years of experience and whether they’ve led the same or similar initiatives - Does their maturity and history suggest they’ve earned it? Keeping in mind if they don’t have longevity in the organization, there may be organizational norms, cultural nuances, and other political and relational factors to coach them on while figuring out the guardrails.

  • The leader’s and team’s Strengths™ and overall profile – Are the Strengths™ of Achiever or Responsibility in the mix? Are there Strategic Strengths™ like Learner and Strategic at play? How much Influencing and Relationship Building are available to assist with connecting and convincing across the stakeholder group? The Strengths™ mix of the leader will determine how much space as well as structure is required.

  • The culture’s trust quotient. Is it the norm of the culture to delegate and let go, or to place guardrails at each turn? What values promote trust and allow empowerment?

As this year culminates and planning for 2024 is underway, here are a few questions worth considering to assess the guardrails that may or may not be needed for your team members and organization:

  • What non-negotiable guardrails do you have in place that provide the guidance and direction all team members need – values, mission, purpose/s, pillars, and decision rights?

  • Between now and the end of 2023, what guardrails should you establish in your strategic roadmap and plan for 2024?

  • What’s the one thing worth risking, knowing it might unleash needed creativity or growth in the individual or team without imposing guardrails?

  • Whose performance suggests a few more guardrails may be needed since they are in a new role or unchartered water?

  • Whose performance suggests guardrails need to decrease while confidence and trust increase?

The answers to these questions will reveal which guardrails are no longer needed for the next stage of growth, as well as illuminate when the stakes are high enough to keep the necessary boundaries in place.

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