Empowering Teams Means Encouraging Feedback

By Marty Parker

One of the many challenges  facing leaders today is understanding the needs of team members and empowering them (with skills, tools, and opportunities) to find a formula that drives their happiness, productivity and fulfillment.

I sat down with Mark Rousseau, president at CARFAX Canada, to talk about how they’ve not only built, but sustained, a culture where team members feel empowered to made decisions, innovate, and try new things.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
I know you have a culture of empowerment at CARFAX Canada where really everyone is viewed as a leader regardless of their title, but why is that kind of culture of empowerment important?

Mark Rousseau:
There’s really a business reason I would suggest – it’s to make better, faster decisions that are more in tune with what customers need.  So, we make faster, better decisions more aligned to customers. Customers do better, we do better.  And so, achieving our financial goals or growing faster is a result of just making better, faster decisions.

And, how do you make better, faster decisions? Well, you push decision-making down as close to the customer as possible, and I call that empowerment. And the side benefit, outside of the financial gain, is people are happier because they know that they have a stake in the outcome of where we’re going and they see it because they helped design it.

Marty Parker:
How do you institutionalize that? In other words, what are the tools and processes that you have in place to support that leadership philosophy and support the aspirations of your team members?

Mark Rousseau:
One thing I’ve learned, especially as I believe we’ve become better each year and produce more and grow faster, any minor variation to that leadership philosophy or culture has much more of a ripple effect. And so, the advantage is, if something’s out of whack we notice it a lot quicker, but the hard part is any small change creates focus for us.

The number one most important way I kind of process our tool, I’m not sure what you call it, to support our culture is having everyone speak directly in a constructive manner to the rest of their team or other individuals to resolve differences at the point of source. And, it’s actually taken us… We’re still working on that. It’s taken four and a half years to get people to work together in the moment to address differences and to work out differences.

And so, that’s the number one process maybe… but then there’s tons of others. At all our one-on-one meetings down the line, we asked everyone to start with a check-in versus getting to business right away. We do retros on all major projects. We’ve trained everyone on situational leadership, so adapting your leadership style based on the situation. We’ve put everyone through radical candor training because many people are afraid at times or fearful of speaking up. We’ve moved the game planning development down to team levels versus manager levels. Everyone gets personal objectives every quarter, and they get measured on their personal objectives every quarter and their bonus is paid on that as well. So a whole bunch of other processes.

Marty Parker:
So based on that, what advice would you give another leader who’s looking to increase that sense of empowerment among their own team members?

Mark Rousseau:
I think I’d start with saying the leader has to have the right mindset, so the leader has to value feedback. This is not some procedure that you apply and follow a compliance criteria. This is a belief that feedback is critically important to growing the business, and so I’d start with that. So the mindset of the leader.

And, then the second thing is the leader has to know how to provide feedback properly, to create empowerment. And so, it’s a skill. It’s hard to do sometimes. You use the wrong words, your body language starts to show through.  So do it well, and then train your people on it.

The next step is train your people on it. We spent two and a half years training people. When I came on board, we had a very strong organization, but it was entrepreneurial run. So, it was kind of like top-down decision making, and so people were used to being told what to do, and they were happy with that. And so, reversing that took three and a half years – two and a half years to three and a half years. So, you have to train people, so books like Radical Candor, Situational Leadership, and a few other great tools, some of the stuff you offer, Marty, is a great way to move people along the channel, and it takes time depending on the culture you’re coming from.

Marty Parker:
So, I’d love it if you would tell us a little bit about [CARFAX Canada’s] game plan and how it came to be.

Mark Rousseau:
And so, CARFAX U.S., which is our sister company in the U.S., they’ve been doing game planning for 20 years. And so, we modeled it after what they learned. I would go down to see them, to learn from them… They have had 20 years of consecutive revenue growth, every year for 20 years, and I was just asking everyone, “What made that happen?” And, everyone said focus, and focus meant game plan to them.

And so, I started investigating, “What’s this game plan thing?” It’s like one sheet of paper. Little did I know what goes into creating that one sheet of paper, but we modelled it after the U.S. So to give you an example: today we just finished our game plan for ’21. We have four core strategies. We have 12 priorities, 39 deliverables for the business overall, and we measure progress every month. And if we achieve those things, we will have a subsequently successful year. But of course, there’s a whole bunch of planning that’s gone into creating that, but it’s one page.

And the other lesson we learned is keep the wording so your grandma will understand it… It’s kind of interesting to actually see it because it’s definitely one page, it’s easy to understand, and we update it every month and we released it to the whole company. Everyone knows we have a game plan portal where everyone goes too to find out how we’re doing.

Marty Parker:
In the game plan, you really encourage radical collaboration (which is a great phrase in itself), but what does that look like at CARFAX Canada?

Mark Rousseau:
First of all as I mentioned, it’s based on the premise that the closer we get decision-making to the customer, the faster, the smarter decisions we’ll make to not only grow our customer’s business, but our business. And then the result also is highly engaged people.

So, I’ll give you an example. We build stuff. We build stuff and there’s about six different departments involved in building the stuff we create – from marketing, to development, to tech ops, to product sales. And as we grew as a business, how do you keep all those teams coordinated? So, a year ago we created a concept called squads, and so every squad is now assigned either a product or a customer group, and the squad is made up of about a dozen people, including the developers who are on the team. And each squad, based on their customer group or their product, creates a charter for the year based on their game plan, and then creates their product roadmap as a team. And then, they measure their performance every month.

And so what ends up happening, first of all, the team is just proud of the fact that they’re accomplishing what they said they were going to do, but also there’s a bit of inter-team rivalry because one team looks at their outputs versus the other team, and there’s a bit of internal team competition, which is great, friendly. And then as well, those teams get involved in everything. So, from the marketing to… getting customer feedback, to a developer going to meet a customer to see how the product’s working – that squad is a self-contained entity that understands all aspects, the 360 view, of what’s involved in building. And so, the radical collaboration, that would only happen if people are comfortable in speaking out, sharing information.

The other big thing we did is we created this new role called the agile program manager, and that person is an agile coach because we follow the agile development technology, but they also make sure that everyone speaks up. And so, they’re kind of the coach for the team as well. And if there’s an issue with the collaboration around the team, they make sure it’s not under the table. And so they act not just as an agile manager, but as kind of like a people coach (although they don’t have that in their job description).

So, the squad concept has really allowed us to enjoy the benefits of folks not being afraid of speaking out, and then also demonstrating that, hey, here’s your area of focus, go to it!