Is an employee's success their own responsibility or that of management? This CEO puts the power in the employee's hands.

Staff Writer

Most employees feel powerless at some point. Often, they have good ideas and good work ethic only to have it disrupted by poor managers with bad behavior. Worse, mediocrity in management often prevents potential star employees from shining, leaving them to join the ranks of the simply adequate instead of becoming exceptional. It’s easy to blame management, but ultimately the power is in the hands of the employees, even if it means finding the company that actually helps empower them.

Clearly, YPO member Ben Kirshner and his company are doing something very right with helping their employees feel empowered. His digital marketing firm, Elite SEM, was recently ranked #1 by Fortune Magazine as Best Workplace for Millennials in the USA. They also made the Inc. Top 50 Culture List and Crain’s New York City #1 company to work for. Even the Today show has noticed their amazing culture.

Kirshner believes that the rank-and-file can have more influence than they know, and that company culture can also be influenced by a bottom-up approach. Although he knows the average worker doesn’t usually have access to the top brass, he thinks the access is overemphasized. “That doesn’t mean they have zero influence when work sucks,” he insists, “Frontline employees and their immediate management still have agency.” Here are his tips for improving culture even if top management is subpar at best.

  1. Go to the experts.

There are a number of inspiring books about real-life turnarounds. Kirshner advises seeking inspiration there, first. “I like Mike Abrashoff’s “It’s Your Ship,” which tells the story of how he took the worst ship in the Navy and made it the best ship without giving anyone a promotion or raise. I also like “Firms of Endearment” by Rajendra Sisodia, which shows how the highest performing companies prioritize employee engagement.” The company might not be ready to make those types of changes, but your own small team or department can implement some of the basic ideas that yield immediate benefit.

  1. Be amazing in your sphere.

While most employees are aware of and affected by, the C-suite, most spend their days in a much more localized environment. He states: “If upper management doesn’t buy into the value of culture, focus on creating an amazing culture within your small team, department or division. Start to measure how productive your staff is compared to other departments, and what your turnover is compared to the rest of the company. Eventually, management is bound to notice the high performance, and you will have data to support why they should embrace that creating a better culture really is better for the bottom line.” If you have leadership ambitions, this can help pave the way to promotion. Even if you’re just interested in your personal success, you’ll have evidence that you are a great team player to show other potential employers.

  1. Be awesome to others.

Kirshner knows that it can be hard to be your best self in a toxic situation. Still, he believes, it is worthwhile to set a goal of being the best coworker or team leader others has ever had. “Life is short. Try and make a positive impact on people’s lives instead of being the one people despise. Treat others in such a way that, if you should leave, the people on your team will be in tears, not quietly celebrating.” If you are the person everyone wants to work with or for, most won’t be able to help but meet you with affection and respect.

  1. Build the trust in your small circle.

People stay at jobs for three reasons,” he indicates, “First, the trust and relationship with the work they do; second, trust and relationship with their co-workers; and third, the trust and relationship with the executives.” Those in the trenches probably don’t have much control or influence over #3, but can directly impact #1 and #2. You can practice integrity in your job performance, with the people you see every day, and on behalf of the clients your company serves.

  1. Get everyone involved in “home improvement.”

According to Kirshner, front-line employees and their team leaders can focus on policies that make the day-to-day much better. In terms of rewards, he says “It doesn’t take lots of money or C-suite intervention to provide a great experience. Get the team to share life dreams or bucket list items, then find ways to cross off some of those life-changing experiences together.” Employees can also be the company’s best recruiters. “Find ways for teams or departments to incentivize peer-to-peer recruiting. People won’t bring bad apples to the company; they want to recruit people they like and want to work with.

Each week Kevin explores exclusive stories inside YPO, the world’s premiere peer-to-peer organization for chief executives, eligible at age 45 or younger.