Plant a Tree to Grow Empowerment & Accountability

June 13, 2020

I know that look.  Something went Kabloo-ey and I’m going to hear about it.

One of my direct report managers is standing in my doorway; I swear I can see smoke coming out of her ears.  She scheduled a 2-hour kick-off meeting - starting in a few hours - for a very important initiative that has executive management visibility.  In order to accommodate everyone’s calendars, she scheduled the meeting over lunch, and quite appropriately, planned to order pizza for the group.  And that’s where the trouble arose.  A couple of months prior, the organization decided expenses had to be trimmed; a directive was issued requiring a Request Form and CFO approval for all non-customer meals.  The form was submitted in advance, but then it sat – untouched and unsigned.  So, no pizza got ordered.  Hence, smoke-emanating-ears.  What should the manager do?  Hunt down the CFO – who was traveling - and ask him to sign a $150 lunch approval?  Reschedule the meeting?  Ignore policy and risk ‘getting into trouble?’  For such a silly little issue, it put the manager in quite a tough spot.

Plant a Tree to Grow Empowerment and Accountability

Sound Familiar?

Why wasn’t this manager empowered to make the pizza decision?  If you were to ask this company’s executives if they have an empowered culture, odds are they would resoundingly say “yes!”  Every company thinks they empower their employees.  But as many of us are aware, the truth is far different.  Especially now, when many more people are working remotely, your company needs employees to make decisions without the drag and delays resulting from senseless approval processes. This requires a transformation of the organizational culture.

What’s a good way to manage empowerment and transform your culture? Plant a tree!

The Impact

Before we get into the tree framework of empowerment and accountability, let’s consider the impacts of the above scenario:

Humiliation & marginalization of key employees.  “Geez, they pay me $xx dollars per year and I’m not even able to make a $150 decision that’s well within my budget?  Why am I even here??”  I can guarantee you this is a common dialog among line- and mid-level managers.

Organizational paralysis.  If all decisions need to flow through a single choke-point, how long will it be before your organization quits making any decisions?

Accountability deflection.  Let’s say the approval wasn’t obtained and the kick-off meeting was rescheduled for three weeks later, resulting in a delay of the initiative’s completion.  Who is really accountable for that?  The manager who had everyone ready, willing, and able to meet on-time?  Or the CFO who insisted on approving everything but then wasn’t available to fulfill the obligation, leading to the kick-off delay?  Let the finger-pointing begin!

Now think about this:  Which employees are the most likely to leave the company in this environment?  That’s right – the top players like the manager in the example.  It becomes a form of reverse top-grading in which the confident, responsible individuals get fed up and leave, while the indecisive, huddled masses feel right at home and burrow in.  Not good.

Want Real Empowerment & Accountability?  Plant a Tree!

The above impacts are both undermining and corrosive to an organization, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  I suggest the main reason many organizations struggle with this is that they don’t have a framework for decision-making. They don’t understand how high-performance organizations operate.  An easy one that you can begin promoting right away is a simple concept called the leaf-branch-trunk-root decision-making process.  It can look something like this:

Leaf decisions:  These are decisions that – like a leaf on a tree – won’t kill the tree if the leaf wilts or gets pulled off.  Real-life examples might include small budget decisions or decisions that don’t impact other departments.

Branch decisions:  Here things start to get trickier.  A wrong branch decision might have a minor impact on costs and/or efficiencies, but certainly not severe enough to harm the company long-term, and the decision can be reversed reasonably quickly.  Moderate expense or capital items, or business process changes involving multiple departments are examples.

Trunk decisions:  Damage to a tree trunk could cause long-term harm to a tree; likewise, a wrong trunk decision could have a lasting impact on the P&L and could take a long time to recover.  These types of decisions are usually strategic in nature and determined at the executive level.  Product and sales channel strategies, plant expansions, etc. typically fall into this bucket.

Root decisions.  These are the decisions that define what kind of tree your company is.  If you want the company to be an oak tree, you aren’t going to get there by planting apple tree rootstock.  Company boards and officers are the ones to get involved in these decisions.  They can involve things such as M&A activities, company capitalization, compensation strategies, etc.


There is gray space between these different types of decisions, and each organization will develop its own leaf-branch-etc. boundaries, but the important point is to have a framework that allows the entire management team to unleash its full potential by empowering them to make role-appropriate decisions.  It also provides a basis for accountability because it now becomes clear which roles own each type of decision.

Some implementation ideas:  have the management team develop the decision boundaries; define accountability and “staying in your lane” behaviors; document your decision tree so that everyone has a written playbook to refer to.


Implementing a decision-making framework (maintaining a healthy tree!) is a potent tool to unleash empowerment and accountability within your teams.  Here’s the real bonus: by planting the empowerment and accountability tree and freeing managers to make leaf and branch decisions, the CFO in the above example is now able to fully concentrate on root and trunk matters.  After all, isn’t that what he’s being paid to do?

Wayne Olson

Wayne is a global manufacturing executive with 30+ years of experience in high technology business unit and operational leadership roles. He has extensive background in the semiconductor industry, capital equipment products, and engineered solutions. Along his career journey, he has made – and hopefully learned from – many mistakes. By sharing his lessons in leadership development, continuous improvement, and business competitiveness, Wayne is hopeful that readers will pick up a few nuggets they can add to their own personal development toolkits. Wayne resides in the Twin Cities and holds a BS-Chemical Engineering and an MBA from the University of Minnesota.

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