Trust at the Top Empowers An Open Culture

How can owner-managed companies ensure employee empowerment, company growth and industry excellence? Creating a culture of employee empowerment is the most important behavior for transforming owner-managed companies and taking the business to the next level. For growth to happen, you have to trust people to make the right decisions, be open and share information willingly.

Milestone strives to be a continually-improving performance organization, and one way we are doing this is by promoting a culture of leadership and empowerment within the business. Milestone has always thrived on openness, and that extends throughout the culture we have developed within the company. We strongly encourage employees to take ownership and responsibility.

We have always believed that a focus on professional development and education is fundamental to our management culture. To sustain our culture of widespread self-determination and autonomy requires that employees are highly educated and engaged, so we can rely on them to make the right decisions. This was not always the case.

Growing Pains

In its formative years, Milestone was a typical owner-managed company with co-founders John Blem and Henrik Friborg Jacobsen wearing many hats. However, the organization was very siloed, with little communication between management and others. This lack of review and transparency is a hallmark of owner-managed companies. Everyone is looking at narrow slices of the business. No one is looking at the business as a whole, so important issues tend to fall through the cracks.

We recognized the need to transform Milestone from an owner-managed company into a professionally managed organization. In other words, we needed to take Milestone to the next level for expansion. When owner-managers make the decision to give up control of their company, trust has to be in place.

Being able to face a dysfunction and to focus on building a team is a critical function of management. The executive team sets the tone for how employees work with one another.

In my early days at Milestone, I would say that trust was not a strength of my management team. Team members were reluctant to be open with one another and were unwilling to admit to mistakes or weaknesses, and they were afraid to ask for help. Teams that lack trust waste a lot of valuable time and energy managing the behaviors and interactions within the group.

Establish Trust; Recognize Vulnerability

For trust to work, the company’s leaders must be able to show their own vulnerability and create an environment that does not punish it. This means that your team trusts each other and that they’re no longer worried about protecting themselves. If your team doesn’t trust one another, it’s impossible to have open discussions, constructive conflict or growth.

Trust is knowing that when a team member pushes back at your ideas, they’re doing it because they care about the team. Every employee has to have the confidence to know that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there’s no reason to be protective or careful around the group. Everyone has to be comfortable with being vulnerable.

Building a strong foundation of trust is a gradual process. You know you’re moving in the right direction when you start to see employees exhibit these types of behavior:

  • Admitting weaknesses and mistakes
  • Asking for help
  • Accepting questions and input about their areas of responsibility
  • Giving one another the benefit of the doubt before arriving at a negative conclusion
  • Taking risks in offering feedback and assistance
  • Appreciating and tapping into one another’s skills and experiences
  • Focusing time and energy on important issues, rather than politics
  • Offering and accepting apologies without hesitation
  • Looking forward to meetings and other opportunities to work as a group

Empower Employees

As the leader of a company, it’s important to make sure your employees feel empowered, so they know it’s safe to bring their ideas to the surface and put them into action. Empowerment is the key to becoming a professionally managed organization.

An example of how we build a culture of empowerment was in early 2016 when the entire company (600 employees), was invited to Copenhagen. We presented our ideas for the next stage of our company’s growth. We welcomed all employees, at all levels, to become involved — to come up with their own answers to questions about our future, like “How do we assure our success?”. This is very much about empowerment.

We asked all employees to look for and expose company and business plan weaknesses. I know this type of interaction is preached in management books, but I rarely see companies do it in real life; the whole company working together on being better and actively planning the company’s future. The outcome was fantastic. We compiled close to 4,000 ideas covering every topic and discipline possible. From that collection of ideas, hundreds were taken into consideration.

Simply stated, the core of employee empowerment is established by creating a company culture that trusts people to share information willingly, encourages challenging the status quo, and lets employees make decisions without fear of repercussions. For managers, it means being able to delegate work and responsibility to team members, and continuously recognizing and rewarding performance.

Our ROIFI Values

Corporate values are often seen as meaningless platitudes. But when we defined our values, we were looking not at the way outside investors or others would see our company, but at how we wanted to achieve our goals — as an organization and as individuals. That’s how we settled on the Milestone ROIFI set of values, which stand for Reliability, Openness, Innovation, Flexibility and Independence.

  • The concept of Reliability applies to our products, our team members, and our reputation for being proven and professional in providing solid support to each other, our partners, and customers.
  • Being Open, as we’ve seen, is at the very heart of Milestone thinking. Communication is not just a function of our software – it’s at the core of what we are all about. Communication with our partners in the Milestone ecosystem has been, and will continue to be, the key to our success, and we mirror this within the company.
  • Innovation we see as essential in our approach to work, and in our software solutions. This is motivated by a an entrepreneurial spirit, passion, enthusiasm, and ambition. It is inspired by continually increasing knowledge of partners, customers, and new technology, and by sharing our knowledge through training and education.
  • Flexibility is being able to grow and expand with new people, new markets, and new solutions. It means giving partners and customers the ability to choose levels of product offerings, to scale installations for future needs, and to integrate with other systems. It’s closely linked to openness and agility — ensuring that the processes we put in place work to our advantage, rather than slowing decisions.
  • Independence is vital to the way we think. Independence provides freedom of choice to customers and partners in terms of the hardware and devices we support. For Milestone employees, it means freedom in the work environment and the ability to speak out and take initiative.

These aren’t just wishy-washy words to us. ROIFI is the cornerstone of our business philosophy, informing our actions and interactions on a day-to-day basis, in our performance reviews and in our strategic planning for the future.

Always Open

At the end of the day, a culture of employee empowerment and openness is about speaking with a common voice and creating a coherent and consistent narrative for the business. Empowerment and openness provide a structure to ensure that our talented and innovative individuals are diligently working toward common goals.

It takes a long time to build up this culture of shared values, but once achieved, it’s very hard for competitors to emulate. We believe that in almost two decades of business, our culture has proven to be rewarding and effective.

As professor Peter Drucker puts it: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I couldn’t agree more… and for lunch and dinner.


Lars ThinggaardBy Lars Thinggaard, President & CEO, Milestone Systems

Excerpted in part from the presentation Transforming the Owner-Manager Company, given by Lars Thinggaard (Sept 16, 2016), at the CataCap PE fund, and in part from Business Magnetism: The Power of Partnership, by Lars Thinggaard (Sept 15, 2016).