Angie Freeman | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Angie Freeman


Angie Freeman is the chief human resources officer at C.H. Robinson, an Eden Prairie–based Fortune 500 trucking, transportation and logistics company with more than 113,000 customers around the world. In 2016 the company generated more than $13 billion in gross revenues and employed more than 14,000 people worldwide.

The Mistake:

I became a people manager relatively early in my career. I made a classic error that a lot of people do: I assumed I was promoted because I was good at what I did, and I didn't take time to think about how that would need to change in my new role as a leader. I didn't pause to think about how I should change the way I work and manage my time. This is a typical mistake — not realizing that what had gotten me here would not be what I needed to do to get to the next level of leadership.

I was working at a public relations firm, and I continued to do a lot of the day-to-day work. I was worried about my team making mistakes, and I was thinking I was protecting them from failure. So instead of giving constructive feedback and coaching them, I would simply redo their work. I thought I was helping, but I was telling, not teaching.

It took a while for someone to be gutsy enough and call me on it, but eventually, a brave member of my team gave it to me straight. We were doing work for a bank that was entering a new market, and they wanted public affairs support. I met with the client, I decided on a strategy, and I told my people what I needed them to write. I didn't involve them in the process. And then, instead of giving feedback on it, I would just redo it myself. Finally, one of my employees came up to me and said, "We want to grow, too."

If I could teach them, they would learn to do the work themselves and enjoy the work much more. Making that shift is critical to enabling your team to learn and grow. It also enabled me to get out of the day-to-day and become more strategic. Allowing your team and yourself to grow is essential to fostering creativity and is critical to long-term growth and success.

Empower your people — and then grow together.

The Lesson:

Empower your people, help them develop, let them make mistakes — and then grow together as a result of what you learn. That can be challenging at times, but it's the only way that everyone can advance. That has to happen for teams and organizations to achieve long-term success. It's also incredibly gratifying to see what people can accomplish if you get out of their way and let them run.

When an employee is new to a role, I try to make sure their risks are low-stakes, but failure is a powerful way to learn and grow. I'm going to let them push forward. I have a favorite quote along these lines by Nelson Mandela. He said, "I never lose. I either win or learn." I talk about that with my teams. At C.H. Robinson, we take responsibility as a team and ask ourselves what we learned from mistakes and how we can use the experience next time.

A related concept I like from the [management-consulting] firm McKinsey & Co. [discusses] having no intellectual hierarchy within a team. The junior people are much closer to the work, so to get the best solutions, it's critical that hierarchy doesn't get in the way. In order to do that, you really need a team environment where everybody is comfortable and feels empowered to speak up. By doing that, you get to harness the best of everybody.

Today, I try to ensure I'm giving my people room to learn — and also to make mistakes.

Follow C.H. Robinson on Twitter at @CHRobinsonInc.

Photo courtesy of C.H. Robinson