In recent weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to be asked by a client to prepare and deliver an hour-long keynote speech on “ownership.”
The focus of this speech is the concept of ownership as a value, a belief, and the practices that lead to more-effective results and business success. This client defines ownership in some very specific ways, including being committed to results, knowing and understanding the details, taking responsibility, being disciplined, and focusing on improving results for the business.
In preparation for this assignment, I have read various articles and books, as well as researched creative ideas in order to create and deliver an inspiring speech on ownership. In doing so, I have become more aware of what ownership is in business and what needs to be done to increase ownership at all levels of an organization. Let me share some of what I’ve learned.
Ownership in the workplace
It seems that employee ownership and engagement fall squarely in the “needs improvement” category in many organizations. Studies from the Department of Labor suggest that only about 4 percent of U.S. businesses qualify as high-performance workplaces.
This suggests that the vast majority of North American organizations have a significant opportunity to foster new practices that will lead to higher performance.
Could it be that competitive edge in business will come from organizations that align their standards for performance with their organization’s strategies?
Which brings us to another question: What ownership behaviors are you encouraging and developing in your organization that would allow it to achieve better results?
Let’s look at how to create a spark that will ignite the spirit of ownership and accountability in your company.
Traditionally, leaders talk about the need to push more responsibility down to front-line team members.
Benefits of ownership in the workplace
In many cases, when employees are given more responsibility, their level of ownership does increase for a period of time—but it isn’t usually sustained over the long haul.
I’d compare this to what usually happens when someone buys a new car. Let me explain. Think back to a time when you drove a new vehicle straight off the lot. It smells great, feels great, drives great. Premium gas, routine car washes, and factory-recommended oil changes are the norm.
You probably establish some rules related to the car and its upkeep; maybe there will be no eating or drinking allowed in the vehicle, or maybe the kids have to take their muddy shoes off before getting inside. More often than not, people take extreme care in how the car looks and performs when it’s brand new.
But many of us begin to relax the rules over time. We begin to question whether we really need premium gas. We get a bit lax about changing the oil as frequently as we had before. The seats become a little sticky, and the upholstery starts to go. You are still the owner of this vehicle, but your focus on the vehicle’s quality and maintenance is no longer as sharp or attentive as it had been before. What happened?
Maintaining Long-Term Employee Ownership
This little tale illustrates why the “push” concept has been marginally effective for most organizations. Simply informing your front-line leaders and team members that they need to “own” something, whatever it may be, and then relying on them to act as owners forever thereafter is commonplace—and that mandate is usually complied with, at least for a time.
However, it’s too often followed by people failing to meet ownership expectations over the longer term. What happens is that the ownership messages that are pushed down the ranks by higher-level leaders fade from consciousness, and they are replaced by concerns such as day-to-day firefighting and other urgent workplace tasks.
Organizations that want higher levels of ownership from their team members must engage them frequently and with great discipline. This will help all of you generate innovative solutions to ongoing challenges. Messages of support, empowerment, and trust are key to leaders and team members alike owning their areas of responsibility.
Your meetings, conversations, emails, and other forms of internal communication all need to support that message. The essential elements that need to be present when you are working to create a community of owners are rigor, regularity, and commitment.
Creating an inclusive culture
When an organization has an inclusive culture, the levels of engagement and participation of its leaders and team members increase. They feel included in the process of achieving greater organizational success because they actually are included. This idea is embodied in the quote “We tell unimportant people how to do things; we tell important people why we do things.”
This is a thought-provoking lesson for us all. Given the operational pressures, deadlines, and long lists of to-do’s that exist for workers today, from time to time, we are bound to unintentionally exclude some members of the organization from the large conversation. The problem is that failing to share more of the “why” prevents our teammates from taking true ownership and accountability for their responsibilities.
If we wish to maximize team-member involvement and improve ownership in all areas of decision-making and performance, we need to enlighten others to our thought processes and explain why certain decisions are being made.
Explaining why we do this or why that decision was made certainly takes more time and commitment, but it is critical. Creating a culture of inclusiveness and responsibility-sharing requires us to recognize that today’s workers want to be in the know and have a voice.
When workers are afforded the opportunity to participate, they are more likely to accept greater responsibility with far fewer complaints because they understand the rationale behind the request. It seems like a little thing, but it’s not. Understanding motivation matters a great deal.
In order to think like an owner, owners need a process that allows them to gather, share, and discuss information that is relevant and affects the business. But distributing information isn’t all that is needed. High-performance, ownership-oriented organizations are committed to training and development opportunities that help workers understand the information and use it to make better decisions and improve business results.
Let’s face it: Performance-improvement efforts won’t go very far if leaders and team members lack the skills they need to communicate effectively and solve problems. Offering development opportunities at all levels of the business shows that you are committed to your leaders and team members—and in turn, they will be more committed to the organization.
Workers gain a greater sense of loyalty and put forth greater effort to increase the business’ effectiveness when they are part of the information stream.
Michael Mankins, a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, recently posted these comments related to ownership: “If your company’s employees don’t have a sense of ownership and engagement, all the other steps won’t make much difference. By the same token, if you can increase the average level of engagement in your organization, you will likely see the productivity of your entire workforce increase.”
What I take from Mr. Mankins’ words is this: Without a greater focus on ownership and organization-wide practices that support an ownership culture, substandard performance will become the norm.
However, if organizations commit to the ownership message, share it with frequency, foster an environment of openness, explain “why,” and provide information and training at all levels of the business, you are likely to experience a significant shift in the levels of engagement and ownership capabilities of your entire workforce.
Eric is A Senior Vice President for CMOE and specializes in custom learning and development solutions, sales and marketing, and performance coaching. His work in organization development has led him to facilitate workshops on Strategic Thinking, Coaching Skills, Building High Performance Teams, Managing Conflict, Personal Effectiveness, and Leadership Principles. Eric’s expertise is in communication, relationship building, management, marketing, and advertising.
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