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Opinion: Ownership actions aren't only for the executives

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I recently was in a boardroom of a company where the executives were discussing generalities about the state of the organization.

The CEO was becoming openly frustrated. He was focused on specific problems facing the company, and no one seemed to be considering how to solve these problems or even acknowledging that they exist. The CEO finally belted, “Why doesn’t anyone else think the way I do?”

This is a common complaint I hear from business owners. CEOs often wish their employees would look at things as if they were the owner. What do they mean by this? What does it mean to “think like an owner”? Would it be helpful to an organization if everyone thought like an owner? Would it be helpful to the average employee to learn to think like an owner?

The answers are actually very simple. Thinking like an owner isn’t an abstract character trait. Thinking like an owner simply requires feeling like an owner. And undoubtedly there are benefits to the organization and the employee.

I have learned that people are best motivated internally. This internal motivation is unleashed when people operate under an environment where three key factors are present: competence, autonomy and relatedness. Ownership brings together two of the three factors almost automatically. Owners get to make their own decisions, and they certainly feel related to their organization and, hopefully, to their employees.

Ownership can exist outside of a legal document. It occurs when a person completely buys into something. For example, when I started my career, I was a supervisor for a new process in Archer Daniels Midland’s corn processing facility in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Even though I had very little experience, the plant manager gave me, and my team of operators, freedom to find ways to improve the process. While I didn’t own the process, I felt a strong sense of ownership. In fact, I would frequently drop in at night to see how the process was running. On the weekends,

I would keep a radio tuned to plant communications next to my chair while watching football. I was acting like an owner because I felt like an owner. I was personally invested in the success of the facility.

As an employer, how do you get your people to start thinking like owners? It all starts with engagement. Give your employees a chance to utilize their strengths and give real input on important decisions that impact the organization. In essence, you can’t make someone feel like an owner unless you give them an opportunity to feel ownership. The traditional method of top-down management doesn’t create owners; it creates workers who, at best, just do what they are told. No one feels like an owner when they are constantly told what to do and seldom given the opportunity to utilize their strengths to make things better.

An alternative to top-down management is a form of management called people-centric management. This process creates a system where employees are given the opportunities to engage problems and opportunities, focus on developing real solutions and action steps, and then hold each other accountable to what comes next.

Wait a minute. Did I just say that employees would hold themselves accountable? You bet.

When employees get the opportunities to contribute their talents in real and meaningful ways, they begin to feel a sense of ownership. Owners don’t need threats or rewards to act. Owners hold themselves and others accountable for doing what they say they will do. In people-centric organizations, employees hold themselves, each other and even management accountable for their mutual success. These organizations are more profitable, productive and passionate than traditional top-down organizations per multiple studies by Gallup.

Ownership is not a character trait. Ownership is the outcome of being engaged, and it yields great rewards for both the individual and the organization.

Don Harkey is a professional speaker and entrepreneur who owns Galt Consulting and co-owns Leadership Book of the Month in Springfield. He works with organizations to employ strategic systems that allow them to be more effective and find renewed passion and productivity. He can be reached at
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