“I want my employees to act like they own the company.”
I’ve heard senior executives say something to this effect dozens of times over the past few years. The idea that if everyone acted like they owned the place and gave it their all, we could be amazing. However, a few weeks ago, when I talked with a front line supervisor in a call center about what it means to “act like you own the business,” he responded with: “So does that mean I get to do what I feel like, drive a nicer car, and live in a nicer house?” Clearly, most employees in the corporate environment have never owned a business, or been in significantly senior positions to understand what having an equity-stake in a company really means.
So what do CEOs mean when they wish for employees who act like owners? Digging deeper, I hear: “I want people to be more accountable,” or “My employees should work harder and be more committed, not just trading time for money.” “They would be able to understand how we all work together to bring value to our customers,” and “I want them to get the big picture of our business.” These statements start to sound a lot like leadership. But not leadership in the way we’ve been taught to view it.
We tend to look upin organizations to position and title for leadership. But the truth is, leaders can and should be found at every level of your company. James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, writing in the foreword to my new book, The Hidden Leader, put it simply: “It’s not about position or title. It’s not about power or authority. It’s not about being a CEO, president, general, or prime minister. Leadership is not about who you are or where you come from. It’s about what you do.”
Bridget Jay is an individual contributor in program development for a mobile technology company called Q-Stream. Bridget’s job is to translate the client’s business goals into a strategic program plan. But Bridget has gone above and beyond her defined role at the company, by taking accountability for her work, seeking a deeper understanding of the client’s business and by working across divisions of the company to widen implementation of Q-Stream’s product. Thanks to Bridget’s ownership and leadership within her service role, this account has grown from $25K to $1.5 million within two years. Want more people like Bridget on your team? If you do, you have to identify the characteristics and observable behaviors of employees who act like owners:
- They are enthusiastic and they are not just trading time or talent for compensation. Not enthusiastic in a rah-rah kind of way, though a little bit of that can be nice occasionally. They have passion, positive energy and excitement about the business or some element of the work. These employees have a clear perspective on how the company provides value to customers and specifically how they contribute to that value. This has a contagion effect, bringing others along with them: the lab tech who enthuses to colleagues about aiding in the diagnosis of disease because of accuracy in the team’s specimen processing, or the sales rep whose fervent belief in the product energizes her fellow reps. That’s inspiring leadership.
- You can count on them to do what they say they will do and act with integrity. These employees are honest, trustworthy and consistently reliable. They should be easy to spot because if there is an important assignment, they get it. A priority client to work with, they are involved. A mission critical project, they are on the team. Because they hold themselves accountable for the results of their efforts, they might even do things outside their job description, like the customer support rep that chooses to come in on her day off to make good on a commitment to finish a team project. They take responsibility the same way successful leaders or business owners are accountable and demonstrate their commitment.
- These employees have strong relationships across the business, not just within a silo. The strength of their relationships isn’t just about being friendly or collegial, but are based on trust. They develop trusting relationships with team members, colleagues in other parts of the company, and even “higher ups”, through their expertise. It could be a technical expertise like software coding or expertise in a discipline like marketing or sales. This expertise forms a base of credibility and creates confidence in their decision-making. When your company needs cross-functional collaboration to launch a new product or implement a new system, the key to making it work are these employees with influence across divisions and often up and down the chain of command. They help knit an organization together with their leadership.
If you want to create a culture where everyone behaves like an owner, or a leader, seek out and reward the hidden leaders within the ranks of your company. They are the exemplars that will help you to establish standards. Then measure, coach and develop these behaviors and characteristics with the rest of your employees. What is hidden now just may become one of your greatest assets.
Do you know of individual contributors or front line supervisors that display strong leadership? I’d love to hear about them as part of my continuing research on Hidden Leaders and the impact they make, so send me a note about them by clicking here.