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  • mattheelan

Think like an owner.

The first job I had out of college I worked for an entrepreneur. I worked for him for 11 years. It wasn’t until I had been there 7 years that he finally felt comfortable allowing me to run a part of the business. I vividly remember that day. We had just sat down to review the monthly financials which usually turned into an intense exercise or interrogation. I recall the session went really well and I left his office feeling pretty pleased with myself. Later that night when he was leaving for the day he stopped by my office. He said that he felt very comfortable with me and that he trusted me with running the department but it wasn’t because I had answered all of his questions successfully earlier in the day. He said, “Matt I trust you because you are finally starting to think like me about the business.” From that point forward in my career I challenged people to, “Think like the owner.” Thinking like the owner is different than thinking like an employee. The ability to be able to see the entire interconnected organization vs. just the individual parts where you play a role. Once you begin to see the organization as a system then your whole mindset will begin to change as you see it from an entirely different vantage point.

In order for people to think like owners we have to create the right environment. Here are some characteristics of those environments: 1) Empowerment+Autonomy+Trust. In order for people to act and think like the owner they have to be empowered. What does that truly mean? It means that as the owner and leaders within the company, we need to give people projects which expose them to all areas of the organization in order to gain new and different skills, experience, and knowledge. In my own experience, I worked in the professional services group and was able to work on joint projects with marketing, sales, finance, and HR. It is also the responsibility of the organization to empower people in the “right way” and then give them the autonomy to execute individually or as a team. Also, a part of thinking and acting like the owner requires us to understand when something doesn’t go as planned and we fail. It is imperative that we have created a culture in which team members understand how we deal with failure both individually and organizationally. We need to have created a culture that emphasizes and makes them feel confident that they will be supported. If team members feel safe to make mistakes and fail at certain projects we can create a sense of trust. The trust that is created as a part of that process also motivates team members to want to do better. Team accountability can be more powerful.

2) Accountability and Servant Leadership. Several years before I joined the business the owner had to file bankruptcy and faced potentially having to shut down the business. During the bankruptcy, the owner promised the entire team that he would not miss payroll. He never did. As the owner and someone that wants to act like the owner, you have to be accountable to yourself and of equal importance be accountable to your team. This means that you are accountable to all of your team members even those that may be outside of your group, division, or department. The owner is accountable for everyone from the boardroom to the bathroom and so should you. If you look up “Servant leadership” this approach puts the needs of the organization, employees, and community above themselves. Servant leaders create a culture of trust, have an unselfish mindset, and promote others into leadership roles. What is the connection between “Servant leadership” and thinking like an owner? I believe that the Servant leader often has the same mindset as a person who thinks like the owner. The majority of the entrepreneurs that I have worked with built organizations that understood the critical nature of trust, autonomy, and empowerment.

3) Incentivize and celebrate. In order to increase this behavior organizations need to determine ways to incentivize and reward people who demonstrate the think like an owner attitude and mentality. Some companies actually formalize this through equity or ESOP programs. In other companies, they incentivize this through bonus programs or salary reviews. In one example, as a leader, I created a cross-functional team in order to review ways for us to reduce companywide expenses. Utilizing a systems thinking framework we outlined the outcomes, criteria for success, and gaps where we need more data and created a plan. I assigned two leads to manage the project and after 3 months they had created a set of recommendations that would have reduced our monthly expenses by 20%. We ended up implementing a portion of their recommendations and each member of the team was recognized at the company quarterly meeting, received a quarterly bonus and a few of the members were eventually promoted. A few of the members asked that we forego a bonus and wanted us to pay for some leadership and professional development.

In the end, the organizations that incorporated the“think like the owner approach or who are able to get their team members to “take ownership of the work” or had “high levels of engagement” all had the following things in common:

  • Hired smart people and empowered them to do good work.

  • Paid them really well and provided great benefits.

  • Created and maintained an environment with a high degree of trust, autonomy, and accountability.

  • Provided the systems, structures, frameworks, and tools in order to help their team be successful for the customer.

  • Incentivized, rewarded, and celebrated successful accomplishments and learned from their failures, and improved.

  • Invested in people’s personal and professional development.

  • Built a great product or provided a great service that the customer loved.

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