5 Steps to Cultivate Ownership in Others

By: Josh 

When I think of what ownership on a team looks and sounds like, there are three enduring examples that stick out to me.  

The first is from L. David Marquet’s book, Turn the Ship Around!, where he shares his ship’s three-name rule. When any member of the crew saw a visitor on the boat, he/she would greet the visitor using three names – the visitor’s name, their own name, and the ship’s name. For example, “Good morning, Commodore Kenny, my name is Petty Officer Jones, welcome aboard the Santa Fe.”  

Second is an example offered in CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest, by Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, and Vikram Malhotra. In the book, they share a habit of employee ownership called the 10-foot rule. Anytime an employee is within 10-feet of a customer, they look the customer in the eye, smile, and ask, “how can I help you?” 

Lastly, the e-commerce and employee perks company, Next Jump, recognized as one of the top three most Deliberately Developmental Organizations in the US, normalizes a standard employee introduction. When employees give a lecture or introduce themselves, they share three basic facts: their name, what department they work in, and what their “backhand” is. The backhand is the phrase given to a person’s biggest developmental need they are currently working on to improve through a self-development program supported by their Talking Partner (peer coach). It’s a mechanism to internalize a growth mindset and normalize continuous growth in the company, from CEO all the way down.  

Renters vs. Owners 

Why is ownership so important though? I think it is helpful to compare a “renter” vs. “owner” mindset. Employees who are renters, much like a normal tenant in a rental property, are focused on personal interests. Renters want the most value for themselves at the cheapest price or effort. When things break, they don’t fix it themselves, but expect someone else to. Renters don’t care for the property like it is their own…because it isn’t. Similarly, renter employees don’t take initiative, personal stake, or demonstrate ownership over their space of responsibility.  

Owners, on the other hand, focus on value. Owners want to increase the value of their house through self-initiated improvements. They take care to attend to the details and put effort into regular upkeep. Ultimately, owners aim to transfer their home or their job to the next owner with more value than when they found it.  

Particularly, employees who are owners: 

  • Demonstrate responsibility: As one of my mentors described, it may not be my piece of trash on the ground, but this is my sidewalk. And I will do whatever is needed to keep my sidewalk clean.  
  • Increase leader and organizational capacity: Owners don’t need to be continuously monitored. They can be given outlined duties and responsibilities with the associated trust and latitude to work within that space. Thus, leaders, and the organization at large, have increased capacity to work on broader organizational improvement or adaptive problems rather than simply monitoring renter employees.  
  • Readiness for more: Owners maintain improved readiness for more over time – more development, more opportunities, more responsibility, more trust. They add more value. They get more results. And have the potential for more in the future, too.  

5 Ways to Begin Cultivating Ownership in Others 

Developing ownership in others is influenced by individual and organizational context. And while there may not be a blanket step-by-step process to instill ownership in others, there are several things leaders can enact today to begin inspiring it in others.  

First, treat employees with respect. I highly align to the early lesson my mom taught me growing up: no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Bad bosses remain the #1 reason people depart from their jobs. People – good, bad, and ugly – will always be a factor in one’s work experience. Often, one of the easiest ways for people to enjoy work is to show them they are seen, heard, safe, and valued. Treat others with respect, assume positive intent, and value them as humans first.  

Second, communicate perspective. Informed employees are equipped employees. Equipped employees are inspired ones. Help people understand the broader context of what is going on around a particular task or decision. Let them see how conditions led to the current situation. Explain purpose and intent behind your guidance. When people can see and appreciate how their small, singular puzzle piece contributes to the larger challenge, they have a deeper commitment to ensuring their puzzle piece is well cared for.  

Third, use the steps of giving trust. Cultivating ownership in others requires trust. But trusting can be a challenging and even anxious act. Leaders can be prudent in how they give trust, and they can follow four simple steps. First, train them. We cannot expect others to know or be proficient if we don’t educate them and give them opportunities for repetition. Second, certify them. Training is the leader telling others how to do something. Certification is a process of the person proving to the boss they have mastered the task or responsibility. Certification can come in various forms like assessments or tests, trial periods, or a practice project. After certifying the person, we then empower, giving them the responsibility and ability to act on their own. Finally, after we have trained, certified, and fully empowered the person, then we trust them to act in the best interests of the role and organization, consistently focused on adding value.  

Fourth, match authority to responsibility. Build ownership by giving responsibility. It can be that simple. But it’s a slippery slope when leaders place expectations on employees to care and own the responsibility, but do not ensure the person has the authority to match it. Have you formally established the person’s positional power, decision-making ability, and resources to enable them to successfully fulfill their duties? If not, it could lead to conditions for burnout, disenfranchisement, and even their failure. Ensure a person’s authority is commensurate to their responsibility.  

Finally, give autonomy. You’ve trained them. Certified them. Given them perspective and the necessary authority. Now, give them the space to work. Give guidance through the “what” and the “why,” but never the “how.” Set expectations and boundaries through clear guidance and then get out of the way. Let them execute with the intent and space given so you can move on to other things that only you can do.  

Closing Questions 

What is the state of employee…or even leader…ownership in my organization? What is the root cause?

How can I adapt, adopt, and implement any of the 5 behaviors to cultivate ownership in others this week? What does that look like in my leader behavior?

What is a habit of ownership like the above opening examples that my team and I can create and implement?

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