On this blog and in my book Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? I talk up a storm about employee engagement. And I’m just one of many voices in the choir. We often make it sound like employee engagement is the end-all of people management. But anyone who’s owned a company knows we need to take it a step further. We need to train people to think like we do.
In the beginning, the founders do it all—R&D, marketing, sales, customer service, and buying office supplies. If the company is off to a good start, owners will delegate certain tasks, although most will retain authority over important decisions. At this stage, the owners are looking for motivated employees who can carry out projects on time and on budget.
To grow the company beyond a successful startup, however, the owners need more than cheerful order takers. They need trusted partners. Every part of a growing business requires its own leadership and growth strategy. To make it big, the owners must delegate some of their most essential roles: creativity, authority, relationship building…
Some say they wish they could clone themselves—I’ve been there. Eventually, you get past this feeling. You want people different from yourself contributing to your business. That said, there’s one trait you want them to have in common with you: they must think like owners.
I like to see an owner mindset, not only in my executives but in anyone with the ambition to rise through the ranks. Promotion means more responsibility, and if I’m to entrust mission-critical responsibilities to my employees, I need to know they will do as well as, or better than, I would.
Training employees to think like owners is not an easy task. Some public corporations give the impression that no one owns them. Modern socialists complain about the astronomical figures these companies pay their top executives. But isn’t that just a desperate attempt to get at least a few employees to feel like owners?
Compensation has something to do with it. Unfortunately, compensation alone will not turn your employees into the responsible leaders your company needs to grow. Here’s what I believe sets business owners apart and how to help your employees cultivate these traits.
With responsibility comes risk. Not only financial risk, but the risk of putting your reputation and your future on the line. When you know that nobody is looking over your shoulder, you learn to do your homework, think two steps ahead, and look for the big picture. That’s when you grow.
Don’t accept half-baked ideas from your employees. Once you’ve handed them the project, train them to produce viable solutions ready for your signoff. Let them present their work in front of other owners and executives and learn from the feedback.
At Axero, for example, we know it’s time to amp up our marketing. My marketing manager and I agree that we need to go after certain verticals. If he wants to play a bigger role in the company, this is the perfect opportunity. Don’t wait for me to give you a task. Design the whole campaign. Tell me what we need and give me some options. Take charge and bug me to get it done!
Owners have the longest to-do lists in the company. Anything that doesn’t get done defaults to our list. But here’s how we survive: we don’t let the list run our lives. In fact, the list has no power over our day at all. We shift, cancel, and delegate tasks all the time. Sometimes we learn something, and the whole list goes out the window. If you don’t free yourself to turn on a dime, you can’t own a business.
This is where it gets tricky for the employee. Not every job encourages initiative and forward thinking. Thinking like an owner can even get you fired. Let your employees know you want to hear their ideas, but also give them direction. Share your strategy, challenges, and priorities with them to help them focus.
Being an owner is not always fun. The freedom to juggle your list comes with the responsibility to do what’s best for the company. In the tech world, this can mean holding off on supercool new features and far-out ideas everyone loves to work on in favor of mundane projects that bring in the cash.
Train your employees to look out for your customers and your bottom line. There’s time for pure creativity and fun. But if they want to run the company one day, help them put their business sense front and center.
Building a company means hiring people and bringing in new tools. This may not be intuitive to your employees who are used to counting on themselves and a limited set of resources they’ve seen used in the past. Help them think beyond the past. Ask the question: what would it take to achieve your goal? Do you need someone to take over part of your job? New software? More information? Show them how you make similar decisions and train them to build their case.
No compensation scheme can match the founder’s risks and rewards, nor would your employees want to live with this sort of uncertainty. But you should reward them for helping you build the company. And, if you want to train them to own their jobs as you do, you could start with individual goals. Create opportunities for them to make extra cash when they reach a goal. (For a detailed discussion of individual goal setting, see Chapter 4 of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?, Set Goals.) Most companies already use sales commissions. At Axero, we’re setting up cash incentives for customer service, marketing, and potentially other functions too.
Thinking like an owner is a blind spot for many employees, as it was, perhaps, for you when you were just getting started. Show them how to get better at it, especially those looking to take on more responsibility. Not everyone will become a top executive, but you will help most achieve their potential.
If you think like an owner, you might like my book, because it’s about the problems business owners solve every day.
Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.
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