April 23rd, 2012

Taking Ownership


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Here’s Why Employees Won’t Take Ownership of Your Projects or Your Business


We don’t like you!!!

Okay, relax. That’s not the reason. And, what do you care, anyway? Right? Although you may deny it, multiple psychological studies on self-efficacy and self-esteem say deep down inside, you do care. Of course, that’s another article for another time.

There are basically three reasons why employees … let’s evolve from our antiquated thinking and call them team members … don’t take ownership. The first is the owner/entrepreneur’s inability to inspire. The second is the owner/entrepreneur’s passive/active posture of resistance. The third is the owner/entrepreneur’s refusal to reward. Of course, there are other less frequent, one-of-a-kind scenarios that play out among millions of organizations that, because of their complexity and overlapping nature, cannot be quantified or traced back to the original cause and effect relationship. However, most abdications of ownership by team members fall under these three categories.


It's YOUR Business


To be clear, let’s define ownership, or “agency” as referred to by some management theorists who consider those who take on ownership to be “agents” of change. Ownership is the declared willingness to assume responsibility for a desired end result. Owners of a project, event, business or social entity, philosophy and/or creed understand the full ramifications of the project’s existence and readily embrace obstacles associated with its ultimate success.

Former Vice President Al Gore won a Nobel Prize by taking personal responsibility for the plight of global warming and its overall impact on the environment. Public advocate Ralph Nader led a legendary one-man campaign against the Unsafe At Any Speed Chevrolet Corvair.  Enron Vice President and whistle-blowers Sherron S. Watkins was selected as one of three “People of the Year 2002” by Time Magazine for her unrelenting effort to expose the illegal accounting schemes at Enron.

Of course, the process is not all celebrity peaches and cream, concluding with a ticker tape parade down Main Street. When asking team members to jump into the fray, we must understand that, whether the organization is large or small, taking ownership comes with potential risks and consequences. Business visionary and CEO, Carleton “Carly” Fiorina, was forced out of Hewlett-Packard for here advocacy of the Compaq merger. Martin Luther King, Jr was shot for his stance on civil rights. And how can we forget the horrible persecution and industry blackballing of Jeffrey Wigand, the Brown & Williamson executive who revealed to the world that cigarettes were highly addictive and methodically killing us?

Still, ownership is a desirable proposition for both the entrepreneur and team member. By showing a willingness to take ownership, team members demonstrate a certain leadership quality that every small business needs: The willingness to put one’s reputation on the line, be a risk taker and manage uncertainty.  Isn’t that what you do every hour of the day? Aren’t these the supportive, dependable, motivated people you want to have your back and help your business grow?

So  why aren’t the masses rushing through your door to sign up as advocates for your next big killer invention? Surely, they realize it’s going to take the world by storm?

Let’s deal with the first probable cause.

Quite often, team members don’t take ownership because of the owner/entrepreneur’s inability to inspire. This is a profound irony in that “inspiring others” is one of the things that visionaries are supposed to do best. They take an unfamiliar, untested concept and transform it into something believable, attainable, and beneficial to the participants.  In a way, they are legendary conmen, peddling the truth instead of a lie.  They believe, then make it possible for others to believe; enduring skepticism, criticism and even sabotage along the way.

Your ability to inspire is a critical leadership characteristic and key component in the potential success of your business.  It’s not enough to believe, you must make others believe as well. That entails a whole range of communications   skills based on research, analysis and preparation.

How can you inspire me to believe a car can actually run on vegetable oil when you know nothing about combustible engines? And what will you say when I tell you the fossil fuels used to grow the plants to make vegetable oil actually increases the pollution in the atmosphere by 35%, thus, your endgame to save the planet is really adding to the problem?

Inspiring others is no pie in the sky. It’s actually hard work. Even the conmen will tell you to do your research first, and then open your mouth. To inspire, you must gain trust through words and deeds. And you must be knowledgeable enough to present believable end results.

No, you don’t have to be Steve Jobs. You have to be you, working within your own skin and framework of possibility to capture the attention, enthusiasm and endorsement of relevance from others. If you’re operating by the seat of your pants/dress tail and don’t care enough to thoroughly prepare, this chink in your visionary armor will come shining through. It signals, on a subliminal, subconscious level, your shallow commitment and alerts team member you’re wasting their time.

Let’s talk about this endorsement of relevance, and then we’ll move on.

How much does your new killer invention change the world? It’s impact doesn’t have to be applied to the entire world, just the world in which it’s designed to target.  

London instrument maker, James Watt, changed the world of steam engines, and ultimately, the entire manufacturing industry, by recognizing a basic design flaw in existing steam engines of his time. Precious steam and fuel were being wasted by having both heating and cooling take place inside the piston cylinder. Watt solved the problem by creating the condenser, a separate insulated chamber where steam would be cooled to create the necessary vacuum. This was no less ingenious than Dr. Fredric J. Baur’s creation of his iconic potato flake chip-type product known as Pringles or Steve Jobs’ creation of the iPhone or Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook.

You have to ask yourself a realistic question. What difference is my killer invention going to make? It’s the same question your team members are going to ask. It’s the measuring stick by which they give your project a “relevance score”. If the iPhone is a ten on the scale, where does your project fall? And if your score is too low, meaning it does not have a perceived impact on their lives or the lives of those existing inside your targeted world, then no one is going to take ownership.


The second reason is the owner/entrepreneur’s passive/active posture of resistance. As an owner, exactly how much grassroots, bottom-up clamor for new approaches and new ways of doing things can you tolerate?

I had a friend who briefly worked for a small accounting office, owned by a command-style drill sergeant boss and populated by “yes-men” Baby Boomers. The office used a non-intuitive, problematic version of Peachtree as the accounting software, WordPerfect as the document processor and some kind of email program that did not allow attachments of any kind. My friend proposed changes in the software as well some of the redundant procedures they used internally to pass documents back and forth. The owner and managers were opposed to all changes.

The owner explained that, after twenty plus years in business, when he looked at his bank account, he didn’t see anything wrong. Why fix what wasn’t broken?

In 2008, Bear Stearns Companies, a global investment bank and securities broker reported $17 billion in previous year earnings, had $28 billion in assets on the books, and had seen a 52-week high stock price of $132. Before the year was over, the subprime derivative-infested company was sold off at fire-sale prices to JP Morgan Chase for $10 per share. But how marvelous was their bank account before the sky came crashing down.

As smart marketers, privy to all of the worldwide analytics and business trends, we realize in today’s turbulent, ever-changing marketplace, it would be only a matter of time before a more efficient competitor swooped in on the old accountant to take all of his customers. But having created a culture where change was unwelcome, which team member would be willing to take up the banner of ownership in the company’s future and risk losing his or her job?

Let’s face it. Sometimes change is too painful to implement. Your team may eventually come to you and recommend you dismantle the very product line with which you started the business. I wonder how the old managers at Polaroid felt when they discontinued the instant film cameras?  

Think about one of the major trends in today’s market. More and more people are opting to live alone; almost 30% of the population, compared to 9% back in the 1950’s. So what if you sell bags of charcoal that have a tag line or slogan that says, “Great for family outings”. Your old Grampa Henry started the company with that slogan and now it doesn’t fit … sort of like the United Negro College Fund. Are you going to change or hold on?

To shed the familiarity of the past is often complicated and risky. Some business owners just can’t do it. They cling to the old idiom, “It’s my way or the highway.” Or they engage in more subtle, indirect practices of ignoring, belittling or diluting any ideas that, either, didn’t originate from them or extends too far beyond the scope of their own personal creativity.

If you fall into this category, there is no reason to expect team members to take real  ownership in your projects or business. Ultimately, you will create an organization of yes-men and yes-women who resist thoughts of initiative and advocacy. Rather, they do what they’re told and try to ride it out until the next paycheck arrives.


The final reason why team members don’t take ownership  is the owner/entrepreneur’s refusal to reward.  

Perhaps, you’ve worked for this kind of owner.  He or she is totally self-centered and doesn’t see a need to share the wealth. They drive into the parking lot in their BMW one day, their Navigator the next, and on their MTT Turbine Superbike motorcycle the next. Then, at the weekly meeting, while punching numbers into their brand new $900 Wi-Fi-enabled, 64GB iPad , they explain why salaries will have to be cut and people will have to be laid off.

In 1978, CEOs at the helm of major corporations earned 35 times as much as the average worker. In 2009, that gap had grown to 300 times as much. According to economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University, the wealthiest 10% of Americans earned 50% of all income, twelve times as much as the bottom 10%.  The top 10% owned 80% of all stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75% of non-home real estate.

Team members, especially those from Generation X, know the score. They’re not interested in making you rich with no indication you plan to take them along for the ride. Google, General Electric, FedEx and others reward, heavily, those who make the company successful.  A simple salary is just not enough. You have to figure out a way to reward initiative and buy-in and ownership.  Otherwise, it’s “YOUR” business. Stop complaining when team members treat it as such.

Here’s a final note pertaining to creating a culture of  advocacy and ownership. You should start to think of it as an absolute necessity. You cannot grow your company and reach your  entrepreneurial goals operating as a one-man band. You need the support of a great team. You must inspire others to take ownership, and then reward them for a job well done.

-Partial Excerpt from the newly released: What’s Wrong With Your Small Business Team [Executive Hardback] by Leander Jackie Grogan -

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