There’s no better time to talk than in the car, with nothing to do and two hours to go. Luckily for me, this past weekend I was in exactly that situation with Dan, a friend and fellow business owner. As the miles passed, we struck up a conversation about an issue that most leaders come across: how to create an owner mindset among our employees.
Dan is a cofounder of a cutting edge technology and media company based in New York City. If you’re reading this, you know I am also a cofounder of a consulting firm. As business owners, there are a few things Dan and I immediately connected on: first - no one cares as much as or more than we do about the success of our business; second - if the business fails, there is no one to blame but ourselves (and our lovely co-founders) and third - we will never accomplish the whole of our vision and goals without bright, motivated, invested employees. As we dug into that third point - the need for a great team - we identified a few key ways to drive an owner mindset that will enable us to focus on growth and strategy instead of micromanagement and minutiae.
Owner Mindset 1: Pick Great Partners
In both our cases, Dan and I have business partners who compliment our skill sets and fill in our gaps. We rely on each other to see in our blind spots and push each other to achieve all that we are capable of. We also gut check a lot of ideas and actions with each other. Because of our title, and expertise, it’s not hard to get stuck in the trap of being everyone’s go to when they have a question. Dan commented that his people ask him a lot of questions and sometimes use him a bit like they use Amazon’s Alexa. "Alexa, what's the weather?" "Dan, where do I find...?" They are full of questions, and they ask him for input at every turn. While Dan knows the answer, and wants to help, he can’t spend his time answering basic questions or being a sounding board early stage ideas.
Action: Creating a collaborative relationship between staff level employees is important because it allows employees to gut check ideas, refine work product and benefit from the unique perspectives and talents of their colleagues. One way to begin guiding employees toward more productive behavior is to ask them what they think, how they would handle it, or suggest they talk to a colleague who is a wiz with that particular topic. Our companies are strong because of the people in them - and encouraging your employees to develop relationships internally can free you up to tackle higher level things.
Owner Mindset 2: Connect with the Vision
As owners, we know the buck stops with us. We are hard chargers, and expect the same of our people. But it is undeniable that we have more skin in the game. Dan commented that he can’t expect his people to be as dedicated as he is. I disagree. First, I want to be clear, you have to start with the right talent. No business owner wants to entrust any facet of their business to less than qualified people. Once the right people are in place you can move on to accountability. To drive more accountability and “owning it”, you have to dig into the reason your employees are with you to begin with. Are they in it because they believe in your vision? Do they have a passion for the work you doing and the problems you are solving?
Action: Figure out what motivates your employees and give them more opportunity to play in that space, and develop their talents in the areas they are most excited about. Next, investigate the individual strengths and talents of your employees and assign them roles that will enable them to thrive. Once your employees are running on a path of their choosing, support them by removing barriers and trusting them to serve the vision and strategy - and ultimately act in the company’s best interest. In order to build an owner mindset in our people, we have to be willing to share in the responsibility of making the company a success.
Owner Mindset 3: Fail Fast and Pivot
No one likes to fail, but as owners, we accept that there will be some failure in our futures, and we do well to fail as fast as possible. When you have no choice, you just do it. That said, job insecurity is a powerful factor for employees. No one wants to lose their job, and unlike a typical entrepreneur, most employees have a lower tolerance for risk. As Dan and I were talking, he shared that his co-founder is very accepting and even encouraging of failure - but only if he believes in you. So in reality, he is not that accepting of failure, because there is a caveat. Employees are watching how leadership responds to failure - how they behave, how they speak about it, and what the consequences are. Inconsistent responses to failure are confusing and can strike fear in your employees that their failure may be the one that causes the co-founder to no longer believe in them.
Action: Shift the focus to the lessons learned and opportunities for improvement that may not have been discovered had it not been for the failure. This frames failure as the gateway to innovation and opportunity. And that is something to be excited about! Equally as important, is knowing when to pivot. Failures happen for a variety of reasons, and knowing when to log the lesson and find another path saves a lot of wasted time and energy. Share your thinking behind the decisions to pivot so that your employees can benefit from the experience and learn this invaluable skill as they grow.
In the journey of a business, there will always be bumps in the road. Creating an owner mindset ensures employees are driving toward a shared vision, and acting on behalf of the business. A culture that promotes the owner mindset frees you up to focus on strategy and growth - which is really where your talents are needed most.