5 Leadership Skills for Building an Ownership Culture

What manager doesn’t prize employees who take the initiative to solve problems or delight customers? These empowered team members don’t bring solutions to problems; they’ve already fixed the issue. Building an ownership culture is the key to empowerment!

“Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”

– Jim Collins

When I used to own a restaurant, the bus staff once informed me during the winter that they were offering to brush the snow off customers’ cars. Note the sequence of accountability: the bus team took ownership; I didn’t give responsibility. Ownership, essentially, is an independent leadership action in service of a mission.

When leaders and managers speak of ownership, they don’t mean it in a financial sense. It’s the sense of commitment to shared values, desired outcomes and accountability.

“Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.”

Simon Sinek, Start with Why

Here are 5 leadership skills that create a blueprint for an engaging and empowered culture:

1. Embed your company’s purpose into your people’s DNA. As Sinek’s quote above makes clear, the deep roots of ownership grow from love, dedication and commitment. Today’s workforce desires to work for inspiring leaders and to do work that has meaning.

2. Be explicit and redundant with critical communications. The antidote to workplace ambiguity is commander’s intent, a military term describing what a successful outcome looks like in no uncertain terms. An effective leader might frequently say, “Our success depends on our ability to trust one another, collaborate across boundaries and individually take 100% ownership of the customer experience.”

3. Trust and empower your people. The research is clear: Employees who think their boss is empowering have a greater sense of autonomy and confidence and also demonstrate initiative and creativity in solving problems, according to the Harvard Business Review.

4. Train and Coach. Imagine how ludicrous it would be for a sports coach to not prepare her team, and coach individuals instead, for competition. Business should be no different. Management transformation guru Edward Deming said it best: “It is not enough to do your best. You first must know what to do; then do your best.” A powerful outcome of coaching is enabling team members to feel a sense of mastery, a top motivational driver for most employees.

5. Build a Learning Organization. Most managers give nod to the adage  “change or die,” but many fail to embed processes that drive reflection, innovation and behavior change. A simple process developed by the Army,  after action reviews (AAR), is a straightforward way to debrief a project, task or work shift. These three questions will spur on a rich team dialogue:

  1. What was expected to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What caused the difference between 1 and 2?

An ownership culture is rare air. However, modeling and executing these leadership skills offer a framework for developing a culture that takes initiative versus waiting for top-down orders.

As with my bus staff, your passionate and empowered team will find a way to wow and win. -Steve

Photo: “Ice Scraping” by Howard Lewis Ship is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Woman holding mug "like a boss"

Managing Constructive Tension

Never confuse a leader’s kindness with weakness

When asked to describe the best boss we’ve ever had, most of us reveal paradoxical characteristics, such as:

  • Tough but fair
  • High expectations but cared about the team
  • Demanding but gave people a lot of autonomy
  • Driven but created a positive work culture

Great managers and leaders, apparently, are able to manage the tension of opposites.

The highly influential book Built to Last, stressed that the most successful leaders “Embrace the genius of Yes-And thinking and avoid the tyranny of Either–Or thinking.” In other words, they would never compromise the long-term for the short-term; they would vigorously pursue and demand both.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Let’s examine what managing constructive tension might look like for Managing a difficult workplace conversation:

  • A less effective, Either-Or manager mindset might be, I’m going to deliver my ultimatum to him straight and let the chips fall where they may. This manager is adopting the velvet glove technique, minus the velvet! The manager may get compliance, but will cause irreparable damage to an important relationship because behavior often follows intention.
  • A more effective manager embracing Yes–And thinking might set two intertwined conversational goals: 1) clarify performance expectations, 2) encourage the employee’s growth and development. This manager is clearly using a push and pull technique; the employee will be held accountable to perform, but the manager also shows concern for the employee’s development. She will manage the constructive tension between the opposites of performance results and employee relationships. Her approach will feel like tough love.

Reflect upon your legacy. How do you want others to describe your leadership style? How should you grow and adapt to meet tomorrow’s changing business demands? It might not feel natural but embracing a tension-of-opposite focus is a safe bet.

As a great early mentor of mine often said and always practiced – be tough on standards but gentle on people. -Steve

As always, check out my other blog posts for even more great manager-coaching tips!