Ownership_3x5 Leadership

By Pete Fovargue

When I turned 16, I bought a red 1990 Dodge Dakota.

I washed that truck several times each month and did all of the routine maintenance. I drove it carefully and was reluctant to let anyone else drive it, even my parents. I was proud of my ride. That truck was a major step toward adulthood and the responsibility that comes with it. I felt complete ownership for my truck because my parents were clear. If you want a car, you buy it. If you want to drive your car, you pay for the gas. All of the costs and benefits were mine alone.

Ownership isn’t tied to a thing like a truck, it is tied to an environment. How many people change the oil in a rental car? For a rental car, it is completely different. You pay for the privilege to not care about the car itself, just the transportation it provides. You can forget about the responsibility of dings and scratches, just pay a small fee for insurance. You don’t care if the car gets regular oil changes.  You only care that it works for your week long vacation.

When ownership is part of the work environment, everyone does their fair share. The leader doesn’t have to fix problems daily. The person with ownership won’t allow things to break in the first place. They keep out a watchful eye because they feel responsible.

The leader is no longer burdened with trivial decisions. The leader doesn’t have to pressure their team to get things done. Ownership creates the ideal work environment where each person does their part.

You cannot give someone ownership; you can assign responsibility, but cannot force them to actually take ownership. You can certainly take ownership away, however. You have to create an environment where responsibility is clear and everyone has the tools that they need.

As a leader, you constrain your team by giving them direction. To improve the likelihood of ownership you must enable them to make decisions. It is best to help your people feel that the majority of the decisions are theirs alone to make.

I offer this list to gauge yours and your peoples’ levels of ownership:

7 Items to Gauge Ownership

  1. What is done: What independent decisions can you make daily? Do you receive a “to do” list from your boss?
  2. How it is done: How much creative freedom do you have to meet the goal?
  3. Who it is done with: Can you pick who you work with?
  4. The order it is done: Is a prescribed order required to sync up with other people’s efforts?
  5. When work hours are: Can you start early to finish early? Can you show up late if you have a personal conflict?
  6. Where it is done: Can it be done at home, a coffee shop, or another country?
  7. The deadline: Does your boss set every deadline or can you prioritize your own work?

The more items that you can decide on indicates your freedom at work. The goal is to give your team at least 50% of control over their assigned tasks. You prescribe more of the decisions when failure is not an option or there is little trust established yet. Over time, you should work toward giving more freedom to your team. Use the list of seven items to gauge the control your team has.

To Assess the Level of Ownership on Your Team, Use the Same 7 Items

Are you creating an environment where ownership is possible? If your team cannot make the decision on at least 4 of the items (at least 50%), you are not allowing them to take ownership. You cannot expect someone to feel responsible for their project if they cannot make it their own.

How much risk is really involved in giving them more control? Do you really surrender quality and timeliness when you give up control?

The real risk may be in giving them too little control. Performance falls as engagement drops.  Your team may look for new opportunities where they will be given more freedom. The more freedom and independence that I am given the more likely I will commit to the team for the long haul.

When you are making most of the decisions for others, it is a good indicator that you are too involved. Transfer the responsibility and the ownership to your team. Confident leaders set clear expectations and let their team go forth to conquer. The more things that your team can decide on, the healthier environment you work in. The ability to leave these decisions to your team requires trust.

Is your team treating work like a rental car or like their most prized possession?  By transferring responsibility and giving them more freedom they can increase ownership.

Pete Fovargue is a Civil Engineer in the US Navy.  He writes to help others achieve their potential as leaders and launched the website Learn Lead Conquer. You can read more of his articles on LearnLeadConquer.com.


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