Want Employees To Think More Like Owners? Think Beyond the Contract


I never believed my Dad when he told me that my attitude would change about business when I became an owner. Working hard, delivering value, pleasing others and personal growth were all part of my DNA; that wouldn’t change when I owned a business.

Until it did.

As an owner, the business is now part of my DNA. I’m self-determined in an entirely different way to make sure I stay creative, focused on growth and helping the company, our employees and our clients reach their full potential.

And it makes me think: How can I run a company where everyone thinks like an owner?

I was planning a reunion with a few old friends recently when I realized this isn’t just about changing the way our employees think. It’s about changing the way we as owners think, too.

One of our friends—who didn’t own a company—immediately expressed concerns about timing the reunion with his available vacation days. Like many people, he operates under an implied contract with his employer: for a defined set of responsibilities, he’s entitled to specified rights (compensation, healthcare, vacation, etc.).

In these types of contracts, very few parties go beyond quid pro quo expectations of one another:

Employee: “If you show me a career path, I’ll work harder.”

Employer: “If you work here longer, you get more vacation.”

Employee: “I’ll love my company as long as my job is flexible.”

Employer: “If you make more personal sacrifice, you’ll have more opportunities.”

Employee: “If other people aren’t working in the office, I shouldn’t need to.”

Employer: “If the owners want higher earnings or valuation, your role may be eliminated.”

Contracts protect and clarify expectations but they also breed “what’s in it for me” rather than “what’s possible” attitudes.

Employers looking for more “owner-thinking” employees might start by going beyond the contract. Sound crazy? Here are a few ideas to try that could make all the difference:

1. Replace paid time off policies with employee self-selected time off. A good friend’s father who runs an asset management firm once told me they have no “time off” policy, explaining: “If someone’s not smart enough to know when to take time off, they’re not smart enough to work in our company.”

2. Link every employee’s pay to organizational profitability and impact. While it’s true many employees will have limited control over these measures for an entire organization, tying some compensation — both risk and reward — to overall performance can evolve employees’ mindset from “me” to “we.”

3. Allow people to be humans at work. When I’m most busy, I tend to just stick to the contract rather than doing the work of deepening connections. If we relate to each other beyond tasks, meetings and emails, we do life together in a way that increases trust and engagement.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to run a company that’s stuck in the traditional confines of the employee-employer contract. I want us all to feel like we have a stake in it together.

Let’s take a bold risk and go beyond the contract to develop an enterprise of owners. What other ideas do you have for how we can do it?

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