An Owner’s Mentality: Creating Emotional Equality
There’s something special about what well-known entrepreneurs such as Ford, Watson, Gates, Brinker, Jobs, and Zuckerberg have accomplished. What they have in common with millions of small business builders is something we admire: focus, making something from nothing, determination, and total commitment to succeed. From a psychological perspective, what attracts us to them is their vision, passion, independence, grit, accountability, and success. Not surprisingly, many company leaders would love to see these same characteristics embedded in their company’s culture. What they want is an “owner’s mentality.”
The question is how to do it. How does a company change its culture to one that includes the values and drive of an owner? Assuming that such a change is what’s best for the company, the most chosen path is to create an ownership program even though that is the wrong place to start. The problem is not with the objective of such programs, nor even their tactics; rather, it’s the failure of leaders to align tactics to objectives as well as their answer to even bigger questions: “Why would we be better off having owners running all over the place?” and “What’s the downside of ownership?” Success starts not with a program, but with understanding the ideal and psychology of ownership. In the following discussion, I shed some light on these topics through a brief review of what is known about entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship, and ownership. The questions to be answered are: (1) What is an entrepreneur?, (2) What is entrepreneurship?, (3) Which of the qualities of both should be sought and which should be avoided within a corporate environment?, and (4) How can the concept of entrepreneurship be applied in a corporate setting? My goal is to piece together a descriptive profile of successful entrepreneurs, with special emphasis on corporate entrepreneurial environments where equity ownership may be minimal or even nonexistent.
Following Socrates dictum that “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms:”
- Entrepreneur is someone who starts an enterprise with little more than an idea, a blank sheet of paper, and passion for making it work.
- Entrepreneurship is the process of moving the idea forward to being a viable enterprise.
- Ownership glues idea and effort together. What’s owned are the ups, downs, and all the things in between of building an enterprise.
Ownership is a psychological construct that has less to do with financial equity, size, or result than with the personal commitment, physical energy and stamina, grit, and achievement of the “owner.” An owner-oriented person is one who “owns” their responses to the responsibilities and challenge of life. Thus, ownership does not have to involve financial equity in whatever is owned. Instead, it is about acting as though that something is owned. An ownership mentality describes a person who does more than accept responsibility – they seize it and make it their own through emotional equity.
Ownership and Corporate Structure
There are some differences between a pure entrepreneurial environment and traditional employment relationships that corporate-based ownership initiatives can put to good use. The most obvious is that in the former, the owner is totally at risk and failure is not an option. Having everything on the line has a wonderful way of focusing the mind on what needs to be done: develop a business model and strategy, and aligned systems and structure. To inject a little reality to this challenge, the type of person who takes on the formidable challenges of creating an enterprise constitutes less than five percent of the U.S. population; moreover, those who are successful at it amount to less than two percent. Not good odds.
Thus, for companies wanting to create a culture of ownership, the staffing challenges appear to be insurmountable. But as we shall see, there is more than one way to skin the cat of entrepreneurship. Ironically, that path has its origins in another and more likely outcome of entrepreneurship; namely, failure. Typically, when entrepreneurs fail, it is due to being poorly organized or a shortage of capital, expertise, emotional support, and/or marketing skill. An inherent advantage of a corporate entrepreneurial environment is that it can defuse these land mines and put a much larger segment of the population on the path to ownership.
Are You Ready for Owners?
The first step toward creating an ownership culture is understanding how to cushion the downside of entrepreneurship by reducing the power of the land mines inherent in free-market entrepreneurship to do their natural damage. Inevitably, doing so enhances the likelihood that corporate entrepreneurs will emerge, be successful, and provide a role model that others will want to follow. Mitigating the traditional risks of the entrepreneur makes it more predictable, substantially less stressful, and more attractive to a much larger group of people.
This first step toward creating an ownership culture is, unfortunately, not often taken and one that is rarely identified in debriefs as missing from failed initiatives. Why, for example, would a company leader expect even a highly motivated employee to know how to create and support the momentum of whatever it is that he all of a sudden owns? Raising an obvious question such as this one makes the folly of not preparing for corporate entrepreneurship clear. It also points to the fact that, like any other cultural change initiative, creating an ownership mentality takes more than enthusiasm for the idea: it demands leadership, planning, and genuine guidance through the land mines. One of the most useful guides is an existing corporate entrepreneur to mentor the newbies.
In short, you should think about what it will take to support “owners.” In some companies, part of this thinking should include a retrospective on why entrepreneurship initiatives of the past have not worked. A big step toward addressing the challenges of creating an ownership mentality is answering questions such as: In what ways is ownership different from the ways we have traditionally conducted our business? This boils down to a question of what is expected of “owners” and how it’s different than what has traditionally been expected of employees. This paper answers this question with an emphasis on defining an ownership mentality and the human qualities most likely to thrive in a culture of ownership.
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