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Four Ways To Get Your Employees To Care Like Owners

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I took our five-year-old daughter to a friend’s birthday party. At the gathering I met the owner of a budding local martial arts school. His passion for the art form and his business were contagious. He loved everything he was doing, but worried about the rapid growth of his school. As he added new locations, he was concerned about maintaining his hard won quality brand. For example, the owner has several employees, but still personally wipes down all his studio mats because no one else cleans them as well — no one cares as much.

This dojo owner’s small problem is exactly the same issue that CEOs of Fortune 500 companies battle with everyday: how do you get your employees to care as much as you?

Here are four culture changing ways to crack the problem:

1. Make Every Job The Most Important Job At Your Company

Nancy was friendly, talkative, knowledgeable, hard working, and engaging — a delightful person. She personally met every job candidate and customer that visited her office. She considered herself the face of her company. When I asked her what she was paid to do, she responded, “to ensure that everyone I speak to and meet with wants to work for or do business with my company.” Nancy was a receptionist.

Nancy’s story is not new, but sadly unique. Many have heard of the NASA janitor that told President Jack Kennedy that his job was to help put a man on the moon. One less common example is the famous Russian directorConstantin Stanislavski, who once said, “Theater begins at the cloakroom.” By this, Stanislavski meant that his audiences must experience the magic of his productions the moment they stepped into the theatre – from the ticket taker to the ushers who showed them their seats. In so doing, Stanislavski engaged everyone working in his theatres. Whether you were working the front door, theatre bar, or starring in the production on stage, everyone was a part owner in the final product. All great leaders help every employee see the importance of their role in the larger mission of their organization.

Unfortunately, a lot of businesses miss this point. In some cases, a sales person may feel like the starring act while everyone else plays second fiddle. While I appreciate the impact a high energy, lavish sales meeting in an exotic destination may have on a sales person’s engagement, companies that don’t put a similar effort into engaging those that develop and make the products, support the sales force and keep the business running behind the scenes are making a big mistake. By equally engaging these employees, managers and leaders stimulate improved innovation and cost reduction, enhanced sales force support, and employee ownership across all areas of the business.

2. Build In Daily Reminders Of Your Mission

I recently visited the maternity ward of Scottsdale Healthcare near our home in Arizona. While I was there, I encountered an amazing — but incredibly simple — way of reminding employees of a mission.

After 10 minutes of touring the ward with my expectant wife, the sound of a lullaby filled the hallways from ceiling speakers. The hospital volunteer that was touring us stopped and smiled, as did several other employees in the hallway.

In a soft voice, the volunteer said, “Do you hear that? That is the sound of another one of our babies being born. Every time a child is born here, that lullaby plays throughout the ward to announce the new arrival. Everyone always stops and smiles when this happens.”

You’d think it might be hard for nurses – constantly surrounded by newborn babies and moms – to forget their mission, but in the day-to-day grind of every job at every company, employees can lose focus on why they are there. While playing a lullaby in the halls is clearly not an appropriate solution for most businesses, there are other simple ways of accomplishing the same objective. The software company where I work notifies the whole organization whenever a new customer deal is closed; a business I worked with in South Africa would ring a bell; the Safeway supermarket where I shop is “committed to improving the quality of life in the communities we [they] serve” and announces donations that employees collect for a chosen cause throughout the store, and, since 1955, McDonald’s has proudly displayed on its restaurant signs the number of hamburgers they have served. 

3. Flatten The Playing Field

W.L. Gore & Associates – famous as the makers of Gore-Tex – is an example of a company that has made a serious commitment to a flat organization. At Gore’s Newark, Delaware corporate headquarters there are associates, but no employees; there are sponsors, but no bosses. Without any traditional organizational charts, associates are hired for specific work areas. Various leaders may emerge, but this position is based on what Gore calls “followership” – not just a title handed out. The lack of hierarchy and “bosses” fosters autonomy and a sense of ownership for all employees.

Gore’s employees choose to perform at a high level not because someone is telling them to, but because they feel an ownership obligation to help their organization deliver on its mission along with their fellow employees. The autonomy, entrepreneurial culture and flat playing field make thinking like an owner the only path for employee success. And it works: Gore has been listed on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for in America for 16 consecutive years.

4. Make It Okay To Fail

Since high school I have been a bit of serial entrepreneur – starting and owning businesses ranging from local advertising to ear piercing product distribution to live theatre production. Despite the variety of my business endeavors, the one constant I found to business ownership is the need to experiment, fail, learn from mistakes, and try again. It is part of the journey to business success.

Working in a culture where employees are afraid to make mistakes is stressful, limits the possibilities of discovering new and better ways of doing things, and reinforces the “just a job” mentality rather then ownership. True employee “ownership” comes from a sense of empowerment to experiment and fail. This applies to not-for-profits to Fortune 500 companies, from CEOs to receptionists. Luckily, unless you are working in a job where errors can cost a life or serious injury, there should be no harm in making them – as long as you learn from them after.

The award-winning global design firm IDEO illustrates how empowering employees to act as owners in the pursuit of innovation can pay big dividends. The organization’s slogan is “Fail often to succeed sooner” – supporting their company-wide focus on “failing forward.” Their human-centered philosophy has lead to innovations ranging from the first computer mouse for Apple AAPL +0.24% to the robotic whale in the movie Free Willy and hundreds of name brand products most of us use everyday, including the first stand-up toothpaste tube.  In addition to yielding a strong sense of ownership, IDEO’s culture has led to high employee engagement, very low turnover, and huge success for the company.

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