Nonprofit Business Advisor, Strategies to Survive and Grow in Tough Times

Creating the Owners Mindset

By Jennifer Prosek Winter 2012

What would happen to your company (or your division or your work team) if you were suddenly unable to work? What would happen to everything you’ve built? Everything you’ve planned? Everything you’ve worked for?

If you feel your heart drop down to your shoes at the very idea, you’re not alone. Most leaders feel that success, even survival, rests squarely on their shoulders. It’s very common to feel as though responsibility for the company or department or project is primarily yours. And you may well wonder why the rest of your employees—all bright, talented, hard-working individuals that you personally hired—don’t take on some of this work and responsibility. Why don’t they step up?

The truth is, the answers to “Why don’t employees step up?” are not all that complicated or unfathomable. They do not require a PhD in psychology or an expensive review by a management consultant. In fact, there are simple answers and simple fixes—provided you as a leader have a willingness to do things differently.

I faced this experience myself nearly four years ago when I was preparing to go on maternity leave. I planned to step down from my role as the company’s primary rainmaker for the duration of my leave. My ability to be fully “on” for my company 24/7 was about to change. What would happen to all I had built? Would my people step up to take on my many and varied roles as owner?

My moment of truth led me to a series of realizations and strategies that I will now share with you. Getting employees to be more proactive—to adopt the owner’s mindset—is an attainable goal for all involved.

So, why don’t employees step up? Here are five key reasons.

1. You haven’t asked.

You can’t expect behavior you haven’t asked for. Perhaps you think employees should be able to look around, see what needs doing, and proactively step into those tasks. Some people will. But many will not—and it’s not because they can’t or won’t. It’s simply because you, as their leader, have not made clear to them that this is what you want and expect on a regular basis.

The world of work has become a tenuous place for many. There is no guarantee for anyone at any level that they’ll be able to keep a job or rise through the ranks. In fact, as the economy has shuddered, many have responded by being more careful and more tentative in their work. These employees believe it’s best to keep a low profile and not attract the kind of attention that might put them next on the layoff list! This is exactly the opposite behavior from what we as leaders need from our staff.

But if we want our people to push against their fear, and to step up for us and for the company, we need to say so—explicitly. I routinely communicate this expectation to my staff in a variety of ways. It is a constant theme in my weekly internal blog postings. I often discuss it at meetings so that everyone knows I am looking to them to be proactive and not wait for orders. I make this expectation a regular part of all my communication. Sometimes, I feel like a broken record. But I know that I can’t get what I want if I don’t ask for it. So I ask—all the time.

2. You don’t train for proactive behavior.

Far too often, corporate training focuses on skills rather than on attitudes. It’s assumed that when you round up employees for a training session, you’re going to teach them something concrete and definable—how to use the latest software, how to give a great presentation, what the latest changes in regulation mean to the firm. That kind of concrete training is valuable. But training should not stop there. If you want your employees to be more proactive, consider making that skill a part of your training regime. What does proactivity look like? What are the steps to achieving it? Break this process down and teach it as you would PowerPoint or Java.

Global IT firm Nucsoft addresses this by breaking training down into a variety of specific categories. While traditional categories such as technical, functional, and managerial training are still a big part of the company’s corporate education process, Nucsoft also includes what it calls “behavioral training,” focusing on communications, group dynamics skills, and learning to be proactive.

We’ve addressed this in my own firm as well. In a recent training session, I worked with staff to come up with the specific steps for discussing potential business opportunities with friends and family. It drove me crazy when I would hear that an employee had a great potential connection via a family member or a personal acquaintance, but failed to follow up.

I found that employees failed to follow up on these leads because they felt they “didn’t know how to make the connection” without seeming too pushy or aggressive. So in our training session, we discuss tactics. How might you approach someone on Facebook? What about if you met them at a barbeque? Or at a networking event? By going through these scenarios and discussing potential actions and responses, I helped give my staff the tools to execute the kind of behaviors I wanted. If my goal is to see them be proactive, it is also my responsibility to be sure I’ve taught them how.

3. You don’t recruit for proactive skills.

It’s hard to hire the right people. One of the mistakes many leaders make is to hire on job titles. It’s easy to look at a résumé and see great titles and great company names and think, “Oh, this is the person for me. This one will be great!” But if you’re not looking at that résumé for signs of proactive behaviors, chances are good you will get an employee who has few skills in that area.

So, how do you find signs of proactive behavior on a résumé? I like to look at a résumé from the bottom—starting with the very first job. What did this person do to get started? Is it a “dirty” job? One that required hard work and perseverance? It’s one thing to start out your career as an intern in an investment bank. It’s another to mow golf course lawns. Or start your own in-home ironing service. Or work on commission for a telemarketer. Look for evidence on the résumé that this individual knows how to knuckle down and make a tough situation profitable.

Another place to look for proactive behavior is in the references. Don’t treat reference checks as an afterthought. And don’t assume you won’t get the “straight story” from a reference. If you ask the right questions, you learn what you need. One of my favorite questions to ask is this: “When a great person leaves a company, it leaves a hole to fill. What hole will this person leave in your company?” A bland or hesitant answer may indicate to you that this individual is not dynamic and is not making an impact now. That’s an indication the individual lacks experience being proactive.

4. The staff doesn’t understand the value of proactive behavior.

A big gap of understanding exists in many companies, and it is the result of old-fashioned secretive management tactics. Many workers go about their everyday jobs without any real idea of how what they do impacts the financial health of the company. This is a classic manifestation of the old “it’s not my department” mentality.

Old-line companies teach employees to put their heads down and do their jobs and not ask a lot of questions about the financial health of the firm. As a result, staffers plod along with no clue about what they could possibly do to give the company a boost. Leaders have to learn to share the facts of life. They have to be willing to drop the old secrecy and let everyone know what is going on with the balance sheet.

In my firm, all financials except for individual salary figures are public information. I want my staff to know the impact of getting (or losing!) a client. I want them to see for themselves why I’m constantly telling them to work their personal networks for new business. I want them to know how the company financials work and how they can have impact on those numbers. If you keep all that data to yourself—or within a small circle of executives—how will the staffers know what moves they decide to make will have impact, good or bad?

Leaders are often very wary of this kind of financial openness, fearing that they will be criticized or challenged if information about the company’s financial status were to be public knowledge. But many firms that practice this kind of open-book management have had the opposite experience. These companies report that when the truth about the company financials is made available, workers begin to tailor their behavior to boost the firm.

Suddenly, everyone stops leaving the lights on, or hitting “print” for every e-mail. More attention is paid to vetting vendors. More effort is made to bring in business. Teams look for ways to work more efficiently. When Ellen Rohr realized she needed to raise her prices at her plumbing business in Park City, Utah, she quickly saw the value of open-book management. When her employees saw the value and logic behind the higher prices, they were able to communicate the change to customers more effectively.

When you do your work in a bubble, you have no way of knowing how to change to be of more benefit to the firm. When you know what the company needs from you, you can feel confident stepping up.

5. They’re not owners.

What do we really mean when we say, “step up”? What do we really want? I suggest that what we want when we make that demand is that we want our staffers to care about the company as much as we do. Once, when I was a newly minted college grad working at my first PR job, I was appalled to see that the bathroom in our small office was often messy and dirty. This was the bathroom clients might use. I came in one Saturday, donned a pair of heavy yellow gloves, and proceeded to scrub that bathroom until it sparkled.

My boss in this tiny firm came in to find me doing this work and was amazed. “You act like you own the place!” he marveled. He was delighted to see me displaying this “owner’s mindset,” and this is what we really all want from the staff and employees we supervise. We want them to feel like—and act like—owners.

Commission for Life

What can we do to promote that way of thinking? Now that I have moved up the food chain from new employee and bathroom attendant to founder and CEO, I’ve come up with a process to foster that owner’s mentality. I call it Commission for Life.

It’s very simple. Any employee who sets up a successful new business meeting—that’s it, just sets up the meeting—gets 5 percent of the revenue from that account for the life of the business as long as they remain with the firm. This commission system is the cornerstone of our entrepreneurial culture. It is the basis for our success as an entrepreneurial company.

Why it works:

Its democratic. Anyone in the company can participate. In fact, I want everybody in the company to participate. This sets Commission for Life apart from other reward plans such as those that only reward executives or only benefit outside sales reps.

Its easy to understand. Transparency is a key element to any successful company and for us, it starts with this compensation strategy. There are no hidden gotchas, no hoops to jump through, no exceptions to the payout. Set up the new business meeting and you’re up for the 5 percent.

Its inspirational. Believe me, when the summer intern scored the biggest new business account of the quarter and had a commission check to prove it, word got around. Everyone started to flip through their Rolodexes and scroll through their Facebook pages trying to think of who they could target for a new business meeting. And that’s just the kind of response I like to see: employees, motivated, out beating the bushes for new business. Not because I ordered them to do it but because I motivated them to do it—for all of us.

In behavioral economics, this kind of compensation system is called a nudge. It’s a bit of engineering that’s designed to attract people’s attention and alter their behavior, all without adding additional rules or regulations. The Commission for Life doesn’t require anyone to participate. But it sets up a system by which my staffers can act in their own best interests and for their own benefit in ways that ultimately benefit the company. And they do, happily. It’s wrong to assume employees have to be managed and coerced into doing what’s best for the firm. When you align what’s best for the company with something that’s good for the employee, you don’t have to give any more orders.

Commission for Life has brought in more than just a higher rate of new business. It has a considerable positive ripple effect throughout the firm. Commission for Life also creates a positive atmosphere that clients notice. I remember one client—a major financial services firm—e-mailed me to praise one of my associates. The associate, the client said, operated with “a real sense of ownership.” I had to smile when I read that. Of course the associate operated with a sense of ownership. He literally had ownership—5 percent to be exact—of that business. And his work ethic showed it.

But perhaps the biggest impact of Commission for Life is on the way staffers think about themselves and their work. By creating a way to give staffers a financial interest in the company, we make them think like owners. In a significant way, they are. When you have that owner’s mindset, it is inspirational. You feel motivated to try harder. You are connected to everything that happens in the firm and your share of responsibility for it. You feel an overwhelming urge to step up.


Jennifer Prosek is the CEO of CJP Communications and the author of “Army of Entrepreneurs: Create an Engaged and Empowered Workforce for Exceptional Business Growth.” You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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