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Getting Employees to Think like Business Owners

One of the best pieces of advice my first mentor gave me was to think “like a business owner” whenever I run into workplace roadblocks. After using it to navigate challenging situations over the past 20 years in management consulting and technology, I’ve given that same piece of advice to every member of my team. When they follow it, the results are transformative.

So what does it mean to “think like an owner”?

Think Big Picture

Owners need to ensure that today’s solutions aren’t going to create new problems tomorrow. While performing a specific task for a customer might make them happy in the short-term, if you don’t address the root cause, it could recur, reduce your company’s profitability, and create unsustainable expectations of what you should do.

To be clear, it’s almost always a good thing to solve customer problems. Equally, it’s important to take into account how it could impact other aspects of the business. By thinking big picture, a better solution might be to give the customer the tools they need to solve the problem on their own in case it reemerges.

Know When Something is Good Enough

Thinking like an owner sometimes means sacrificing an ideal outcome for one that is “good enough” right here, right now. I say this because seeking perfection can result in stretched deadlines, increased costs, and other negative outcomes.

Having grown up working on my Dad’s farm in South Dakota in the summers, I came by this mentality naturally. I learned early on that duct tape and baling wire could fix a fence well enough to let you move cows between pastures, while leaving you enough time to also fix a broken pump, change irrigation systems, and move water tanks.

Quite simply, doing more than what the situation required would have prevented me from working on something else that was equally important.

Inaction is a Choice, so Choose Wisely

Even though knocking items off of a “to do” list can give you a great sense of accomplishment, thinking like an owner means choosing what isn’t going to happen on that list.

It might surprise you to know that I start each day reviewing a list that I know I won’t finish. Ultimately, I choose the three things I need to get done on any given day, and I do everything in my power to finish them. As the day goes by, I return to the list to see if there are other things I can complete, hand off, or delegate.

Since time is our most valuable and non-renewable resource, you should spend yours doing things that add value. Once you start thinking like an owner, it will get much easier to prioritize. In the meantime, here’s a simple rule of thumb that will help you to identify the items that need to move up on your list:

  1. Businesses that don’t make money don’t stay in business, so things that impact the bottom line should move to the top of the list.
  2. Bottlenecks create operational issues, so you should act quickly on the tasks that would otherwise prevent your team from moving forward.
  3. Unless they’re arbitrarily set, tasks with impending due dates should move up.

It gets Easier with Practice

Most people in entry- and mid-level positions get pretty good at knocking out the tasks they’re assigned without questioning the why. Thinking like an owner means consistently asking yourself that question. And this takes practice.

I recommend that you spend a couple of minutes thinking about the tasks you’re asked to perform at work. Why you are being asked to document your time if you aren’t billing by the hour? Why are customers being sent meeting notes?

Although it might seem simple on the surface, there’s often a good reason why you’re being asked to complete certain tasks. Once you get to the why, you’ll gain insights and a clearer window into the business that will enable you to excel in your role and add value to your organization. That said, if you can’t figure out the point of a task and you think there might be a better way to do things, my best advice is to talk to your boss. At a minimum, it will show you’re taking the initiative to think about the business like a business. (I almost never mind explaining the why and sometimes it even makes me question it myself.)

This leads me to my final point. Almost daily, I tell my team that the good ideas have to come from them because they are closest to the problem. As a boss, your job is to get your employees thinking about the business like a business. Truth be told, it’s everybody’s job to help the team succeed. I like to think of my job as a manager as being more of a coach than a player, and I succeed by helping my team achieve greatness – as individuals and as a collective. By taking the time to explain the why behind your business, you can help employees think like owners, improve operations, enhance the likelihood of sustainability, and come out on top.

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