Your best employees don’t operate like employees
5 min read

Your best employees don’t operate like employees

Your best employees don’t operate as employees; they operate as business owners. They hold a strong belief that they are part of something greater than themselves. This operational mindset does not depend on domain expertise or years of experience; rather, it’s a mindset that puts the business first, the department second, the team third, and the person last.

The success of your business depends on them. Learn how to identify them, hire them, retain them or transform a good employee into an A+ business owner.

Anatomy of your best employees

  • These employees show an “us all,” not a “me vs. them” attitude.
  • They pay attention to what’s happening outside of their direct realm of responsibility.
  • When asked, they eagerly jump in to be where they can drive the biggest impact for the whole.
  • Even when a new place is not the perfect fit for their skills or desires, they approach it with a need to perform to the best of their ability.
  • They are feedback sponges: they proactively seek and integrate feedback.
  • They have a high tolerance for rocky territory, challenges, and organizational inefficiencies.
  • They understand that discomfort is part of excellence, and they have the strength to thrive under it.
  • They have the courage to push back on things, but they always connect their pushback to the business trajectory and not to their personal agendas.
  • The expectations they place on themselves are higher than anyone else’s expectations.
  • They operate with a high standard of humility.
  • They are allergic to excuses, and when they make mistakes, they admit to them and have a bias towards learning from them.

So far, this mindset sure sounds obvious, right? Well, it’s not that obvious when you add egos, personal preferences, career wishes, and past traumas into the mix. For example, there is a huge difference between “jumping in to help” and “offering to help.” The former person helps even if nobody notices, while the latter cares more about visibility than outcomes.

When you identify someone consistently showing strong ownership towards a business before themselves, do everything in your realm of possibility to keep them. These are the folks who skyrocket the trajectory of your business or keep the boat afloat when you’re going through rough times.

How do you hire them?

The top percentile of operational excellence is hard to identify in an interview, but you can definitely identify people who do not have it. They will have low enthusiasm, no passion for the mission, or are looking for a cozy job. There are also people who may say the right things, and perhaps can even point to examples where they demonstrated those qualities in their past companies, but, still, you aren’t sure whether it is true, and, if it is, whether they can replicate that approach in your business or to your levels of standard.

Referrals from trusted people are your best bet. You need to be calibrated on what a high standard for ownership means for the referrer since radical ownership can mean two very different things in two different places.

Now, let’s say that you have the right candidate in front of you. How do you, as an employer, close this candidate? Top 3 things:

  1. A culture that rewards a radical ownership mentality.
  2. A mission that the candidate is passionate about. You need to have a compelling vision of the future and be able to sell it.
  3. Inspiring financial incentives.

The financial piece is where many employers fail. It’s unfair to expect that an employee will behave like an owner when they have no ownership over the company. If you find that rare specimen, then sure, hire them, but still, know that it’s not a fair arrangement, and it probably won’t last.

Compensate them fairly and with a mechanism by which if they grow the pie, they get a larger piece of it. Equity is the name of the game, and the package must be good enough. “Good enough” is a very subjective measure, so look at relative “good enoughs.” What is the differential between the candidate’s and the CEO’s equity, what’s the differential with the market, and what’s the differential with the candidate’s own perception of self-worth?

How do you retain them?

Basically, don’t mess it up. Don’t be an obstacle. Employees with this operational mindset need ample trust and space. Within that space, they need a very exciting story, some guidance, some context, and almost no control. Many managers lose these employees because they exercise too much control, scant guidance and fail to put together an exciting narrative. Do not be that manager (I have been there).

Also, always be on top of their expectations; these are typically very high. If your guidance only pushes towards average “meets expectations,” you are doing these people a disservice. First, because you’re leaving business wins in the table from the non-exercised highest outcomes these employees can bring. Second, because compensation is going to lag, given that they are not hitting the highest bar. And for this group, compensation must never lag. If you aren’t ahead of the game, then you are late. Reward their way of operating with enough equity, and soon enough, they won’t think about opening any of the recruitment emails in their inbox.

How do you train for this?

Can you transform an averagely good employee, or even a strong individual contributor, into a business owner? The answer is yes, although it’s a tough challenge for both the manager and the employee; for employees, because it’s a way of operating that needs more skin in the game, and that’s a price few are willing to pay with their current view of the world; for managers, because the obstacle here is not tactical but strategic and inspirational, requiring convincing someone of their potential and influencing them to see the world in a fundamentally different light.

For employees

Every employee can operate under this mindset. It’s much more a problem of want than of can. Employees may not know they can change in this way, and that’s one of the main responsibilities of a manager: to unlock the vision that they can operate as owners. Regarding the want, not every employee will want to operate in this way, and that’s probably OK in most organizations; it’s just a philosophical question that every organization must answer depending on how fast they want to grow. In many cases, though, it will be more about avoiding business failure than growing fast, and, in those cases, you want to have fewer people who won’t want to operate as owners.

For managers

A manager who is not an archetype of this operational mindset will make it 100x harder for anyone under their umbrella to want to operate as one. If an employee grows into that mindset under a bad manager, you will see the rise of the strongest type of leader, one that grows from within and despite their circumstances.

Now, say you as a manager are a good archetype as in business first, department second, team third, themselves last. How can you grow your team into a group of business owners? You can’t coach someone into this mindset; you must inspire them into it. You need to create a narrative that will click very strongly with the individual. And guess what? The same narrative won’t make every individual click. You need to have an intimate understanding of people’s histories, emotions, desires, doubts, wishes, and traumas. You need to not just know but feel how they feel to chart the narrative that will touch the right nerve at the right time for them. Then you must deliver that narrative in a way that lights them up. The only way you can light other people up is to be lit yourself first; you can’t fake it.

All the above represents the difference between a great manager and an outstanding leader, i.e., the empathy of a coach, the vision of an entrepreneur, the genuine energy of a child, the storytelling of an actor, and the discipline of an athlete to be able to transform employees into owners.