Think about people in your team, people you’ve worked with who have a sense of ownership in the work they do. From my experience, they’re often driven by a set of core values. They’re committed to completing tasks when they say they would, even without the external pressures of a deadline. They take responsibility and face the consequences when things don’t go as planned. They may not even be conscious of it – they do it because it’s who they are and it’s the right thing to do.
As such, before getting into the specifics of how you can encourage people to take ownership, it’s important to build a foundation of shared values that drives them to do so. But simply being aware of these values isn’t enough. They need to embody these values, and one of the best ways to do that is by seeing how someone else does it. That’s where you – their leader – come in. It may seem contradictory, but the best way to lead here would be to show them what a great follower you are. Specifically, how well you follow these values.
It’s likely you’ve seen and experienced this in other settings – whether it’s a teacher or family member you wanted to emulate as a child. Or a coach in a sports team. You might start your journey listening and mirroring their behaviour and lessons, but in time you internalise them. They become part of your instincts and how you use your abilities. So don’t shy away from taking time to build foundations. Establish shared values that your team, your company should follow. Let these values ground decisions to take ownership in everything they do.
Everyone on the team should be aware of the shared values as guiding principles and have regular dialogue on what this looks like in practice. Whether it’s over virtual chats or in person, let your team know that they can reach out to you. Encourage them to check in with each other. This ongoing dialogue builds a habit of reviewing whether or not everyone is on the same page as things inevitably change.
It also helps to ensure specific projects start on the right note. One of the things that can help your team to build ownership is getting clear on the project’s shared objectives. As a leader, you need to be absolutely transparent about your expectations and how the process of meeting these objectives will be assessed. If, like me, you intend to review the project on an ongoing basis, to see how things can be improved at every stage – whether it’s before, during or after the project itself – let your team know up front. Otherwise, your input could be misinterpreted as micromanagement, even if your intention was to support them, which sets back any efforts to build a sense of ownership.
Lastly, the project’s success should be shared by all, even if you’re the ‘face’ of the project. After all, achieving the project’s objectives was a result of the team stretching their capabilities and time. They should be given credit for their contributions.
After the shared values have been defined, your role as a leader would be to embody them. To show your colleagues how these values anchor the decisions you make, how you communicate, how they drive you to respect and support others. This, in turn, paves the way for your colleagues to take ownership.
Following these values won’t always be easy. You’ll need courage of conviction in whatever you do and content of character which should ideally tie in with institutional values like honest and integrity. To show your colleagues, and yourself, that it isn’t just lip service, you’ll need to be disciplined about practising it. In turn, this creates a culture where your colleagues, like you, commit to behaviours where these values shine.
For example, integrity is something our companies and I stand by. And this shows at all levels, across industries. On occasion, I get requests to donate products like bicycles and spices out of goodwill to fun fairs or temples. When I ask my assistant to ensure that these donations are made, she doesn’t simply agree and make sure it gets done. Her response, before anything else, is always to question who should be billed for these donations – whether it’s something I’m committing to in a personal capacity or if the company should be charged. And, if it’s the latter, what are the grounds for doing so?
It would be easy for me to say, “Just send it to them. I’ll take care of the rest.” It would be easy for her to accept this. But, because we’ve established the bedrock of shared values our work should be anchored in, she is able to say, “Nothing is going to happen if you don’t give me the details I need.” She is confident that she has the right to question her superior, in this instance, because she sees me demonstrating integrity in other aspects of work, because these values matter to her too.
Your colleagues aren’t going to manifest these values overnight. It takes time. In addition to seeing you demonstrate these values, your colleagues also need to trust you if they’re going to emulate what you practise. One thing that helps, I’ve found, is showing them that you care about things that are important to them. That your values align with theirs.
In India, Diwali is a big day, a fresh start to the fiscal year for businesses small and large. When I visit smaller shops, I offer prayers and puja. If the patriarch is there, I would bow down and seek his blessings, and sometimes touch his feet in reverence. I don’t have to do it, but I do so because it’s important to him. This recognition of what is important to him, to others, is what makes an impact. It’s why he’ll remember the young man who came and took guidance, and blessings.
This extends to values in different cultures as well. When we acquired a company in Russia more than a decade ago, there was a lot of feedback on how challenging it would be to work with the people, the local government etc. Keeping this in mind, we returned to our bedrock of shared values where we wanted to build a culture of trust and demonstrate integrity.
The company we acquired was built in Soviet times and was eventually privatised. It came along with a health centre of sorts, that offered its 1,600 employees respite during summer where temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius and in winter when temperatures drop below 30 degrees Celsius. They could choose different ways to rejuvenate, whether it was through exercise, diet, salt and ice baths, using the gymnasium and more.
When I consulted with the company’s CEO, who continues to lead the company today, he candidly shared that the facility was for his colleagues’ welfare. It made no immediate impact on the business. There and then, it would have been easy to write off the additional funds that were needed to maintain the facility as an unnecessary expense. But supporting communities and people was a value that the company and I championed, and why we made the decision to invest in the health centre. In time, with profits, we were even able to renovate and expand it. We supported our colleagues and the local community, and permitted schools to use the empty playing fields during the summer.
By walking the talk, and making the commitment to show our employees and the community that we truly valued what was important to them, we were able to build trust in time. And continue to do so, 14 years on.
Does it always work? The hard truth is that it doesn’t. You may hire people who make it their life’s mission not align themselves with these values. Be mindful of this, learn, and adopt hiring processes that prioritize hiring people with the right attitudes instead. It’s much harder to change this, so focus your resources on training up skills instead.
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M M Murugappan
Former Chairman & Director