Meeting with Executive Management anywhere is a bit of a dicey thing. One never knows what to expect: in some cases they are remarkably plugged in to what is going on, in some cases it is almost an ethereal exercise in possibilities and generalities.
My favorite question to ask in such situation is "If you could change one thing about where you work right now, what would it be?" The interesting thing to me is that they always have an answer. Sometimes they are quite specific and sometimes they are quite general but they always have one, suggesting that they have given the matter some thought.
I asked one such executive management this question recently. His response? "Ownership. People need to take ownership. If something is critical they need to run it down and finish it. People need to view things as if they owned them. When we were small and everyone felt they owned they company we accomplished great things. I need people that own things, not just that work from 9-5."
This response stuck in my head as I went through the rest of my day and even beyond. Ownership. What does it mean?
I understand the way that the executive manager used the term. He wanted ownership of the employees in the company's ongoing activities and goals, not just to view something as a task which they have been assigned to complete but their task to complete. The thinking is sound: once I own something, once I have taken responsibility for something, then I will see that thing done - in some cases, move heaven and earth to insure that it gets done.
But what if something is assigned to you, and you are not really empowered to do anything about it? Is that ownership? Or is that simply delegating a task which you have little interest in knowing how it is done or you cannot do?
In the same vein, ownership implies certain rights as well as responsibilities. If I own something, then I should receive the benefits of it as well. I own my cars - I have to care for them but I also receive the benefit of having them available when I need them or even want them. I have a certain control I exercise over them. If ownership of something deprives me of the rewards of that thing, then it is not really ownership so much as it is assignment.
Many companies - indeed, perhaps many organizations - seem to suffer for this. They proclaim and encourage their employees "owning" their projects and processes but do not give them the same level of enjoying the outcomes - a sort of employment serfdom in which I make you accountable for performance but I am not accountable to you for the direct outcomes of that performance. Or perhaps you indirectly accountable in the form of something which is put off to one time and considers "the whole" of my performance, which very often mysteriously seems to forget ownership of the things assigned but diffuses it into a melange of general overall conduct for the time period.
And in my life? Ah, here is where the true kernel is. Do I take ownership of the things in my life? Do I understand for everything I have or do what it is, what it is doing, what I need to do with it, and what the rewards are for doing it? Am I doing everything by rote because I have always done it? Am I working towards an end with no idea of what the reward is, doing something which I have no understanding as to why I am doing it - which is no better than "owning" the things that sit in my garage, never to be used.
I have often felt that ownership in places of work were ways of distributing the responsibility without reward. What I have come to understand is that I am no better about it in my own life.