Kill the Employee. Long Live the Owner!

Recently, as I boarded a plane back to Phoenix, I couldn’t help but listen in on a phone conversation happening behind me.

It went down like this: On my end, I could hear a person doling out what sounded like some much-needed advice.

On the other end was what could only be an employee having a problem with their boss.

The questions were ones we’ve all asked: What should I tell my boss? How much risk would it be to my job? Should I be pushing for more?

It’s a familiar conversation to anyone who works for a living. But what struck me was the words used to discuss this particular workplace problem:

“They.”

“Them.”

“It.”

These intentionally general words are all used to describe a nameless, faceless embodiment of oppression: The employer.

As the conversation played out, I could only think about one thing – what were they, the party on the other end, doing to take ownership of the situation? Anything?

It’s so easy to scapegoat all the ills of employment on a faceless conglomerate.

They? Or you?

In my experience – especially in startups and the hyper-growth arena – if you’re not seeing success, you only have yourself to blame.

There are a dizzying number of articles written from the vantage point of the employee. I won’t waste your time reciting the same clichés. Instead, I want to write one from a view that isn’t often sympathized with or addressed – that of the employer.

This view isn’t very popular, and for a pretty valid reason: admitting that the employer isn’t always evil is to admit that employees bear a huge and direct influence over their own career destiny.

It’s fact – a large number of people hate their jobs, presenting a pretty conflicted dichotomy. Therefore, the employer is evil and must be punished.

A much better question to ask is: why do some people love their jobs?

I’ve worked for myself longer than I’ve worked for an employer, over a decade – and I’m thirty-six.

However, my time as an employee haunts me daily. Some of the bosses I had, the conversations I had, sounded so familiar and echoed back to me in the language of the exchange I overheard on that plane.

It got me thinking, why is it that most employees feel under appreciated? I know I sure did. Now, I think back through my years spent as an employee and do something I never did at the time: place myself in the position of my bosses.

Instead, I simply reacted. I complained. I felt powerless. And the next day I showed up again, like a son striving for the attention of an absent father. If there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that I want to be the best. All reason aside, I want to excel.

Becoming an owner

My first job paid me a starting salary of $23,000 per year. My next, $40,000. With the hours I worked, it averaged to just above $10 per hour. I could’ve made a better living making fries at a fast food restaurant. My VP expected me to be on call. This was ten years ago, and what seems like millions of miles away from where we are today in terms of connectivity.

There was no instant access to email in my pocket. In fact, there wasn’t even a way to connect to my inbox, aside from a lengthy VPN authentication process that worked maybe one in five times. Even still, I was on call. I worked on projects that eventually were scrapped without regard. And I knew absolutely nothing about where we were headed.

Then, one day I came in and something had happened: My direct boss was fired and the department was mine – but in task only, of course. It would be another two years before I actually ran a department in title, but still it was my neck to choke.

It’s a bit hard for me to explain still, but at that point in my career something just “clicked” and I began to feel a sense of ownership. To be clear, I didn’t actually own anything – no title, no peer respect, no clear path to recognition – yet, in my mind it was as if I “owned” everything I touched.

In meetings, I was more engaged than ever. Overall marketing KPIs became my own personal KPIs. Deadlines – I set them and met them. I planned and executed my first-ever user event, with over 1,500 users, almost single-handedly.

These aren’t big accomplishments in the grand scheme of life, but they were a massive leap in mindset from where I had been. And that’s the point here. There has to be a catalyst for change, and that change can only come from within.

I still think a lot about that point in my life. As a result, I find myself considering how to enable situations of empowerment that drive people who are owners. It has also made me realize that it’s imperative for both the employer and the employee to participate. Without this synergy (to borrow a buzzword), there’s no possibility of achieving what either party wants. The employer must create situations where the employee can take ownership and, in response, the employee has to step up.

Ownership. Not even stock, equity or partnership, but ownership of every task. Knowing the why and, if you don’t, finding it out. Truth is, if you aren’t feeling any sense of ownership, if you aren’t feeling engaged – you play just as large a role in veering back on the path to happiness as your employer does. Perhaps larger too, if no one is aware of how you feel.

Stay tuned

Over the course of this month, we’re going to detail the key steps to ditching the employee mentality and becoming an owner.

These wont just be my spouting rants, either. Disappointing, I know. I’ll be sitting with each of our directors to discuss their keys to “owning” your role, and share insights from those conversations. You won’t want to miss it.

Maybe I’ll finally be able to put my finger on what spurs that one key happening, that one-degree difference, what Peter Thiel calls “zero-to-one.”

I won’t be easy. But if I do, I’ll be sure to to share it, if only to save you from reading any more articles on employee success.

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