Think like an owner? Yes…and no.

by | Jun 6, 2024 | Articles

5-6 min read

Did that catch your attention?

Why would I assert that a “no” could be a legitimate answer to that question?

Of course we should think like an owner.

To which I reply again and emphatically: yes and no. It depends on what we mean by thinking like an owner, and especially what we are contrasting that ownership mindset with.

Two quick anecdotes and then an explanation

Two recent experiences that you can certainly relate to, and then I’ll explain how one relates to my “yes” answer (yes, definitely do think and act and plan and problem solve like an owner) and how the other relates to my “no.”

Anecdote 1: my wife and I were driving to church this week through an attractive section of town full of older, stately homes – a neighborhood which also has an abundance of old, mature trees and other well-developed landscaping (a big deal in this part of the world where our annual rainfall runs on the low end of the scale). And then, in a matter of a block or two, the neighborhood changed: extensive indications of neglect, both in the dwellings and in the overgrown and weed-choked yards. Not all the addresses. But quite a few. And in stark contrast to the lovingly-maintained homes just a few blocks south.

I’m not certain why each neglected home showed signs of neglect. But I do know (and you might be guessing the same) that this part of the neighborhood has a higher concentration of rental properties than the section adjacent. I’m surmising that, of the neglected properties, a higher percentage were rented than owned. Can’t know for certain, but well-known human behaviors (including my own) make me confident I’m probably not far astray.

Anecdote 2: a few Saturdays ago, I was at a wedding and something stood out to me: the solemn, attentive care the young ringbearer gave to what had been entrusted to him for the special ceremony.

And now the explanation for my “yes” and “no.”

Think like an owner, not a renter

I’ve served in two CFO roles at two companies, and both had ESOPs (employee stock ownership plans). One of the very powerful effects of that employee retirement benefit is that it encourages employees to think like owners – because they are. And if they realize they are, that enhances their understanding of the connection between their actions as employees and the benefits to the company in value creation for the shareholders, including themselves.

One CEO would explain this dynamic in meetings with employees by asking whether anyone ever bothered to take a rental car through a car wash. Occasionally you’d hear from one oddball who would say, “Yeah, I do.” But the general answer was, “Of course not.” Why? Because I don’t own the car (or the house and lawn) and I don’t want to spend time and energy and finances taking extra good care of (much less improving) something that doesn’t belong to me. I’m not the owner, so I don’t benefit from the above-and-beyond actions the owner routinely undertakes that the renter seldom pays attention to. And this CEO was encouraging the employees (who were also owners)1 to think like owners, to do their work like owners. Not like renters.

She owns it!

Another CEO I worked with used this phrase as high praise for someone who made a strong contribution in their role: “She owns it!” She (or he) accepts and acts on the high bar of performance expected for her role – owning her role and her actions and contribution with passion, with a personal commitment to results, with urgency, with swift action to deal with obstacles, with intense collaboration and purposeful communication.

A couple of specific folks who lived this regularly come to mind. We’ll call them Becca, Brooke, Kelsea and Lisa.2

  • Becca owned her responsibility to deliver high-quality slides of our financial results for the Board meetings each month; and she owned her temporary special assignment role as our Finance department’s liaison with the bank’s cross-functional acquisition planning and execution team.
  • Brooke owned her responsibility for driving and overseeing the selection and implementation of a complex, high-cost budgeting system; and she owned her responsibility for leading the implementation of some of the most complex GAAP the banking industry has seen in decades.
  • Kelsea owned a massive and complex project cleaning up transactions gone awry from a system conversion; and she inherited then learned and then owned oversight of accounting month-end close processes, and then drove a cycle of ongoing refinements for improvements in effectiveness and efficiency.
  • Lisa owned her oversight and high-touch customer service responsibilities related to stock offerings and stockholder relationships; and she owned the recurring all-Finance-hands-on-deck detailed, intense and complex processes to get our financials done and reviewed and issued each quarter.

These ladies owned these responsibilities, delivering consistent high-quality results that a renter mindset wouldn’t begin to touch.

So, yes, absolutely: think like an owner. Especially in contrast to a renter.

But is an even higher standard possible?

Now for the “no” answer. Don’t think like an owner…when you can hold yourself to an even higher standard.

Back to my second anecdote: the cute young person serving as ringbearer at the wedding.

It’s possible we treat this role as (a) an opportunity to plug a young male in as counterbalance to the flower girl; (b) no big deal – he just stands there stiffly or fidgeting till the pastor asks for the rings.

And it is that and not anything of much greater significance. Unless he loses the rings.

That’s when we realize he wasn’t just ornamental or balancing the wedding attendant male/female count. His role was actually important: he had been entrusted with something special, priceless even, and his careful handling of that precious cargo was important and not for his own personal benefit. He was a steward.

It’s all cute and symbolic and great for photo opps…until the ring goes missing.3

Not that he’s the only one who values the rings entrusted to him. So do the bride and groom, the married-couple-soon-to-be. But, think about what ownership of a ring looks like through the years and decades of marriage following the special, blissful ceremony: some rings go down the kitchen drains and get mangled by the garbage disposal; others get lost or misplaced; one bride I know regularly gets hers dirty in the flowerbeds; some rings get their tines bent and the jewels fall off.

This doesn’t indicate that the owners of the rings cease to value them. Rather, because they own them, they are regularly more casual with them and often don’t even think about them at all.

Yes, they’ll take better care of them than they would the rental car. But the focused, solemn, attentive care of the steward standing there on the stage alongside the best man and groomsman is in a class of its own.

Precisely because I don’t own it and it’s been entrusted to me by another, my care for it must be of a higher order than even that of the owner’s. I do not have the luxury (and permission) to be casual with it, like an owner might be.

The steward has a high calling, because the stewardship is for the benefit of another.

Something to think about

So yes, think like an owner instead of like a renter. And yes, even better, think like a steward in your work, in every aspect of your life. Things of immense value have been entrusted to you. Own that stewardship role – as long as you remember that even that is something entrusted to you.

Eric R. Alexander

June 2024


No A.I was employed (or harmed) in the creation of this content.

© 2024, Six Arrows Consulting. All rights reserved.

1 Assuming they got their paperwork in on time during the ESOP’s open enrollment

2 We’ll call them that (and in alphabetical order) because those are their names. Other examples come to mind, but I’m stopping with just these few to keep this article to a manageable length.

3 No, not that ring, my precious.