Earlier in my career, I joined a small consulting firm. At the time, I was ‘taking a job’ and had mindset that I was ‘just’ an employee, and this was temporary. I was aware of this, and it was strange to me as I really wanted to be there. But, I wasn’t an owner. I didn’t feel like a co-owner of the results of the business. Nor was I invited to be. Not until much later.

You may have felt this way in roles you have taken. You may be leading people who also feel this way.

The ‘employee’ mindset can be held by anyone in a business. I believe this framing is problematic for a couple of reasons. It results in people seeing themselves as their job, rather than connected to the vision and purpose of the business. The potential for them to be more creative, motivated and find opportunities with this broader perspective is wasted. This mindset is reinforced when individuals employed to do X, Y, or Z, are monitored and measured on tasks and performance defined by their role. Often managers do not invite them to contribute to creative work beyond the boundaries or scope of their job description. It can also lead to a lack of respect for the work each person does and devalues the limitless potential latent in each and every one. When people are devalued in this way, morale, engagement and productivity take a hit.

What if you, as a leader, manager, business owner, cultivated a culture of mutual respect and ownership?

What if you held the belief that everyone in the business were co-owners and partners in the business and in the spirit of co-ownership worked in that way with each other – with a deep, mutual respect and trust in each other’s capacity and commitment to the collective enterprise?

With this mindset, everyone in the business can connect with and co-own the broader purpose, vision and mission of the business. They also can see how collaboration across the business is important. They also develop greater personal responsibility for their piece and supporting others with theirs. You each strive with your heart and mind to achieve the aspirations of the business. Work becomes meaningful because it is in service to something beyond themselves. The story of the business is their story and each person is playing a significant role. With this kind of personal investment and commitment come ideas, resourcefulness, and transcendence of one’s own personal agenda to the bigger picture.

What does a mindset of ‘employee’ vs ‘co-owner’ mean for organisational culture and change?

If an ‘us and them’ culture remains, disconnection is the feeling that characterises work relationships. It is very difficult for a leader or manager to foster a culture of collaboration and autonomy, both needed for innovation and productivity, when they are disconnected from the people they work with. A lack of trust and respect are often present in these relationships. Uncertainty and fear of the other is there. Creativity is stunted. And change, which is every present, cannot evolve organically and strategically. Much of the energy of the leaders in the organisation get directed inward to solving issues arising from resistance and distrust.

Creating a high performance workplace needs social cohesion, a deep sense of trust and mutual respect, that comes from a sense of ownership. This does require personal work particularly on the part of leaders in the organisation to understand how we see ourselves, how we see others, and change what needs to be changed. There also needs to be organisational redesign to create the systems and conditions that reinforce a culture of co-ownership.

When I work with organisations who are embarking on culture transformation, I focus on co-creating a process that involves everyone meaningfully from the start. It is a priceless opportunity to build the cultural foundations of openness, trust, and respect essential for organic change.

What 6 actions can you take to build a high performance culture of co-owners?

Six main actions you can take to build a high performance culture of co-owners – who work with a spirit of collaboration, with the energy and excitement to carry forward a business in times of change – are:

1. Take time to reflect on who your co-workers are, really, and re-assess

For any leader wanting to build a business that is adaptable, resilient, and innovative, where everyone is committed, respected, and gives their 100%, it is a priority that leaders and managers take the time to tackle the obstacle that an ‘employee’ mindset creates in the change process and flip it to create a culture that is founded on the mindset that everyone in the business is a co-owner.

Leaders and managers, team leaders, take time to personally reflect and re-assess on how you conceive of the people you work with. Are they ‘workers’, ‘subordinates’ or are they ‘co-owners’, ‘co-workers’ in a collective enterprise? As you do this, think about how you can start this conversation with your co-workers.

Infusionsoft is a prime example of how this mindset underpins its success. Kirkland, talking about the acquision of his company by Infusionsoft, said: “It was not just about the money for us. Because Clate (CEO) tells everyone ‘you are a co-founder of the next iteration of Infusionsoft’; it makes everyone feel like an owner. We wanted to be part of that.” (Wagner, 2014)

2. Work hard to build and maintain trust and respect in all your relationships

Trust in the capacity of others is fundamental to creating a culture of co-owners. When you as a leader or manager trust the people you work with by engaging them collaboratively and encouraging autonomous working, ownership and commitment to the collective builds. Openly and transparently sharing information and decisions also builds trust and a feeling of co-ownership and mutual respect.

Ricardo Lange, CEO of Great Places to Work, has found through their research that building trust in your workplace will result in a positive place for employees and greater business success.

3. Revisit your core purpose and values with your team

This is fundamental to creating a culture of co-owners. Everyone needs to own it and be part of living it.

Here I differ from some culture transformation consultants. I believe everyone, no matter how big your organisation is, can be involved meaningfully in co-creating the purpose and identifying the values you all want to live by. If you don’t, ultimately your purpose and values won’t be lived and owned and achieved. You won’t be pulling in the same direction.

For smaller to medium sized organisations, everyone can participate and feed in their ideas. For larger organisations, you may go down the path of creating a small teams, credible across the population of your organisation, who create input into a process involving a team of key decision makers from across the business. You can integrate intranet, online polling and collaboration to broaden participation. Also, at the level of teams and individual locations, which I think of as neighbourhoods, you can facilitate a process of localizing the purpose and values.

Tony Hsieh, when CEO of Zappos, stated quite simply that to deliver a high performing work place for his staff, characterized by high levels of trust and collaboration, there needed to be alignment between corporate purpose and values and employee personal values. The result is a better bottom line and satisfied and inspired employees. By engaging everyone, you have an opportunity to tap into the deep motivations from across your community.

4. Align your entire organisation – strategy, systems, operations, and practices – with your purpose and values

Once you have a common and clear understanding of your purpose and values, take stock of the gaps between what you want and where you currently are throughout all parts of the organisation. Think about: how are decisions-made, who is allowed to ‘have’ ideas, how are stakeholder’s treated, what behaviours are rewarded?

Make plans at the level of teams to address the gaps and implement them. Important strategies here include hiring, promoting, coaching, remunerating and decision-making according to your purpose and values. If you have a challenge that seems insurmountable, use your values as a lens to look at the challenge and come to a solution.

At Barasa, we use alignment workshops that again build ownership as well as provide opportunities for collaboration and trust building across the business.

5. Develop the capability of collaborative leadership throughout the organisation

Collaborative leadership, as well as servant leadership, is the new way in business. In a culture of collaboration, the leader and manager do not have to have the answer. They are facilitators and creators of an environment where ideas and the best answers for today can arise. In this environment, each employee is a protagonist, an agent of the change the company wishes to make, with a voice and a contribution to make.

This approach is about as far as you can get from the management approach of ‘like it or lump it’ – which is out of date, disrespectful, and bad for the bottom line. In today’s hyper-mobile working world, individuals want a sense that they can contribute meaningfully. They want to make a positive contribution, feel that they are heard and valued, and respected. Otherwise, they move on, taking valuable institutional knowledge and experience with them.

6. Review your progress, with everyone involved in some way

Yes, this is a theme of this post – involve everyone as meaningfully and in as many points as possible. It tells everyone they are wanted, needed and valued.

Throughout your organisation, teams can review how aligned their practice and their aspirations are, and also be connected to the performance metrics of the business, which should also include culture.

This is an important strategy for further embedding the purpose and values of the business into the culture, behaviours, and systems. What gets observed and reflected upon, starts to work its way into planning and practice.

Ultimately, every person in the business can be invited to be part of envisioning the new culture, implementing it, reflecting on progress, and developing it to suit the business as it evolves and grows. Creating a culture of co-owners in your business will see it thrive in changing times.

What difference would it make to you if you identified yourself as a co-owner and others also felt this way? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments. 

*There is more to write here about the type of business vision and purpose that results in this collective commitment. Businesses that live a higher purpose and create human-centred cultures have higher engagement scores than those that don’t and achieve better financial results.


If you are interested in learning how to create a high performance culture, rich in values, built on a higher purpose and a spirit of collaboration please send me an email: dimity@barasaconsult.com.

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