You’re cruising down the road when something hits you — there’s only one driver behind every wheel. By that logic, there’s also only one owner behind every business. But that’s where the universe tricks us. Every company with more than one employee also has more than one owner charting its course. “I trust my team to make decisions,” says John Stringer, owner of I.T. Guys, a tech consulting firm in Oklahoma City. “I give people the freedom or ability to suggest to act on ideas, to make decisions in their own space. I trust the boots on the ground so to speak.”

John is on to something powerful. His company has been on an upward trajectory ever since he opened his doors, and a lot of that success is tied to one scarily simple approach: Treating employees like they own the joint works wonders.

The first step to ownership: Talk to your team

Ownership means giving people a voice and following where it takes them. In the early days at Juniper Designs, a nationally recognized floral design studio, owner Alison Fleck treated the team to lunch every day. She couldn’t afford to pay sky-high salaries, so Alison thought lunch would be a nice perk to make up for that gap. However, that daily lunch expense started stacking up. So Alison asked her employees to make the call on how that money should be spent, instead of just deciding for them. Everyone chose to skip the lunches and instead put that money back into their paychecks. By asking her team what they wanted to do, Alison gave them a sense of autonomy over their jobs, and at the same time, their futures.

At Two Knives Catering, an innovative catering company in Amarillo, Texas, owner Kristi Aragon always involves the team in the menu design and deciding what kinds of skills they’d like to add to their arsenal. Kristi believes her employees should get up close and personal with the business because they’re “a part of the plan.”

Two Knives Catering baking

“When you’re just punching your time on the clock and you don’t feel like you have any skin in the game, it’s easy to be in-and-out with your day; robotic,” she explains. “You don’t care. Your boss hasn’t given you any reason to. And that can happen very easily if you don’t feel invested.” By letting employees have a say in what your “daily menu” looks like, you give them that reason to care.

A quick checklist to help employees feel like owners

  • Communicate about what’s going on in the company
  • Talk to the team about decisions that impact them
  • Give each person a space to personalize
  • Encourage people to contribute new ideas
  • Provide the tools for folks to act autonomously

Harvard professor Gina Francesco found that ownership isn’t merely about giving away equity in the business — it’s about creating a feeling of “psychological ownership,” which makes people feel more connected to the company. According to Francesco, this can be accomplished through things like allowing folks to personalize their workspaces or letting employees push forward new ideas.

Incentivize people to take things into their own hands

At Perks, a software company that was recently named Arkansas’s “Best Places to Work,” everyone is a literal owner in the business through their employee equity plan. But they also level up that ownership feeling by recognizing people who try to improve the ways things are done. Employees submit ideas through the Perks platform, and if it’s something the company decides to push through, they can even get a cut of the savings that resulted from their brilliant idea. Earl Kieselhorst, Perks’ Customer Care Manager, says, “It’s excellent because a lot of the best ideas don’t come from the very top.”

Perks employees

Remove barriers to getting things done

At Insectek Pest Solutions, the top-rated Yelp business in Phoenix, Ben’s mantra is “We trust you.” This belief glistens in small but big ways. For example, he equips each team member with a company credit card to cover gas and other repairs, so they don’t have to front their own money and deal with complicated expense reports. Ben also allows technicians to park their vehicles at home each day, instead of having to drive them back to the office. This little act of trust saves his team at least an hour each day. “It’s simply to provide them with a little bit more family time, a little more downtime than they would’ve had.”

Empowering the team is all about sharing information so people can have an easier time doing their job. Alison of Juniper Designs recently purchased Honeybook, a software program to help the team communicate more seamlessly with clients and help everyone stay on the same wavelength. Now, employees have the same access to the files she has, allowing them to take on more ownership and preventing any on-the-job surprises from unfurling. “It makes them want to work hard for themselves because they take ownership and pride in this,” says Alison.

Give employees the tools to do it themselves

New Orleans nonprofit Camelback Ventures had a lofty challenge to overcome this year. They were trying to drive more people to their fellowship program, yet they didn’t have anyone specifically dedicated to the role. Somehow, they nearly doubled the applications they received — 181, compared to 85 in the previous year. How did they do such a remarkable thing? By bringing out the super powers on the team.

Camelback Ventures Aaron Walker

The Director of Strategy made a series of educational webinars, the Creative Director created collateral, the Operations and Strategy person made sure the process went off without a hitch, and everyone read page after page of applications. The best part is that everyone was able to pick up new skills while flexing their own to reach a common goal. Aaron’s leadership mantra sums it up best: “This should work without me!”

Kira Deutch Kira Deutch is a former Gusto editor. She has a background in publishing and content marketing for startups.
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