“That’s above my pay grade” can be one of the most eye-roll inducing phrases for small business owners to hear from their employees.

That’s why Matt Lee, president of digital marketing agency Adhere Creative, says finding employees that think in opportunities instead of pay grades—in other words, like a business owner—is a must.

“You have to identify some kind of entrepreneurial drive in the interview process,” says Lee. “When an employee is willing to take risks, take charge, and own up for their mistakes, they’ll be successful. That’s what I look for.”

But to develop those qualities, you have to help your employees move from a “renter” mindset into an “owner” mindset.

Ever have an insufferable landlord? They may have treated you as nothing but a tenant when they should’ve allowed you to see—and take care of—their place as your own. It’s the same story with your employees.

We asked small business owners to describe how they encourage an ownership mindset in their companies—and pulled out three things you can do to help you unbox that same feeling in your own office.

1. Don’t do your employee’s work.

  • Why: Allowing employees to own projects makes them feel more responsible for the outcomes of their work.

“I can often do the work better and faster than my team at the onset,” Lee says.

But instead of doing it himself, he teaches his team to do the work better than he does. 

Punchy web copy, for example, needs to be succinct, reflect the brand, and drive action. When drafts land in Lee’s inbox, he gives feedback instead of doing a rewrite.

As his team learns and improves, Lee makes his team tell him what improvements need to be made before sending them back to revise the project. It helps drive the points home.

Daniel Griggs, Founder and CEO of ATX Web Designs, takes a similar approach. He tells new hires he’ll be partnering with them for the first three months. Most of his team is remote, so he relies on screenshots, screen shares, and lots of email threads.

“If I see something that should have been explained more clearly or thoroughly, I take a screenshot,” Griggs says. He then sends it to his employee with notes so they can do better next time—and so Griggs knows where to devote time for future employees.

Lee says, “I tell my employees all the time that I want everyone who leaves here to go into their next jobs as directors or higher and that I expect no less than that from each of them.”

Your turn:

– When an employee does something wrong, don’t take over and finish the project even if it’s the quickest way to complete a task. Block off time so you can teach them how to do it.

– Not all employees take feedback the same way. Observe and ask direct questions to learn how they prefer to process feedback and what motivates them.

2. Know that if someone screws up, it can be a good thing.

  • Why: Instead of trying to prevent mishaps, work on reframing them. When an employee makes a mistake, they’re forced to think of solutions—just like an owner does.

“You can always make money,” says Danny Corprew, founder and CEO of Good Neighbor Rx. It’s important, he says, but it’s not the most important thing.

Once, an employee mistakenly left the shipping charge off a customer’s bill. When he told his boss about his mistake, Corprew decided they’d have to eat the cost, which was a significant chunk of change for the young company.

Surprisingly, Corprew wasn’t mad about the mistake.

His employee was upfront about the oversight and the customer was thrilled to not be charged for their mistake. The only real loss was a little cash.

Corprew chalked it up to a win: “It’s a learning experience but, ultimately, it helps us improve the business.” You can always make more money. But you can’t always hire that same employee back.

A small financial hiccup is not going to make or break your business. You can’t prevent mistakes, but you can learn from them.

In this case, the mistake worked out well. Corprew’s salesperson didn’t try to inflate the price to compensate for his error but was instead honest and upfront about it. That, Corprew thinks, earned the client’s trust and respect—and turned him into a repeat customer.  

Your turn:

– Flip every mistake into a win. It may lead to a well-crafted apology, a positive customer service experience, or a learning experience for your team.

– Have your employee come up with “lessons learned” after every mistake, and draft them into guidelines you can share with the team. Review, then implement.

3. Let people run with their ideas. Yes, even the crappy ones.

  • Why: The best ideas won’t always come from you. And sometimes the ideas you think are bad are actually pretty stellar. So let your team own projects end-to-end and run with their ideas.

Lee once had an employee come to him with a “terrible” pitch for a client’s campaign. He thought his employee’s approach was way off—the messaging, the look and feel—and he believed the campaign was a bad fit for the client’s goals.

But Lee let him present it to the client anyway. He’s managed long enough to know it’s important to pick your battles. Much to his surprise, the client loved it.

What the hell?” Lee remembers thinking.

It was totally unexpected. But the only thing to do was put the employee in charge of the project’s creative work because “the employee knew better than me,” he says.

It doesn’t always turn out like this. Lee says sometimes clients hate his team’s initial ideas. “They’ll get jaded for a little bit,” he says, and to keep them happy, he doesn’t charge them for the work.

It can be expensive in the early stages of the relationship, but for Lee, it’s worth it to take those risks for his team. His employees become better from the feedback, he says.

Lee’s employee “with the bad idea” went on to head more projects for the client’s retainer, including a website redesign. More importantly, he learned to pivot when something isn’t performing well—to flesh out an idea, see what’s working, and adjust quickly and effectively.

It’s a skill that Lee values in his team and that can give that employee a leg up throughout his career.

Your turn:

– Ask your employees for ideas and solutions when you kick off any new project. Yes, this is your company, but if you hire right, the best ideas won’t always come from you.

– When an employee comes to you with a seemingly meh idea, ask yourself: “Will going with it jeopardize my business?” If it won’t, make it happen. Your employee may be wrong (see part two above), or you will be. Either way is a win.

When your employees act like owners, they fix what’s broken—because it’s theirs, too. So let them.

Anna Ray Anna writes about marketing, business, and leadership.
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