51 – The magic number for ownership, accountability and engagement

Prefer to watch on video than read?  Just click here – 5 mins with captions.

Engagement, ownership, accountability…whatever you want to call it, we all want to see (and feel) more of it.

Like all things, half of the game is internal, and there’s a magic number that can help get us there.

Pretty Pictures

Let’s start with our standard managerial hierarchy…

…even the way it looks give us a certain sort of vibe.

Here’s a more modern way to draw it:

Looks a bit kumbaya with being in a circle and all, but taking out the cynicism, it looks a bit more like everyone’s involved. 

Managerial Mind-Bending

Here’s the thing – managerial accountable hierarchies are set up for the good reason of creating clarity about where accountability for team performance lies (it’s easier to ask one person than ten, and it’s nice for a team to have context and clarity).  So, this means managers have to hold two apparently opposite things in their mind:

  1. Take ownership of the work of the team
  2. Provide the team with ownership of the work of the team

The Magic Number

Here’s a way to work through it…first, with colours!

The green shows that we have a role that is a different to the others, the one we call the manager.  If we look at roles as buckets of accountabilities, the one that attaches to the manager role is ‘accountability for the performance of the whole team’. 

Our second aspect is to then use the simple idea we can find in the brilliant book Stewardship by Peter Block, one of the all-time must-reads.  It’s a number, and that number is:

That’s it!  51%! 

Here’s the idea – if you are in the managerial role….adopt the mindset that you are in partnership with all of your so-called ‘direct reports’.  You’re in business together.  You’re all owners.   

You are, however, still accountable for the work of the team.  Which is why you take on the role of the 51% owner.  The majority shareholder. 

Now…none of this is the case.  You’re most likely an employee yourself, as is your own manager and right up to the CEO.  You all own 0%. The point is to adopt a mindset that this is how it works…and then start taking the logical actions that follow if you were all, in fact, owners.

What would a business partner do?

What would some of those actions be?  Here’s a quick three for example, you will think of more immediately…

  • You wouldn’t hide bad news in the interest of shielding your business partners from reality
  • You wouldn’t sign them up for training without first introducing it and talking about what it involves
  • You would more rapidly get over anxiety about providing feedback because the partnership itself could be at stake

What’s the common thing in these examples?  You are treating people like adults, and not like children you are parenting.  And at the same time, because you are in it together, you maintain the care and connection.

Emotional (Hard) Work

This mindset helps to avoid the common extremes of managers either over-caring for their people as they see their role as parental protector…or the ‘I’m not your parent’ reaction which causes an equally harmful abdication and isolation.  The pathway through is to act like and treat people like fully-fledged adults who are connected to each other, while taking on the role of the 51% shareholder.

Peter Block refers to this as the emotional work of leadership…and he’s spot on.

This is not just work for those in managerial roles.  For those in teams, their emotional work is to move out of the comfort and safety of acting like a 0% owner.  Into having a say (which requires finding one) …and at the same time…understanding that the system is that the managerial role owns 51%.  You don’t get final say.

For everyone, it involves a lift in the level of adult maturity to roll this way.  Like most things that are worthwhile…it’s difficult.

Actions of the 51%

What are the particular things this 51% owner needs to make sure of?  Based on Peter Block’s work, I use two categories – Clarity and Conversations.

Creating Clarity

Remember, for Clarity, it’s only ever ‘more’ clear…you’ll never get there, but you have to try.  And what we are talking about is increasing clarity on:

  • Who funds us – whether it’s directly from invoices, or more likely from your own manager providing funding which generally goes into salary, we are all funded from someone.  So, their expectations matter.
  • Why they fund us – those that fund us do so for a reason…so their expectations matter.  If your direct customers and funders are the same…that’s more straightforward.  But it’s probably not…so you’re going to have to dig in and find out more.
  • Who we serve – we all make things (even if you’re ‘making’ a service) for someone else.  It’s good to get clear on who those people are and what it is we’re providing
  • How we’re doing – both those we serve and those who fund us care about how we’re doing…as do we!  This needs to be clear to everyone in the team (and not just you).

Naming Conversations

And in the category of Conversations, we are talking about Naming Conversations.  Anyone in the team can do this, but it’s the particular accountability of the manager to make sure they happen.  And we can look at them as two simple types:

  • Performance – conversations about how we’re doing, whether great, OK, not great…anywhere in between.  Teams need to talk about how they’re doing.  So simple.  But does your team?
  • Change – conversations about things needing to be different.  Perhaps linked to performance.  Perhaps linked to the environment changing.  Or organisational changes.  Or anything.  These are a part of work too.
  • And a third type of conversation is the occasional “How are we going” conversation.  From time-to-time, we need to just say out loud how we’re all actually going.  When times are tougher…we need to do this more often.  Just to remind ourselves that we’re in it together.

Bringing it Home

Remember, this is all a mindset change.  A way of framing how the manager-employee role works, which leads to changes in actions and conversations that offer and create more involvement and ownership. 

It might be obvious, but if we want our people to take ownership…we need to offer ownership. 

Peter Block’s 51% gives us a simple and powerful approach to make this happen.

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