Question: Encouraging employees to think like business owners


I am leading a small (150 employee) recent spinoff from a large travel company. The original parent will phase out of ownership in next year or so, as some of us employees and other investors step in.

I need your advice on how I can keep reinforcing to my fellow executives that they need to take more of a small business owner's approach to our operations now. And get out of their corporate mindsets.

We are starting to have some tough board conversations. But they have been insulated, and I don't think they (and the staff) grasp the urgency yet.

7 Expert Insights


Getting employees to think and act like owners is precisely what I have been focused on in the past 20+ years with over 300 different companies, including Carlson Travel, a group I suspect you are familiar with, albeit most of the companies I work with are small to medium sized companies like yours.

Being a graduate engineer, I tend to focus on results and refine methodology to improve results.  As it relates to getting employees to thinking and act like owners, I have found the process that works best is as follows:

1) Identify the key issues facing the company, with input from the employees, management, customer and financial analysis
2) Distill those key issues down to a performance metric that defines winning in the next 6-12 month
3) Make that metric visible and the focus of the team's regular meetings, ideally having the team forecast what the performance will be, so they are thinking in cause and effect terms and  when actual results come up, they can learn from the variances
4) Develop a team based incentive plan that ties directly to that performance metric
5) Ongoing focus and driving or result
6) Repeat / refine the process, typically annually

If you would like, I would be happy to speak with you about your specifics, no charge.


I believe you need to "behave like a start-up" meaning that you need to start with "The Senior Team" whoever that is (new owners and whomever is core leadership) working with a cross-section of the personnel to create a new set of values for the new firm followed by an inspiring long term vision, clear short-term mission (2 years or less). Next you'll need a clear articulation of what makes your company unique in the marketplace.

Once you have all of that, you should post all key positions and start "hiring" internally (or externally if needed) seeking real leaders who can show you their concrete plans for rapid growth in alignment with your values, Vision and Mission. By literally "starting a new company" you will find out who the visionary leaders are who can take the reins and move the company fast forward toward the future you desire.  

You will also find that clearly delineating and posting the differences between "OldCo" and "NewCo" along with the expected behaviors and "norms" in each company will help people realign. Finally, you'll need to come to grips with the fact that some of the old leaders will not make the transition and will have to be cut from the team.


Coincidentally, prior to my beginning my career as a certified coach I was at the helm of a larger travel organization.  We too, sold the lion's share of the business and were now operating a much smaller organization.  Based on my own experience I believe that your team of executive leaders will only be able to serve the new organization effectively if and when they adopt the mindset that is needed in the smaller organization.  It is as if all of the past positions have been eliminated and you looking to hire a team of leaders who understand the nature of this new business and bring the experience needed to help it grow and prosper.  If they can effectively do that, they are a potential asset to the new company.  If they can't, they will actually be a detriment to the desired success.  

I suggest that you don't have the luxury of a lot of time and both need and want to hit the ground running in this new ... and smaller organization.  Bringing your team together for a day or two of designing around the realities of the new company  will do a lot to get all of those who are to be a part of it and aligned on the right track.  Your stated question sounds like you are working too hard to achieve what is necessary. It is ALL the executives WHO need to understand the differences and what is required OF them to be effective in their positions in THIS company.  


First, I'm not sure what you mean about 'think like small business owners'.  I know what I mean but your defintion may include behaviors that I don't see.  What exactly are the behaviors that you seek to shift?  Without a clear vision of what that actually means it becomes generic language that is difficult to systematically implement.

Having someone come in and faciliate the mindshift desired (once articulated) will go a long way to making it happen since it will not appear like this is your directive that  other executives have to follow, it's a company wide revisioning and repurposing of efforts and behavior. What has to be uncovered and resolved are things like: What are the executives still attached to from the former structure? is it a sense of power/influence, is it a sense of importance, etc. and What are their feelings about the downshift? Do they feel like they have gone from being a luxury cruiseliner to a dinghy?  Getting all that stuff up and out on the table will help. Without that, you have only the imagining of what's going on inside them that is generating the seemingness of resistance. When something is going on with someone and you're not sure how to handle what's going on with them. Ask. Get to the source, and then you have something you can deal with.


Make and treat them like business owners and they'll think like business owners...that's the short answer.

The best way to do that depends on specifics.


One of the major differences between small and large companies is how decisions are made.  In a large organization, decision making can be slow, arduous and often in a silo.  In small companies, decision making is often a more nimble and holistic process.  Empower your employees to make decisions that look across the business and beyond just their respective silo.


I believe that you have to first agree with your team what it means to "think as a business owner". A facilitated off-site is the best way for you to proceed. Just make sure that you get a good facilitator, who is not part of your business and has no interest in being part of your business. Only such a person can do a good job of facilitating.