Owning Up: How to Tap Into Your Employees' Big Ideas...And Get them Thinking Like Owners

If you've spent the past few months racking your brain for innovative ways to cut costs, jump start sales or make your company run a little more smoothly, you're not alone. Any business owner knows all too well how daunting it can be to tackle all of the problems that come along with the job of running a company in good times (not to mention keeping it afloat in turbulent financial waters!). But what if you weren't the only owner of your company? What if you had a couple, a few, or a bunch of other people to whom you could turn and who could help you shoulder the burden?

If you're not quite following, allow authors Pamela Bilbrey and Brian Jones to explain. They say that when it comes to problem-solving, your employees should be your most valuable asset: after all, those who are closest to the work are the most likely to see opportunities for innovative solutions regarding improving customer service, reducing costs, and increasing efficiency. And by helping your employees feel like owners of your company, you'll be able to tap into that important source of solutions and innovative ideas right when you need it most.

"Would your employees act differently if they actually owned your company, and if it was their money being spent?" asks Bilbrey, coauthor along with Jones of the new book Ordinary Greatness: It's Where You Least Expect It...Everywhere (Wiley, July 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-46172-3, $24.95).

"I'm thinking they probably would. One of the most valuable things that you can do as a business owner and leader is to make your employees feel like they have a stake in what's going on at your company. When you get them to commit to viewing the organization as if they own it, your employees are more likely to voice their ideas for improvement, and they'll be more passionate about putting them into action."

Naturally, creating a sense of ownership in your employees doesn't mean handing over the keys to the front door and taking a vacation yourself. It simply means taking the time to ask your employees what they would do if they were in your shoes. Ask them what they would change to help ensure that the organization runs more efficiently and less expensively.

"The survival of any business depends on whether or not the staff remains engaged and invested in the business by contributing their best ideas," adds Jones. "Creating a sense of ownership increases the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment of your workforce and drives results."

So what's the best way to get the ideas flowing and your staff feeling like owners at your organization? Bilbrey and Jones say that the following questions are great ways to get the creative juices, and eventually, your profits, flowing:

Question #1: What would make this a better place to work? One of the most important aspects of any well-run business is employee retention. If your employees are happy and satisfied, they stick around, meaning less time and money spent recruiting and training new employees. Happy employees are also more productive and do better work. If they like the place where they work and feel as though their needs and concerns are being addressed, they are more likely to want to do what is in the company's best interest.

"Managers often shy away from asking this question for fear of what the answer might be," Bilbrey explains. "And most of the time, they are surprised by the answers they receive. It's often the little things that matter most to employees, and the changes are usually minor and very cost effective. It may be something as simple as making sure that the water cooler stays stocked in the break room, or keeping the temperature in the office regulated throughout the seasons. The answers you get to this question will most likely not be outrageous requests, and your employees will appreciate the opportunity to be heard."

Question #2: How can we enhance customer service?As your business grows and you have more details to manage, it can be easy to forget what it was like working with clients every day. And it's possible that in the time since you managed customer service on your own, things have changed. Just because something worked great when your business first opened doesn't mean it's still the best, or the only, way to do things. Ask your staff how they would improve customer service. What do the customers complain about most? What do they seem to like? You may be surprised by what you hear!

"It's so easy to get caught up in the daily grind of running a business and forget that one of the very basic things that built that business was great customer service," warns Bilbrey. "The trick is to stay connected to the people in your organization who live and breathe it every day. They are the ones who know your customers like the backs of their hands. For example, at one organization, the staff kept receiving complaints from clients about their business hours not being convenient. Had the owner never asked his staff what they were hearing from clients, he never would have known that his store hours were hurting business. Simply shifting the store opening time up one hour increased both customer satisfaction andsales!"

Question #3: What would you do away with? The fact that a policy or process exists in your organization doesn't mean that it's necessary. As a business grows and evolves, its needs change. The rules and regulations that were vital at one time may now be antiquated and futile, only serving to cause extra work and headaches for your employees. The best way to weed out these tasks is to ask your employees for their opinions. Ask if they could do away with any one thing-be it a policy, paperwork, your regular morning meeting, etc.-what would it be and why? Again, because many of them are doing these tasks every day, it's much easier for them to see when a process is ineffective or unnecessary. Hearing them out may save you time and money in the long run.

"Too often we allow ourselves to get caught up in the things we think we should be doing rather than really taking a look at what works and what doesn't," says Jones. "Not only does your business constantly change over time, but so does your clientele and the economy. The ability to streamline your business by ridding yourself of tired and outdated tasks and procedures will make both you and your employees happier in the long run, and it will help all of you run a better business."

Question #4: What would you do if you were footing the bill? Ask anybody whose money they prefer to spend, and the answer is sure to be the same: someone else's. As a business owner, this can be a scary thought: while spending an extra $50 a month on paper products may not seem like much to an employee, to the business owner footing the bill, it looks like an extra $600 per year that could be drawing interest in the bank. We are all much more conservative when spending our own hard-earned money, and helping your employees look at the company's money as their own could save you big bucks in the long run.

"Have your employees sit down and look at the money that is spent in each department," suggests Bilbrey. "Ask them to imagine that money coming out of their own pockets (or paychecks!). Then have them help you brainstorm ways to cut costs and eliminate unnecessary expenses. If they were paying for the coffee cups in the break room, would they be more likely to re-use their cups for refills? Suggest that they keep a lookout for coupons that could help cut some of the company's costs. By giving the people in your organization a sense of ownership over the way the money is spent, you'll open yourself up to finding new ways to cut down on costs...and you'll be saving more dough for a rainy day."

Question #5: What is working well, and how can we make it even better? All too often, we focus only on what isn'tworking in our organizations, and we forget to consider the things that are going well. The reality is that it's important to also look at what does work, and to figure out why. By doing so, organizations can find ways to improve upon those systems, and they can use them as a guide for success in other areas of the business.

"Ask your employees what they think is working well in your company," says Jones. Have them make a list of the things that make their job easier or help make them more successful, and why they think that is. Then be sure to ask if there are ways that you can improve upon those things. How could they be even better? What will help systems to continue to be successful? By focusing on the positive, you will find that even more solutions can be born than when you simply concentrate on what doesn't work."

Bonus: The Gallery Walk Exercise. The Gallery Walk can be a fun alternative to the traditional Q&A format for getting employee input. Here's how it works: Workplace scenarios are posted on a series of flip charts set up in a hallway or meeting room. As participants read through each scenario, they jot down their solutions for the issues posted. After everyone has responded to each scenario, small groups get together and discuss the posted solutions.

"The Gallery Walk is a great interactive way to get your employees' creative juices flowing and get them thinking like owners," says Jones. "Not only are you likely to get several viable solutions that come from individuals themselves, once your employees break off into groups, they are usually able to fine-tune and improve the solutions they've come up with on their own. After one simple exercise, you'll have a great running list of ideas and improvements to implement at your company."

"The most successful organizations are the ones that have figured out that employee ownership is the magic ingredient that can propel an organization to success," Bilbrey concludes. "Every member of your organization should have a vested interest in the success of your company.

"And no matter what happens, don't forget that you don't have to go it alone. You hired the people who work for you because of their talent and skills-and today is the day to start putting all of that talent to use in new and innovative ways. Start now, and you will be well on your way to taking your organization to the next level!"

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