"Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.”

-John Maxwell, Leadership Author

Ownership. Partners, leaders, and managers want their people and peers to demonstrate it. Staff want to earn it. This elusive, powerful, and highly effective leadership attribute demonstrates our mastery over areas of responsibility, action items, and commitments and it’s a sought-after element fundamental to organizational success.

In this article, we’ll explore five ways leaders can demonstrate true ownership in their work and encourage ownership in others. First, let’s define ownership. When demonstrating ownership, you:

  • Do the thinking for the things that you own. Owners don’t expect anyone else to do this thinking, and they don’t wait for anyone else to generate ideas for the things they own. Owners think about the things they own when they are at work, and sometimes when they’re away from work, too. They puzzle on lingering questions about problems or their assigned responsibilities. Owners keep up with trends associated with the things they own, and they consider new ideas and apply new concepts to the things they own, always seeking to make them better. And, while great owners always seek advice or input from other stakeholders regarding the things they own, they approach those conversations thoughtfully, having given upfront consideration before they make their requests for input or assistance, so the input can be as targeted and beneficial as possible.
  • Plan for the future of the things that you own. Owners envision what’s possible—positive and negative—for their things. They work to mitigate risks, and they make plans to enhance or improve their ownership areas over time. They seek to be genuinely proactive with the things they own. For instance, tax client owners work to proactively plan for taxes with their clients a few times per year, versus reactively dealing with tax issues or missed tax opportunities or waiting for their clients to ask questions. Industry initiative owners consider the changing market conditions for their industry and devise plans for their industry group to capitalize on these changes. Owners do not wait for opportunities to pass them by, for trouble to percolate or to be told what to do in their areas of responsibility. Owners do not hope that someone else is thinking or planning for the things they own.
  • Enroll the ownership of others. Great owners encourage feedback from stakeholders regarding the health and well-being of the things they own. When they’ve done the thinking and planning, they elicit the input of others on their plans, and they modify the plans based upon valuable feedback they receive. Owners welcome the assistance of others in driving their things forward, delegating ownership for smaller elements of the greater whole to others. For example, the tax department leader enrolls other individuals in owning functions like international tax, tax learning and development, tax technologies, e-processing, and more (one owner per “thing,” and only one owner for each smaller thing, too). Above all, smart owners understand that they cannot drive growth and success in their things alone, and they seek the participation of others, empowering them to own elements and drive growth and success, too.
  • Communicate about the things they own. Owners make sure that firm leaders don’t wonder about plans for, the status of, or progress with the things they own. Owners reach out to any stakeholders who provide input for or are affected by their items, and they make sure that those stakeholders are regularly informed about those things. For instance, if an owner commits to owning on-campus recruiting at a specific university and the plan has been to deepen relationships with professors there this year, the owner likely will enroll others in owning each professor relationship. The owner also is likely to communicate actively with all others involved in that university and in the on-campus recruiting efforts about the status of the relationship development activities. Or if owners commit to follow up on an action item assigned out of a meeting, they will proactively report back on the status of that action at a future meeting or in an email to the meeting participants—they don’t wait to be asked.
  • Take responsibility for the areas they own when they are off track. When an item isn’t performing well, goals aren’t being met, mistakes are made, or an action hasn’t been completed, true owners raise their hand and acknowledge that they own the shortfall. They then devise and communicate their plan to get the off-track area back on track. They do not blame others or look for excuses. They simply own the failure and act to return the area to positive performance.

When assigning ownership in your organization, assign one owner to every aspect of your practice, from the “big rocks” such as service lines, key business functions, industry group specialties, and other big “divisions,” and then owners are named to smaller aspects such as clients, engagements, people, departmental functions, special projects, committees, and agreed-upon action items from meetings. Only name one owner to each element, because when there is more than one owner, confusion and a lack of progress and accountability invariably follow.

When firms begin to assign ownership, they are usually stopped by a fear that they will give away too much power. But owners will get buy in from the appropriate stakeholders and you should not worry about losing control of an area when you name someone else as an owner. Another ownership pitfall is leaving elements of your practice “owner-less” with no person named to drive it forward. In those cases, we must accept that the owner-less areas will not progress, they won’t thrive, and they could become the source of challenges for your firm. For other potential ownership challenges and their solutions, see our blog on the Sins of Delegation.

When you accept responsibility for any item in your firm—big and small—be sure you’re performing these five important functions and truly acting as an owner. When you convey ownership to others as part of your delegation, empowerment, and people development processes, review these five ownership activities with the new owners and be clear about the behaviors you expect as they take on their new responsibility or task. When you do, you’ll be amazed by the higher-functioning teamwork and firm-wide progress you’ll see.

Originally published on December 9, 2013, in the AICPA’s CPA Insider and updated as of this blog post.