How to Transfer Ownership to Staff Members

A reader asks:

“I have a staff member who does a good job when I tell her what to do, but figuring out what she should be doing takes a lot of my energy. I wish she would take things and run with them more often, but I’m not sure how to get that to happen.”


When it’s falling to you to figure out what a staff member should be doing while the staff member herself simply executes those ideas, the issue is often that you haven’t made her responsible for taking ownership and driving forward the work in her realm. Here are some ways that you can do that.

1. Make sure you’ve given your staff members meaningful roles with real weight to them. Too often, managers define the roles on their team in ways that utilize staffers as helpers to the manager, rather than giving them real ownership over the work. They create roles that focus on specific activities rather than overall outcomes – such as asking an events assistant to do X, Y, and Z, rather than simply saying, “You’re responsible for ensuring that our events run smoothly.” This often leads to staff members feeling as though they’re only supposed to execute the specific activities they’ve been assigned rather than bearing the broader emotional weight of ensuring the work is successful. (And it leaves you feeling frustrated that that broader emotional weight is still on your shoulders!)

But if you assign more meaningful roles, ones that are responsible for broad responsibilities and outcomes rather than just activities, you can transfer much of that weight and stop needing to identify and delegate every piece of work that comes up.

2. Be clear about not just what you want people to do in their jobs, but how they should approach the job. You’ll never be able to think of and capture everything that will come up in the course of your staff members’ work  – but that won’t matter nearly as much if you convey to them how they should approach their jobs. For instance, you might tell your events assistant that she should constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to make your events more cost-effective and ways to improve the experience of attendees. Then, if she’s doing her job well, you shouldn’t need to ask her to negotiate with the venue on price or to ensure that the registration tables are well staffed, because it should be clear that handling these pieces of the work is part of her role. (And here’s an example of a role description that lays out both the what and the how in clear terms.)

3. Try the “you’re the CEO of ___” concept. To fully convey to your staff members the overall responsibility you expect them to take for their roles, try this statement:  “You’re the CEO of ___.”  In other words, encourage your events assistant to think of herself as the CEO of events logistics, your communications director to think of herself as the CEO of media relations, your webmaster to think of herself as the CEO of online advocacy, and so forth. (To be clear, we don’t mean that these should be their actual titles; rather, this is about conveying the essence of a role and the responsibility that comes with it.)

4. Make sure that you’re setting clear and ambitious goals. Agreeing on clear, ambitious goals for what your staff member will accomplish in a particular period of time – and regularly checking in on progress toward those goals – should also help transfer ownership. When it’s clear what outcomes will make people successful in their roles, the energy for achieving those goals can come from them.

5. If you’re doing all this and you still feel you have more ownership for driving work forward than your staff members do, take a look at whether you have the right people in the roles. Given meaningful responsibility and the resources to achieve their goals, high performers will take ownership and run with it. If after doing everything above, a staff member still isn’t taking ownership for her work, it might be time to assess whether that person is the right fit for what you need from the role.