4.5 min read

Imagine that you have a staff member who does a great job when you tell them what to do, but they always seem to be waiting for your direction. Now imagine that you have a staff person who not only executes well but also takes the initiative of driving their work. They catch and solve problems you’re not even aware of, design process improvements, and find ways to get to better equity, sustainability, and results.

Assuming that both people are a good fit for the role overall, what’s the differentiating factor?

If you find that your staff person is acting more like an implementer of tasks and less like the driver of their work, the issue might be one of ownership. When we talk about ownership, we’re not talking about proprietorship—we’re talking about someone’s sense of responsibility and autonomy over their work. Ideally, we want everyone to feel empowered to move their work forward—which includes having a clear vision of success, the initiative and ability to anticipate and solve problems, and a sense of accomplishment when the work is complete.

Here are five tips for transferring, instilling, and affirming ownership of the work:

1. Set meaningful roles and goals.

We sometimes see managers defining the roles on their team in ways that treat staff people as assistants or helpers (and not in the capital H MOCHA way!). They create roles and goals that focus on specific activities rather than overall outcomes, such as asking an events coordinator to do X, Y, and Z, rather than saying, “You’re responsible for ensuring that our events run smoothly” or “Your goal is to ensure that this year’s conference gets an average satisfaction score of X% on logistics and that we increase the attendance of people with disabilities by Y%.”

This creates a highly problematic dynamic (especially when there are race, gender, or other identity differences) that gets in the way of authentic relationship-building. It also limits the role to only the approaches and tactics that the manager can think of (or prefers). An event coordinator who feels real ownership over their work might be empowered to come up with new and creative ways to get to the outcomes, potentially leading to better results in the long run.

2. Try the “you’re the CEO of ___” concept.

To fully convey 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 coordinator to think of themself as the CEO of events logistics and your communications director to think of themself as the CEO of media relations. Better yet, have them come up with a CEO statement in their own words! Whatever the statement is, they should feel proud of it and others should easily understand it. (Note: if the language of “CEO” rubs you the wrong way, replace it with “boss,” “captain,” or something else that strikes your fancy.)

3. Be explicit about decision-making power.

Our first two tips focus on specifying what your staff person is responsible for and the things that are within their sphere of control. To minimize confusion, balance that with transparency about where they do and don’t have power—and where they share it with you.

To really transfer and instill ownership, be clear about the following:

  • Decisions they have full authority to make without approval from you
  • Decisions that they should make, with approval and/or heavy consultation with you
  • Decisions that are for you or others to make

4. Lean on their expertise and skills.

We’ve talked about ownership in terms of responsibility, but ownership is also about empowerment. Ideally, your staff should feel like they’re the best person to drive the work in their realm—and that you feel it too (again, assuming that the person is a good fit for the role overall). Communicate trust and confidence by tapping into their expertise on a regular basis. Here are some examples:

  • I’m working on setting a team goal to expand our social media presence next year. As our resident expert, what do you think would be a reasonable goal?
  • At your previous school, you helped drastically reduce student suspension rates. Can you share some of the strategies you used? If we launched a similar initiative here, how would you go about it?
  • Thank you so much for finalizing the proposal before it went out. It makes a really big difference to have someone on our team who has your attention to detail.

5. Let go of the wheel.

Occasionally, if your staff person isn’t exhibiting ownership, it might be a you problem. Be honest—do you tend to micromanage? Do you hold tightly to your preferences and traditions? Do you hover in the background, waiting to jump in and take over at the first sign of trouble? Are you guilty of throwing the delegation boomerang? If so, it’s possible that they’re not driving the work because your hand is still on the steering wheel.

The more that managers jump in and do the work instead of guiding, spotting, and supporting as a coach, the more they get in the way of their staff person’s growth and agency. From the staff perspective, it’s annoying at best and demoralizing at worst, resulting in erosion of trust and confidence.

Of course, letting go doesn’t mean completely taking yourself out of the mix or relinquishing your responsibility as a resource. You should still be attentive and available to offer support or guidance when and where it’s useful (such as by taking slices and providing feedback) while giving space for your staff person to do their work.

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