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Are you an owner, or a steward?

February 16, 2011

Have you ever seen three year olds fight over a toy? Mine! Mine! That’s what they shout. It’s childish. Which makes sense because they are children and what they are learning to do is share, oddly enough. So what excuse does an executive have who has to “own” something? It’s equally childish, but disconcertingly so because they should be fully mature adults by now. Last time I checked we didn’t hire any three year olds around where I work, but some people sure act like one.

It drives me bonkers that people think they should own something in a business context. We all work with people like this, don’t we? They are the ones who say stuff like “what do I own” or “what part of this do I own?”. Now some of you may think I am missing the boat; that what these folks are really all about is accountability. I want to be clear. I’m not talking about the people who are prepared to be accountable. I’m talking about corporate hoarders. Those folks who have a desperate need to control, to make every decision, to “own” something, anything, heck maybe even everything.

I think our desire to own something comes from our society’s perspective on ownership and freedom. In the Western world, property ownership is synonymous with freedom; an enviable and inalienable right. Ownership also tends to imply wealth. Owners of things certainly tend to be wealthier than renters of things. So who wouldn’t want to be an owner under those circumstances?

Well, ownership, in this context, tends to mean starvation for everyone else. It means you alone “own” this, whatever this is. There’s no room for others in your sense of ownership. You are like a seagull pecking over whatever you find, “mine, mine, mine”. Ownership goes against the grain of everything you need to do. You don’t “own” anything. You steward it until someone else can come along and do the same.

When you build a sense of “ownership” you starve out those who want to contribute to what you are trying to accomplish. You become a corporate hoarder of sorts, compiling the material trappings of executive rank without actually achieving anything material. Want to know if you are an “owner”? Listen to yourself. How many times do you use “me, myself or I” when “we, us and ours” would do just fine?

You want proof you don’t own it? Try to take it with you when you retire. Better yet, what are the chances they retire you first? Are you taking your staff with you? What about that corner office? Is it going with you? What about the revenues and profits of the business? How about the customers? Are you getting the trademarks, copyrights and patents? No. You might get a gold watch. It doesn’t belong to you. Your title doesn’t belong to you. Your office doesn’t belong to you. None of it belongs to you.

I have known lots of “owners” and I’ve seen everyone one of them go, most times under terms they didn’t write. It’s proof positive they didn’t own what they thought they owned. One day they led teams of hundreds and had big offices with fancy titles and pay packages. Next day, all gone. It now belonged to someone else. How’s that for ownership?

Here’s another clue. Ever walk by the elevators and see the postings for the latest retired person? Ever notice those notices say stuff like “Martha has been with us for 42 years” or “Bill is retiring after 37 years of service”? Our company has been around for over 100 years. 100 years! I haven’t noticed anyone who had 100 years of service yet. The original employees left long ago, all before any current employee was even born. And you want to claim you “own” this? Sorry. Ain’t buying it.

I’m not an owner. I’m a steward. I don’t own things. I’m accountable for them. My job is to prepare someone else to do my job and to do it even better than I did it. I certainly don’t own the team. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t like that. Slavery was abolished years ago. I certainly don’t own the company, although I do have a very tiny piece of it. I am a steward;  a temporary guardian of what is precious to so many. I want to breathe life into that and not smother the life out of it. And when I leave, whether it is my choice or not, I will hold my head high, secure in the knowledge I did the best I could do and not caring at all that they “took” something from me because it was never mine in the first place.

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