If you asked three people at your company what their roles are as employee owners, what answers would you hear? More importantly, would the responses be the same or even similar?

At some ESOP firms, the answer is no.

It’s no because defining employee owners’ roles and responsibilities is an ongoing challenge. But it’s a critical issue to address because it’s an essential building block in the foundation of your company’s success. Unfortunately, if you haven’t invested the time, energy and resources to define employees’ roles and responsibilities, people will do it themselves. Their definitions may wander far afield of your ideas and harm your ownership culture, rather than enhance it.

At the ESOP Association’s Las Vegas Conference in November 2017, Peter Jones of ESOPPlus, Chris Cooper of the Ohio Employee Ownership Center and I facilitated an interactive session on “What Does It Mean to Be an Employee Owner: Defining Roles and Responsibilities.” (If you’d like a PDF version of the full presentation, email me at jbado@workplacedevelopment.com.) Here are four practical things we discussed that are important to consider when defining what it means to be an employee owner at your company.

1) Different perceptions
Our upbringing, experience and current position all influence how we perceive what it means to be an employee owner. Based on those experiences, we bring ideas to the table. While some may perceive employees’ role as taking on more responsibility, accountability and interest in the company’s success, others may see things differently: ownership, for example, means I have more of a say-so about how we do things.

The differences are both an opportunity and a challenge for your company. No matter where employees’ ideas originate, their perceptions – which may or may not be in alignment with yours — are real. Creating a common perception of employee ownership (i.e., getting people on the same “ownership page”) is an important component to your company’s success as an ESOP. As every coach knows, team performance improves exponentially when players understand and fulfill their roles.

2) Legal reality doesn’t match people’s perception
The legal reality of your ESOP plan (i.e., employees are beneficial owners of a stake in a retirement trust) is unlikely to set anyone’s passions for improved performance on fire. The other legal reality (i.e., ESOP ownership is different from both public stock ownership and individual ownership, like owning “your” car or house) also creates confusion, rather than buy-in. Successful ownership-development initiatives bridge the gap between the legal “reality” and perceived reality.

3) No definition for employee owner
If you grab a dictionary or search on-line, you’ll find definitions for both employee and owner, but no definition of employee owner. The definitions generate even more confusion. There’s no common notion of ownership in the “book” definition, like the shared purpose, mission, goals and teamwork you’re working to create. In fact, there’s only an individual notion of ownership (i.e., it’s mine, not ours). To compound the challenge, many of the synonyms for employee veer toward the pejorative: hired hand, lackey, flunky (to list a few). To build a successful ownership culture, you’ve got to create your own definition of employee ownership and live that definition.

 4) Involvement in creation generates buy in
In any change process — like moving from a culture where people think like hired hands to one where they act like owners — being involved in the change process creates more buy-in to the outcome. We have facilitated sessions, consulted with management teams and assisted ESOP Communication Committee efforts to develop lists of specific actions, behaviors and attitudes that represent employee owners’ roles and responsibilities.

Getting people involved creates avenues for employee input into the process. All of us are more willing to support an employee-ownership definition that we helped generate than one that is given (or imposed) on us. If employees are truly owners of the company, shouldn’t they be involved in defining what that means? Moreover, shouldn’t all employees hold each other accountable for fulfilling their roles and responsibilities as owners?

Ownership is a powerful word in America. Because people have different perceptions of what it means, investing the time, energy and resources to define the employee owners’ roles and responsibilities will make your ESOP a positive force in your company’s success.