I have always believed that the best way to manage an entity is to act as if you were the owner. I believe that this attitude gets the best results. It does not mean that all decisions are the best, but I am convinced that it is the best option. I think that I have been fortunate to have gained a broad experience in many fields as well as from living in many countries and cultures. This unique experience may have helped me to have this attitude. I often made decisions on my own, using my best judgment, fully accepting that if they proved to be bad that I could be fired.
Education expert Dr Stefanie Sanford, Chief of Global Policy and Advocacy at The College Board in NY City argues “ownership is the one thing that fixes more things so other things can be made easier to fix”. She says that when citizens feel a sense of ownership over their country, when teachers feel a sense of ownership over their classrooms, when students feel a sense of ownership over their education, more good things tend to happen than bad. On the other hand, where ownership doesn’t exist, where people feel like renters or transients, more bad things tend to happen.
When someone assumes ownership, it is difficult to ask more of them than they ask of themselves. Three-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, Thomas L. Friedman says that “when you are an owner, you care, you pay attention, you build stewardship, and you think about the future. If you build a house for a quick flip, how strong will you build the foundation? People always tend to cut corners in a place where they won’t actually be living.” Hence, he believes in the dictum “in the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car”. Ownership focuses you on long-term thinking over short-term, and on strategy over tactics. Friedman says he is forever struck at how quickly ownership can change behaviours and enable adaption, self-propulsion, resilience, and healthy independencies.
I believe that when people have an “ownership mentality” they will genuinely try to make the best decisions in a timely manner. When presented with a problem they will automatically think about the consequences of their decision/action, or the lack thereof. People are more likely to find a solution and act if they think that by doing so their organization will be better off. It may also mean that they too will probably benefit with recognition, etc., from the organization and colleagues. Having an ownership attitude is associated with a “can do” state of mind where a person thinks “why not?” as opposed to “why?”.
Fostering an “ownership” attitude comes easier to some cultures and some of this is probably learned from an early age in school. Many will agree that Barbados has a very well-known and established education system of which we can be proud of. However, it is not perfect and is in need of updating to make it more relevant in the present world. Moreover, the method of teaching did not encourage students to provide answers that were not expected. In other words, you were basically taught to repeat what was in the book. Only a few teachers would actually be patient and willing to listen to a student with a different version of an answer. In fact, if a student had the courage to give an unusual answer he/she ran the risk of being ridiculed by the teacher. In other words, the focus was completing the syllabus and passing the exams and not on engaging different points of view. While this may have been understandable from the point of view of obtaining better exam results, it would have helped establish a mentality akin to only thinking “within the box”.
Thinking “within the box” could have become, for most students, the accepted way of thinking throughout their school years so that when they graduated and went to work in the real world, they carried that baggage with them. I believe that this type of experience gained in school could lead many graduates to adopt a conservative posture in their work that led them to prefer to avoid making decisions or to postpone decisions or to refer them to someone else. I also think it would be reasonable to assume that this type of attitude would be more accepted or even nurtured in a government environment rather that a private sector world. Hence, this learned behaviour may have led to what many citizens refer to as a “civil service mentality” where responding in a timely manner does not seem to be important and the word urgent is seldom used.
Barbados would be well served on its path to recovery and prosperity to recognize that in the arena of making decisions, “ownership matters” and to encourage this “ownership attitude” so that it becomes part of our culture!
John Beale is a former Barbados Ambassador to the United States.