The role of the business owner – as part of the team at work

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

I regularly facilitate a peer advisory group for business owners in the Whatcom County area. At present, in our group we have nine of the Top 100 businesses in the county, as identified by the Whatcom Business Alliance. These owners, while successful, remain curious about what they don’t know or don’t do well that may be key to the continued growth of their businesses and the development of their cultures, a topic in which they are all keenly interested.

Last week we were fortunate enough to have Dr. Jeff Spencer as our guest speaker. Jeff may not be a household name, however he has been an Olympic athlete, coached Olympic athletes and a wide range of high performers in a variety of disciplines from business to rock music over the past 45 years.

Among the many messages Dr. Spencer left with us was this: “Nobody becomes a champion by themselves.”

He emphasized that for every high performer there is always a team of people who helped get him or her to the peak of their performance. This was a message that you have likely heard before. I certainly have, but on that day, for some reason, I heard it differently.

In my work with local business owners, the topic of our monthly one-to-one conversations is frequently the performance of one or more of the members of the owner’s senior team, or mid-level managers.

From time to time we’ll focus on the owner but more in terms of their needs than their role as a member of their own team. As Jeff was talking that day, I realized that by not seeing the business owner as both a player and also a player coach I was, as were my group members, missing the vital opportunity of designing and assessing their performance as a member of their own team.

It’s not that I have not been cognizant of the business owner as performer, but by defining their role, visibly and publicly as a member of their own team, the owner’s performance becomes a topic for open discussion. It will no doubt establish expectations and commitments to which the owner, like any other performer, can be held to account.

In my own 40-year practice of coaching and advising business owners and senior leaders, I have become well aware of their doubts in themselves. In some cases, I have also become aware of their unwillingness to look at the shortcomings in their own performance.

Too bad, since inevitably these types of owners or senior managers find themselves in the position of laying off people who have performed more than adequately.

In listening to Jeff Spencer talk, it became abundantly clear that an owner or senior manager with no accountability to their employees is not fully a member of their own team.

Thinking in terms of financial outcomes only as a measure of an owner or senior manager’s performance lets them off the hook to a certain extent. If, under my leadership or ownership, I can deflect the consequences of my poor performance onto those charged with carrying out my directives, even when they are successful, it is tough to hold me to account.

One of the reasons I am so keen on working with privately held companies is that establishing the role of an owner is a much easier process than in public companies. In the public company, the senior manager clearly answers to shareholders and a board of directors. A private business owner has him or herself to answer to — maybe a bank or some other creditor — but most definitely their employees who have invested their energies and talents with the understanding that the owner will be accountable to them as the business ebbs and flows.

Certainly not everyone is cut out to become a business owner. In fact, the vast majority of people are not. They would prefer a spot on the team that did not involve the responsibility for the whole of both the assets and liabilities of the business entire. That role is largely played by the owner and since it involves the most, risk it necessarily involves the greatest rewards. But let’s not make any mistake. No owner is an owner by force or conscription. They take on the role because it fits a vision of how they want to live their lives, and it includes a responsibility and accountability to their team.

In your place of work, no matter if you are a business owner or employee, is the role of the owner as a team member visible and clearly understood?

Related Stories