By now you know the drill: you need to “think like an owner” if you want to stand out and deliver real value in the workplace, which of course is the key to building an outstanding reputation in your overall career.
It’s a pretty powerful skill to master. When I was at Google this was one of the mantras they beat us over the head with again and again, and for good reason: a company is only as great as the quality of its team, and a team can get shit done only in correlation to the quality of its individual members. So how can you as an individual team member become known for getting shit done and being a source of reliably high quality output and ideas?
Here's the short answer: you focus relentlessly on the outcome, not on just your role.
What distinguishes an “owner” from a mere “worker” is that you’re just concerned with doing whatever needs to get done to reach the final desired outcome. Your eyes are always on the prize.
The “worker” mentality, by contrast, is defined by a focus on the individual tasks set in front of you.
You want to do what you’re told and you want to do it well, never stopping to question if those tasks are the best way to reach the company’s only real goals: to deliver customer value and profit.
But for all the evangelizing around this idea of taking ownership, there’s precious little step-by-step guidance on how to actually do it. There’s no blueprint that comes with this advice on how to shift from thinking like a worker (which you probably are) to thinking like the boss (which you probably aren’t).
This is especially hard when you’re in college or fresh out of college and trying to build a resume, gain stellar references and build great mentor relationships. It’s tough to be someone who has little to no experience or real skills to offer, but to know you have to contribute that caliber of value and discussion to get ahead.
Contrary to how it may feel sometimes, there is actually a real methodology. Here is the exact strategy you can use to go from being a clueless intern or a wide-eyed recent college grad to someone with a reputation for delivering rockstar value in the work you put out and the ideas you have to offer.
Here’s how to think like an owner and develop a rockstar reputation.
1/ Read a lot. I’m serious. The returns of reading a lot of content won’t be immediate, linear or obvious at first—but it’ll make you literate, which will be key to heightening the context of your understanding and breadth of your knowledge. And this will elevate the caliber of your ideas and thinking.
Be hungry for knowledge, and not just facts: always be listening for clues on how your industry actually works, what’s really going on behind the scenes, stuff the TechCrunch and FastCompany articles won’t necessarily tell you.
When I started my career in Silicon Valley, I had just moved out to San Francisco, I was twenty years old, “non-technical,” and had no idea how anything worked. I just knew I wanted to make it here (whatever that meant). So I became singularly obsessed with learning as much as I could as fast as I could.
I read articles, I made heavy use of resources like Pocket and Quora, I asked people to network over coffee through LinkedIn every single week, and I devoured as many books as I could get my hands on. I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and The Economist. I listened to podcasts and I read the VC blogs. I followed everyone that seemed “in the know” on Twitter. It was a scrappy self-education, built from the ground up.
These days, even if I can’t spar with you in an informed debate about technical things like AI or the future of cryptocurrency, I can carry myself in most conversations about business, finance, or economics, which I think pleasantly surprises some people. This is entirely by design: I can’t know specifically what my resume will look like moving forward, but I know I want my life’s contribution to revolve around these areas, so while I’m looking for the next steps the most valuable thing I can do is to become as literate as possible.
So read a lot. It’ll make you sound smart. It’ll make you actually smart. (Both of these will probably help you get ahead in the workplace.) And it’ll give you a better understanding of the world in general, which can shorten the time it takes to make great stuff or solve important problems in society, if that’s your thing.
2/ Know your value. Thinking and acting like an owner requires a certain amount of daring; it demands you step out of the boundaries of your assigned role and start thinking about what’s best for the team as a whole. And this kind of chutzpah usually comes from either naive bravado, strong common sense, or a real grasp of what value you bring to the table through your knowledge, skills and past experiences. Some combination of all three isn’t uncommon, but the last one is by far the most straightforward to directly cultivate.
The key to thinking like an owner is to know that you have something to offer beyond what you were hired for, which means you have a good idea of your strengths and weaknesses.
But how do you develop that knowledge? This used to confuse the hell out of me when I was just starting my career in college. I’d make up all sorts of fluffy answers because I didn’t know what I was really interested in (sales? marketing? biz dev? big tech? startups????), let alone what I would be good at.
Only after four internships, two jobs, a thesis, and all sorts of new freelancing and consulting opportunities now in the span of two years am I now able to say with confidence that I’m good at marketing, creating high quality content, and developing strategies for brand awareness and growth online for different businesses. Only now can I deliver a relatively crisp pitch that I’m not only good at storytelling through copywriting and positioning, and that I have the requisite technical chops to make this data-driven and effective, but that I love this stuff.
So here’s the takeaway: to think like an owner, you need to feel like you have value to offer, and you can only do that through trying a lot of stuff and finding where you fit in. Dive in, try new things, say yes. Only by trying on different roles and projects can you figure out where you can offer your signature value. This will also just give you a better grasp of how things work, so you’ll be able to confidently bring value to the table.
3/ Be part of something you care about. Reading a lot and knowing what you have to offer help, but this last “strategy” is arguably the most important. If you care about the larger mission, your inexperience or lack of seasoned expertise won’t be as important. You’ll be in the hustler mentality, and you’ll be more motivated to just do whatever needs to be done towards the larger goal.
When I care about something, you’d need to hold me back to keep me from thinking of new ideas or coming up with ways to improve the systems in place; caring is powerful fuel.
By contrast, I’ve worked in jobs I didn’t care as much about, and found myself doing the bare minimum required of my actual job. And this usually happens to me if I’m on a team where the people around me are more concerned with career advancement than the larger mission of the team, product or company. This kind of culture can be pretty demoralizing if you’re a starry-eyed idealist like me.
So don’t do stuff you don’t actually care about if you’re just starting out your career. It’s much better to focus on growth and learning by being part of something that galvanizes you, that keeps you hungry and on your toes, not only because this will maximize your happiness but it’ll make you the kind of team member who gives a shit, is willing to put in the grind, and is always putting the company’s larger goals before your own advancement, and this mentality will begin to show. People will take notice, and this kind of career capital is the most valuable to cultivate, especially early on in your career.
Thinking like an owner is how you not only make things happen but how you develop a rock-solid reputation in the process. And how you do that is by prioritizing learning, gaining an understanding of what value you bring, and saying “yes” to things you actually care about.