To Create a Culture of Ownership, Teach Your Leaders These Three Things

It’s a dilemma every CEO faces: why doesn’t everyone take ownership of the whole company like I do?

The longer you’re at the top of an organization, the easier it is to lose sight of how different the perspectives are at each level. Individual contributors want to do good work. Managers are learning how to work through others. Mid-level executives are squeezed between busy teams under them and demanding bosses above. And in the C-suite, high-octane achievers compete for resources and CEO support—even as they try to keep the good of the company front and center.

Relatively few bright stars can tackle the most complex problems at their level while staying truly focused on the long-term success of the whole enterprise. How can you create more of those?

In a recent leadership team workshop, I shared three moves that empower leaders and help drive a culture of ownership. Not coincidentally, they map closely to the way many executive coaches empower their clients.

Assess deeply. The most crucial step to solving a complex problem is to fully understand it—a step that is nearly always cut short. That’s because most of us believe we add value by providing solutions, not by exploring problems. So we skip quickly through the problem and jump to our brilliant suggestions. But without understanding the problem, we often solve for the wrong thing.

To assess deeply:

  • Slow down. Complex problems deserve adequate time and attention.
  • View “understanding the problem” as a discrete step, separate from finding solutions.
  • Ask yourself (or have a colleague ask you) a series of open-ended questions that start with the words “what,” “how,” “tell me about,” or “describe.” “Why” is also useful, but try “what are the reasons” instead, as it creates less defensiveness.

Examples of open questions: 

  • Describe the nature of the challenge or situation.
  • How did this come about?
  • Who is involved? Who is impacted?
  • What’s most important?
  • What are you and others thinking / feeling / doing currently about this?
  • What else? Or, tell me more about…?

Avoid doing these things:

  • Jumping too quickly past this step!
  • Asking leading questions that are suggestions in disguise, like “Have you tried X?”

Generate solutions. Once you’ve understood the problem fully, the ideal solution may become obvious. But you may need to put more energy into generating options. To do this, convene a brainstorming session with people who are most motivated or best able to contribute solutions (or for simpler problems, go it alone). Create a large number of ideas; it’s fine if some are unworkable. 

To generate solutions:

  • STOP! Did you jump too quickly to this step? Go back to step #1, slow down and think more deeply to understand the challenge.
  • Ask yourself, “What does success look like?”
  • Focus on the quantity of options—as many ideas as possible—as well as quality.


  • Critiquing ideas as you brainstorm, which inhibits creative thinking.
  • Going it alone when faced with a tough problem.

Generative AI can be a great thought partner here. Systems like Google’s Gemini, or Open AI’s GPT 4 allow you to provide extremely detailed, nuanced prompts with all the information you collected in your assessment step. Be sure you have an enterprise AI system so that any confidential information you share is safe. Ask the AI all of your questions. “Think out loud” with your AI partner. At the end of your prompt add: “Please ask me additional questions to help improve the quality of your response.” And remember that AI can be wrong. It’s great for idea generation, not for decision-making.

Think like a CEO. In choosing a path forward, deliberately adopt the mindset and perspective of the company CEO. Imagine you are the CEO now, responsible for the short- and long-term success of the whole company. You have to balance customers, product excellence, revenue generation, employees, costs and company value. What are the best options from that perspective? Weigh the pros and cons. Which is best for the business?  Remember, sometimes what’s best for the company isn’t what’s best for your team, or what’s easiest.

In my experience many people, when asked to shift their perspective to that of the CEO, are able to do it remarkably well. It’s just a muscle that they don’t exercise enough. And that makes sense: only the CEO inhabits that mindset at all times. Others must also look out for the well-being of their own slice of the company. It’s actually quite difficult to strike the right balance of both perspectives.

To think like a CEO:

  • Ask yourself, “What’s best for the whole company?” Temporarily let go of what’s best for your part of the organization.
  • Become educated about the larger business landscape by reading from trustworthy business news sources like The Economist and Harvard Business Review.
  • Think of all the different stakeholders (employees, shareholders, government, communities) and seek to balance their interests. This isn’t easy.


  • Optimizing too much for your own part of the company.
  • Taking black-and-white, overly simplistic views of a complex problem.

In considering these three moves, you might ask, “How can I teach my whole company to do this?” The answer: start in the C-suite. What happens there is a big lever for change in the rest of the company—change begins in their hearts, minds and behaviors. Do you see opportunities for your executive team to think more deeply about the challenge in front of them, to partner with each other more on solutions and to adopt more of a company-level perspective? The more you enable them to make those three big moves, the more you’ll foster an empowering culture for everyone.

Finally, a word about the CEO’s role. If you want more ownership in your company, you may have to do something that’s not easy: you may have to learn to let go more. There’s a connection between your ability to trust and others’ ability to own. Yes, change starts in the C-suite. But really, it starts with the CEO.

For more, see How to Develop an Enterprise Leader Mindset and To Work Well with GenAI, You Need to Learn How to Talk to It.