employee mindset vs owner mindset
the big change i've been terrified of
I’ve been making slow and steady progress on Overlay And I’m sensing a personal paradigm shift afoot — crossing the chasm between employee mindset and owner mindset.
The motto of an employee is “Reduce Risk and Look Smart.”
She’s hired to do a specific job. When she knows how to do it well, she puts all her energy into making sure good work gets done.
But in the absence of a clear definition of “good work”, the employee relies on a familiar proxy — impressing her manager or her teammates.
Suppose her manager or teammates also don’t know what it means to do good work. The riskiest thing to do in this situation is to raise eyebrows or sounds stupid.
So a language forms within the company, and its primary purpose is to communicate “Look at me, this is me doing a good job.” That language consists of buzzwords, trendy frameworks, over-engineered deliverables, appeals to authority, and annual performance reviews.
The goal is to not be wrong and to convey certainty at every step along the way. Anything short of that is failure.
But a funny thing tends to happen to these types of employees. I know, because it happened to me.
A few years ago, I had spent long hours preparing a presentation on a new product. All the bells and whistles. We had built a successful prototype, and now we wanted to dedicate more time to launch it.
Within minutes of starting the presentation, the CEO interrupted me.
“What do you recommend we do?”
I bumbled the answer which was on slide 8.
“What makes you think this will work?”
I distilled slides 1-7 into a few sentences.
“What do you need to make this happen?”
And then poof … meeting over. Request granted. Now I started freaking out: What if this doesn’t work?
I had taken a strong whiff of owner mindset.
“You’re almost always on the razor’s edge of total success and total failure. You learn to live there.”
Marc Randolph, Netflix
The motto of an owner is “Make Good Bets and Avoid Ruin.”
An owner’s job is to keep the mission alive. She creates a vision for the future and navigates reality to let it unfold.
Clarity of vision gives owners a low tolerance for BS. They possess this constant sense of “Alright, give it to me straight, cut to the chase.”
They’ve tried a hundred different things that didn’t quite work out. So they speak the language of runway, cashflow, upside, well-sized bets, relationships, and relentless persistence.
Owners know that the grind of ownership is the main cause of failure. Nothing ever seems to work out quite how they had planned. Yesterday’s victory is followed by tomorrow’s crisis. Failure happens when they lose the will, adaptability, and vision to keep going.
To protect against this, they invest in other owners — with favors, funding, referrals, emotional support, anything to keep that flame alive.
They invest in employees that one day might also become owners. They give them the space and the trust to solve problems.
And they are constantly investing in themselves — their habits, their mindset, their ability to thrive through uncertainty.
It’s no wonder that Tweets like this resonate:
(I’ve been told you can replace “Startups” with other pursuits requiring an all-in mentality — relationships, children, service, the arts, athletics, performance, etc.)
Making the Leap
“We like backing people who’ve jumped off the ledge because it is a necessary condition for success and something we can judge easily — usually we are not knowledgeable enough about a company’s domain to tell if their idea is good.”
Michael Seibel, YC partner
Making the leap from Employee to Owner is really really tough, as I’m experiencing right now.
As a lifelong employee, I’ve participated in a vicious feedback loop rooted around expertise and certainty. I’ve been rewarded for having answers and being right.
As an owner, my identity will become rooted in swimming in the rip tides of uncertainty and finding a way through every single time.
Sure, most of my gigs have required me to be a sort of Founder Whisperer, a right hand for owners. But that’s akin to sitting in the front row and claiming that’s the same as being in the arena.
So there’s this huge chasm between Employee and Owner. The good employee brandishes the tools of expertise, structure, and clarity. Being an owner requires developing a brand new set of wayfinding tools. Tools that seem ridiculous to someone obsessed with being right.
How do you make the leap? The annoying thing, I’m finding, is you just have to jump.
Thanks for reading and making it this far. I reward you with a picture of my morning coffee, book, and flamingo.