One hot and humid Saturday morning at Tasty Catering, a supervisor, Steven, noticed one of his team members was loading Indiana-bound equipment onto a truck headed for Wisconsin.
Seeing what would be a costly mistake, he yelled, “What is the matter with you? How dumb can you be?” to his colleague.
A culinary worker named Hugo Rios-Tellez was one of many who overheard the exchange.
He stopped what he was doing to address Steven. “Hey, Steven, number two!” he said, as he pointed to the large poster on the wall on display within the warehouse. The poster displays the company values, each of which is numbered for easy reference. Hugo was referring to the second value: “Treat all with respect.”
Steven became conscious of his behavior, and he quickly shifted his energy and apologized.
Tom Walter, Tasty Catering’s CEO (and now Chief Culture Officer), had seen the entire situation unfold. He made his way to Hugo to thank him for what he had done. He approached Hugo, shaking his hand, saying “Thank you, Hugo,” placing a $20 bill into his hand.
Hugo looked down at the $20 bill, looked back at Tom, and handed him the bill. “Thomas, it’s my company too!” he said.
The story has become a sort of artifact for Tasty Catering, a privately-held catering and event planning company in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, and it’s also written about in the book co-authored by Tom, It’s my Company Too!
Most recently, Tasty Catering has been recognized by Forbes as one of America’s Best Small companies. Over the years, they’ve been recognized for their customer intimacy and high performing culture with awards including being named Wall Street Journal’s Best Small Workplace, Catering Magazine’s National Caterer of the Year, APA National Award for Psychologically Healthiest Workplace, 101 Best and Brightest Workplace National Award, among many others.
How can other companies unlock a culture with such a strong sense of ownership?
1. Support team members’ freedom and responsibility.
Many employees at Tasty Catering arrive as early as 2:00 am in the morning to start the day. They don’t need to wait for someone to tell them what to do; they take initiative, get to work, and they use their judgement when the situation calls for it. “When a person owns something, they know they own that outcome for the company, too,” explains Tom.
Tasty Catering has found great success in bringing together both freedom and responsibility within their culture (reflected as the sixth and seventh value of the company). Having the trust and the freedom to do what’s needed within the boundaries of the culture, results in employees who are more engaged, creating exceptional results for Tasty Catering.
Employees are empowered to drive change, innovate, and improve processes and practices so that they can build customer intimacy and loyalty, explains Tom.
At the same time, each employee feels a strong sense of responsibility to their team, and to the company. Colleagues serve as a “checks and balances” for ongoing behavior, as seen with Hugo and Steven when behavior wasn’t aligned with a company value. “Employees know if they follow, or hold other people accountable to the culture, it's going to benefit them and the company,” adds Tom.
2. Change your mindset.
The biggest change for Tom when it came to creating a culture of ownership was a mindset change. Tom and others had to abandon the “command and control” style of leadership they had been accustomed to—instead favoring a style that embraces a culture with freedom and responsibility. “Perhaps the biggest difficulty in the change was for me to make the realization that I'm one person, and how can one person lead an organization with 100 or more employees?” he says.
“I'm one person trying to control 100 people or 100 minds, and I thought, ‘How ludicrous is that?’ I realized I was limited to my knowledge, my experience, and my intellectual capabilities. I could either try to control them—or they can contribute, together, to the organization. Which one's easier? I'd rather have all the people contributing,” says Tom.
3. Embrace your shared values.
Having clearly defined values that employees “buy into” is the foundation of an engaged organization. Put simply, the success of the company hinges on the values that guide the desired behaviors and actions of employees.
These are the core values Tasty Catering lives:
- Always moral, ethical and legal
- Treat all with respect
- Quality in everything we do
- High service standards
- Competitiveness: strong determination to be the best
- An enduring culture of individual discipline
- Freedom and responsibility within the culture of individual discipline
“Team members have these seven values they follow, and they do have the freedom to make choices that are opposed to what we typically do, to adapt to a situation if needed. Employees know it's their responsibility to take care of what they own,” explains Tom.
Employees know if they make a decision that would vary from the norm, they should be willing and ready to justify the change they made or the thinking process behind the decision.
4. Use positive reinforcement.
It’s not atypical at Tasty Catering to hear an employee acknowledging another employee for their value-based behavior: “That’s really displaying value seven; you took responsibility, and you took ownership of that situation, and you created an outcome that was great for the customer. Well done!”
That kind of positive reinforcement is not by accident, it’s by design.
When an employee uses discretionary decision-making to solve a problem or to better serve the client, aim to give that person positive reinforcement, says Tom. First, this helps to show employees you care; second, it’s one more way to celebrate the company’s values and the conscious behaviors that reflect those values.
5. Support entrepreneurial thinking.
Do employees know how the business makes a profit? What tools or venues are you providing employees so that they can think and act like entrepreneurs? Do you provide structure or resources to help them continue to make the best possible business decisions?
Tasty Catering gives all employees a copy of Jim Collins' Good to Great, with both English and Spanish available for employees.
They also practice open book management, with financials on full display for employees. Doing so promotes transparency and supports a focus on generating sales, cutting expenses, and looking for alternative sources of revenue. Team members play the Great Game of Business, a game that “teaches employees to think like owners,” rewarding them with financial incentives once certain metrics or goals are achieved.
“This has allowed employees to think and act like owners, and we’ve became a closer family as a result,” adds Tom.
Help Employees Think & Act Like Owners
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A version of this post originally appeared on Forbes.com.