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“If you think like the owner and you act like the owner, it’s only a matter of time until you become the owner.”–Naval Ravikant
Sean McVay is one impressive leader. He’s polished. He’s confident. He’s got every tool in the belt to succeed at his job. He has the enduring respect of his superiors as well as each and every one of his employees—half of whom are older than him. He commands attention whenever he steps into a room. He’s reached the pinnacle of his profession.
You wouldn’t have guessed it from that description, but he’s the youngest head coach in the history of the NFL, hired by the Los Angeles Rams at only 30 years of age. How did he get there 15 years before most coaches even get an interview? Was it luck? Sure. Connections? Possibly. Talent? Unquestionably. But here’s the most reliable explanation: his ability to think like an owner. Sean McVay got his big opportunity because he’s solved the principal-agent problem that every organization faces, and every leader should seek to diminish.
The principal-agent problem is the fundamental, and almost unavoidable disconnect in any organization, between the owner/leader (principal) and the employee/follower (agent). It exists because most often, owners and employees have an inherently different set of incentives and prioritize accordingly to achieve those incentives. Owners aim to maximize profits by squeezing as much labor out of employees at the least possible cost. Employees aim to maximize income for the least amount of time. Owners act in the customer’s best interests; employees act in their own best interests. Owners think in the long term (quarter to quarter, year to year); employees think in the short-term (week to week, month to month). Owners focus on the performance of the organization; employees focus on their own performance. There is a constant tug-of-war at every turn between principals and agents, and the farther away the two are, the more dysfunctional the organization is likely to be.
As a leader, it is squarely on you to close that gap and make the organization function as a single unit working towards unified goals. One of the most effective ways to do that is to find those trusted employees who align their interests with those of the leadership. If you are an aspiring leader, taking the initiative to close that gap (i.e., permissionless leadership) may be the only opportunity you’ll need to become the next Sean McVay.
So, how do you actually think like an owner? In leading and mentoring thousands of people over the last decade, I’ve boiled it down to three key characteristics:
Own the Process
When something goes wrong, you take the blame. When the team fails, you take responsibility for it. When asked to take out the trash, you take out the trash. Do this long enough, and people around you, both up and down the chain, will begin to take greater ownership in their work. Ownership is contagious, and a rising tide lifts all boats.
Leaders must step back and see the forest in order to guide the team through the trees. Your ability to step back and account for things beyond your responsibility will make you more effective at your job, at leading people, and in critical decision-making.
By helping your peers execute their responsibilities, you are taking on more than you are expected to do. Going above and beyond is something that all leaders appreciate in their subordinates, and teaching others is possibly the most effective way to do that.
Master these three skills, and you will become the next Sean McVay. Or at the very least, by solving the principal-agent problem, you will earn respect up and down the chain of command and be recognized as the leader—the glue that holds everything together. As an agent, the more you can align your interests with those of the principal, the more reliable you become, the more trustworthy you will be, the faster you will rise to the top.
It’s only a matter of time. If you think like an owner, one day you will become one.
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