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Featured Question - September 15, 2003

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What does it mean to be an Owner?  How do I recognize one and how do I know if I am one?


There are two perspectives to this question.  The first is from the board's perspective and the second is from the individual's perspective.  Neither are well understood.  Boards identify owners as those individuals or groups of individuals to which they listen in terms of Ends.  The definition of whom the owners are, is often left to the board as that the owners are not usually well defined nor well delineated. Owners define why the organization exists.  If there are no clear guidelines or linkages from the board to the owners, then definition falls within the prerogative of the board to interpret.  It simply becomes whom ever the board thinks are the owner, are the owners.

Depending on the organization and the linkage from the board to the owners, owners might speak to limitations as well.  Certainly, this would be at a more global level than from which the board would speak, but there is nothing within Policy Governance that limits the owners from speaking to restrictions on means.  For membership organizations, where the owners are more clearly identified and have a more defined role in governance, this may be a very desirable approach.

The other side of this question is from the individual's perspective rather than the board's.  How does an owner act?  Certainly to be an owner, there must be an emotional connection in some way to the organization.  That emotional connection doesn't have to have a well defined reason, just that an emotional connection exists. However, emotional connections are difficult to identify unless they are defined behaviorally.  So what do owners do that identify them as owners?

Owners first and foremost give without being asked, or they give more than they are asked.  This is not just in dollars but may be in time and energy.  They believe in the value of the benefit that the organization has identified as an End, or something close to it.  They don't think in terms of dues or fees, but in terms of investing in the what the organization can achieve.  They see organizations as a method to accomplish something good for people. 

Owner behavior may sound idealistic, but it is embedded in most organizations' structure but is difficult to get at except through Policy Governance. In some ways, ownership has become a lost art.  Currently, the belief that one can function at the owner level is difficult to accept.  When someone asks, "So what do you get out of this?," they are already working from an assumption that people have to receive an individual reward for their participation.  It begs the question. 

One of the values that Policy Governance offers is that individuals may learn to be owners rather than customers.  This is certainly the emphasis that the International Policy Governance Association is placing on creating owner-accountable boards.  It also appears to be a chicken and egg issue.  Which comes first, owners or owner accountable boards?  It is pretty clear that they work together, either to the positive or to the negative.  If boards do not recognize owners, over time the owners will lose this sense of identify.  If owners, do not respond to boards, over time boards will be self-focused rather than owner focused.  It is an interactive effect.

One last point, are you an owner if the board doesn't recognize you as an owner?  My answer is yes.  You certainly don't have the voice in the organization that a board recognized owner would have, but ownership is as much a personal identity as a recognition from another group.  Owner-accountability will occur when both owners and boards recognize that they work together to ensure the definition and the achievement of the Ends.

Lynn A. Walker, Ph.D.
Boundary Management Consulting

12411 McKelvey Road
St. Louis MO 63146-2929

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