Ownership: A Key to Leadership

Jeff Haanen

“If I could give you any one piece of advice about my years of leadership, it would culminate in a single word: ownership.”

Coming from Steve Reinemund, that single world carried significant weight for me.

Steve was the former CEO of PepsiCo, one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies with annual revenues of $33 billion. Its principal businesses include Frito-Lay snacks, Pepsi-Cola beverages, Gatorade sports drinks, Tropicana juices, and Quaker foods. Its portfolio includes 17 brands about 125,000 employees in 77 countries worldwide.

When Steve gathered with our Denver Institute staff for a deep-dive session on leadership earlier this year, he had a calm, collected demeanor that Brian Gray, our director of cultural engagement, identified as unique among C-suite professionals.

Steve told us this story -

One of the division heads at Pepsi (they own brands like Pizza Hut and Frito Lay, for example), had the great idea of purchasing a single cash register for all the Pepsi brands. It would save the company upwards of $50 million/yr. $50 million! Steve, as the CEO of Pizza Hut at this time, thought this was a great idea. No, said the current CEO.

The reason? If the CEO "makes" all the division heads adopt a new cash register, and it goes wrong, it becomes his problem, not their problem. That is, it would have robbed their sense of ownership over their respective brands, which would have been far costlier that $50 million/year.

  • Why
  • Why Not
  • How
  • Never Again

This insight for me was huge. I often come into a room with a great idea and expect everybody to get on board. But allowing people to both own their areas of responsibility and allowing both the freedom to execute on that vision and the accountability to actually make it happen is key to good leadership.

My peer Gary Aronhalt was wrestling with the question: “How do you know when to let people fail  and feel the weight of their decisions?”

The key, we learned, is to develop the wisdom to know the difference between mortal and minor damage for an individual and for your organization. If someone is making a decision, and you can see that the damage is going to be minor for them, then it’s fine to let them feel the weight of it, and it can be a helpful tool of growth.  But, if the damage is “mortal” for them personally or for the organization, then it’s time to step in and help them out.

After Steve's time with our staff, I reevaluated several things: I share my ideas less quickly, and listen more for other's ideas. I look for leaders who are willing to own the results, and not just those who will do what I want them to do.

As my colleague Joanna Meyer put it:

“It's a rare privilege to spend time with such an accomplished business leader, who thinks deeply about caring for people while leading effectively. Steve stressed the importance of ownership at every level of an organization. At times, that ownership might seem inefficient (i.e. allowing divisions to maintain slightly different operational structures rather than imposing a single system throughout the company) but the increased responsibility and morale that flows from that autonomy will increase productivity long term.”

Finding genuine owners vs employee "consumers" is absolutely key to what we do moving forward at DIFW.

Interested in learning from Steve and other like minded leaders?

On June 15, we will gather a range of business leaders – from startup founders to seasoned professionals like Steve Reinemund – to discuss practical wisdom on topics including “Caring for the Soul of Entrepreneurs” and “Good Jobs: A Strategy for Both Profit and Poverty Alleviation.”


Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.