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Are You Building a Culture of Co-Signers or Authorized Users?

Three lessons for leading a team that's truly committed to your shared goal.

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Everyone on your team is either a co-signer or an authorized user. You might be familiar with the difference between the two — especially if you are a parent to a young adult, or if you've ever needed help building your credit. A co-signer on an account takes a shared responsibility for payment, but an authorized user simply has access to the credit line. While this is typically a financial conversation between parents and children, within this concept lies a powerful leadership lesson for anyone leading a team. Every employee is one of the two. Which would you rather have?

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In other words, are you building a culture of co-signers or authorized users? It’s quite simple to tell the difference. You know you have a team full of co-signers when everyone feels a personal attachment to your mission, vision and bottom line. And I’m not talking about individuals who have equity in your company — I’m referring to employees, not shareholders.

When you have team members who care about the soft side of culture building and organizational health — and they’re not in your HR department — you know you’ve built a team of co-signers. And when your team is willing to roll up their sleeves, double down on projects and make personal sacrifices in the face of low projections, you have a team of co-signers.

A team of authorized users looks quite different. They might be worried about the consequences of a bad quarter, but they’re not willing to go beyond their scope of work unless you talk about overtime pay or some sort of incentive. Authorized users would obviously like a positive work environment, but if something needs to be fixed, it’s someone else’s problem. And if a team member is willing to jump ship to a competitor, regardless of how much you’ve invested into them, you know they were an authorized user.

Here are three tips that will help you cultivate a culture of co-signers:

1. Envision, don’t task.

As the leader, always start with the why. I know it’s easy to go straight to the what or to the how, but without starting with the why, you’ll never cultivate a culture of co-signers. Authorized users don’t care about the why because they’ll feel like it's wasting their time. It’s "above their pay grade,” and they’ll feel like it doesn’t actually matter. However, co-signers feel personal responsibility to your company, so they want to know the why behind the what. 

2. Develop, don’t dump.

When you’re busy, the quickest and easiest thing to do is to dump work on your team. You’re their boss, after all, so they have to do it. However, if you want to cultivate a culture of co-signers, you need to develop your team so that they are able to anticipate and pick up the work before you even feel like you need to assign it. The only way you can get there is by investing in and developing your team. Develop them with the skills and competencies you have so that they are able to do what you do. And don’t worry about losing your job or being replaced, because I’ve never met anyone who has been fired for being an expert people developer.

3. Share, don’t tell.

Authenticity beats autocracy every day. No one is willing to go the extra mile for a dictator who lives up in their ivory tower. Authentic leaders who are willing to admit when they don’t know something or when they’ve made a mistake, on the other hand, will find themselves with a legion of loyal team members who will die on the hill for them. So when you need to implement change, invite your team into the process and share what you’re thinking. 

If you practice these tips over and over again, you’ll wake up one day with a culture of co-signers rather than authorized users.

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