From left: Sarah Hassan, Wendy Zhang, Sharmini Wainwright and Francis Tam

By Nan-Hie In

A frequent conundrum amongst talent managers in organizations is how to encourage employees to be more pro-active in meeting business goals and go beyond their job description to generate desired outcomes. In the past, the responsibility was upon senior managers to instruct staff to get things done; today, it seems to be a very different environment of work culture.

Such top-down approach is no longer effective in today’s perpetually evolving organizations of the 21st century, according to Wendy Zhang, Vice President of Human Resources at VF Asia Pacific. “Every individual has to have the drive [to get things done] and that passion comes from within,” she says in a discussion on cultivating an ownership culture.

The cultivation of an ownership culture in an organization is particularly tough in Hong Kong, a city notorious for its high-turnover labor force. According to Sharmini Wainwright, Managing Director of recruitment firm PageGroup, companies have grown too accustomed to a high turnover rate of employees in the workplace that many simply believe they are easily replaceable, a pervasive mindset that impedes ownership culture in organizations.

Often, companies may have dozens of in-house human resources professionals but very little resources dedicated to examining staff retention strategies, Wainwright points out. “If you spend time on finding out triggers behind why people are leaving [your firm], you can develop better ways to retain your staff. That is how you can create a culture of ownership in a company.”

Despite such a challenging environment, there are various ways an organization can cultivate a can-do spirit in organizations, according to the panel of experts. One strategy is to stimulate performance amongst employees by facilitating a meaningful dialogue, with a series of thought-provoking questions, including “What do we need to change in this organization for it become more appealing to you?” and “If you were the CEO, what changes would you implement in the next 12 months?”

When the approach was tried as part of an “Innovation” series, initial response was tepid, but some participants took it seriously and aired their suggestions. Once employees observed that their views had led to some changes, they were energized to do the same in the following year, Wainwright recalls. “I thought I could do it in a year but it has taken three years to get the results that I wanted.”

At Philip Morris International, instead of a top-down directive, managers often share their reasons behind decisions with their employees, notes Sarah Hassan, Regional Director of HR. “It is a thought gives our employees an opportunity to question us.” By opening up their decision-making process in a conversation, it fostered an authentic and genuine dialogue at the workplace.

However, from an employee’s perspective, it is often an insurmountable challenge to share their views in a dialogue without fear of repercussions. To create a sense of security for employees, Zhang suggests a “Dare to Try” strategy, an initiative launched by VF Asia Pacific, highlighting cases in which the status quo was challenged. “It didn’t have to be a successful case; the learning [was what] we celebrated.”

One of the key questions is about fostering an ownership culture for different generations of staff within an organization, notes Francis Tam, Regional Sales Director at Panopto Asia Pacific, who moderated the panel discussion. Hassan recommends that companies give the issue more visibility by emphasizing the journey of employees.

This is particularly pertinent among younger staff as they tend to respond more swiftly to their career development. Today, it is much more common that employees are informed about their career path in an open environment – a practice which young employees, especially among millennials, find particularly attractive.

“Our managers are much more open and transparent about sharing insight to incumbents or existing employees about where they are today and where they will be in five years, provided he or she will do all the right things to get there,” Hassan says.