True success begins when accountability transforms into ownership—a mindset where personal responsibility becomes the compass guiding every action and decision. In this episode, host Penny Zenker explores the power of the ownership mindset with Kerry Siggins, the CEO and executive chair of Stone Age Holdings. Discover the crucial distinction between accountability and ownership as Kerry shares her personal story and ESOP’s (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) legacy. Drawing insights from her handbook, The Ownership Mindset, Kerry emphasizes the importance of developing your own mindset and owning it. She also shares the secrets behind building trust and fostering a culture where every individual feels valued and invested. Don’t miss out—get ready to own it!
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The “Own It” Mindset: How To Establish Ownership And Accountability With Kerry Siggins
I’m always looking for whose brain we can pick for you as an audience that’s going to enrich your life and your business. In this episode, that’s going to be the case. Kerry Siggins is with us and she is phenomenal. She has a new book out that is called The Ownership Mindset. We’re going to talk a little bit about that.
A little bit about Kerry. She is the CEO and Executive Chair of StoneAge Holdings, a fast-growing manufacturing and technology company that’s based in Colorado. Under her leadership, StoneAge has experienced double-digit growth year after year. She is a superstar. In 2015, she successfully transitioned the company’s ownership structure to an ESOP. I believe it’s when the employees own the company.
That’s incredible. There are not that many of those companies out there. We’re going to talk about that. She’s also a very helpful and impactful board member and business advisor due to her success and experience in scaling companies and building world-class cultures around the world. Kerry, without further ado, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here with you.
You’re a busy executive. You’re still running your company and you decided to write a book. Where did you find the time and what made you want to do that?
I have always been a writer. Writing a book has been on my bucket list for a very long time. I’ve been writing for magazines for publications. I have blogged since about 2015. When the pandemic hit, I thought, “This is the time to write the book. I’m not traveling like I used to. Let’s just get it done.” I had this story in me of a unique path to becoming a CEO that involves recovering from substance abuse issues and becoming a CEO at the age of 30 when I had no business probably being a CEO.
We have this amazing employee-owned company with this culture that attracts and retains brilliant talent who are so engaged and will go the extra mile and come to work for more than just a paycheck because they are owners of the company. I wanted to share the story of how we’ve built this remarkable company and how I learned how to do it by leading myself and leading others.
Do you feel that the root of this ownership mindset is the struggles that you had coming from where you came to where you are now?
Like accountability, it’s weird. I had some periods of life where I was accountable and some periods where I wasn’t. I don’t think that it’s atypical. My mom taught me a lot about accountability when I was younger, but I think that after I graduated from high school, left and went to college and just got out of that daily reminder that you’re responsible for everything that happens in your life, I fell into a victim mentality. It certainly did not benefit me, especially dealing with mental health issues, lack of self-esteem, body image issues, and all of these things. When you add a victim mentality on top of it, it can be pretty toxic. It can be dark.
It holds you down. It limits you from getting out of where you are when you’re in that place. How did you recognize that you were there? The hardest part is recognizing that you are making yourself the victim.
There was a combination of things and it was a journey. It all came to a head on Labor Day of 2006 when I accidentally overdosed and I almost died. That was when I was at the inflection point of saying, “Enough is enough. I know that I have more potential than the way that I’m living my life. I need to go figure this out.” That was the point where I knew I had to do something different.
The ownership mindset piece of it came over time, but I’ll never forget that it was probably three days after my overdose when I was calling my mom to talk to her about coming home. She said, “You were this natural-born leader. You always have been. You talk about how you want to lead other people.” I was lamenting a lot about how miserable I was at work. She said, “You have to learn how to lead yourself well before you can lead other people well.”
That was the first time I was introduced to this idea of self-leadership and I was curious about that. As soon as I got home and started to heal and recover, I decided I was going to figure out why I make the decisions I make and start to deal with this so I could change my life. There was a two-year period of me figuring out how to get out of this victim mentality that I had dug myself into over those early twenty years.
Was there a core strategy for people who might think, “Is that me?” Is there one thing that you fell back on that made all the difference for you? Everybody is different. It might not be that thing for other people, but I’m curious what it might have been for you.
For me, it was when I heard myself saying, “It’s this way because of.” It’s because of somebody else, because of time, and because of the situation. I train myself to listen to those victim statements. I say this a lot in my keynotes and in the book. The opposite of responsibility, which is the foundation of the ownership mindset, isn’t your responsibility. It’s blame. We can blame so many things, so many people, and so many situations.
That’s what I trained myself to hear when I was like, “Yeah, but,” and it wasn’t me taking ownership. That’s when I knew. I was like, “I’ve got to stop doing that.” I created accountability as a partner. My mom helped me. I had a close friend who was helping me through this who would say, “Is this the path that you want to go down with, blaming, or are you going to take responsibility for this?” That helped to have people hold me accountable.
As soon as I heard, “It’s this way because of somebody else,” it was my trigger to say, “No. It’s this way because of the decisions I made to get myself in this place.” It wasn’t to minimize childhood trauma or things that happen. Bad things happen to people but you’re still responsible for how you react, how you respond, and how you show up in it. I had given my power away in those moments by succumbing to, “It’s this way because.” I had to work on switching that mindset and I listened for those victim phrases.
You not only give your power away at that moment but going forward. It follows you and leaves you limited. I don’t know where it came from. I think it’s from some of the challenges that I’ve had in my life. To keep myself from falling into victim mode is to be listening and also listening to what other people are saying.
I’m a big fan of the energy of words and listening. Does that word create energy and is it positive or is it limiting and negative? How do you work with that? Whether it’s your own word, how do you reframe it? If it’s someone else’s word, how do you reframe their words so that you can reduce the intensity or help support in whatever way? Those are important. For everybody who’s tuning in, it doesn’t matter what level you are, how old you are, or what you’re dealing with, your language matters. It’s an insight into where your mindset is.
One of the things that people ask me, especially my employees, is “How do you deliver tough feedback in a way that sometimes it’s like, ‘That feels good. That was a great conversation.’” It is using positive language. You can say the same exact thing negatively like, “You need to stop doing that,” and you could reframe it into, “It would be better if you did more of this.”
I agree with you 100%. How you frame your language and reframe it into using positive words instead of negative words changes everything. It changes your own mindset. It changes the conversation that you’re having with people, the energy, and the aura that’s in the air because people are looking for those negative words and they tend to take them personally.
They get defensive with it. It creates an automatic shield. It’s like hitting the Batman shield and then the conversation ends. There’s not a conversation because they’ve shut down or if you’re in that place, maybe you shut down and you’re not listening. It’s so important. Let’s fast forward to now. I want to hear a little bit about and I want the people to hear this because with engagement and we talked about language and delivering.
It’s great that we were able to put that in there as well. Also, just to understand what made you want to make this company an ESOP so that everybody was an owner, and then maybe we can talk a little bit about that ownership mentality, how that creates more engagement, and how you bring that out in the organization.
When I joined StoneAge back in 2007, we were already employee-owned but it wasn’t an ESOP. It was a skin-in-the-game program where employees had the opportunity to invest in the company by buying stocks in the company. It was successful. In fact, employees had bought about 40% of it by the time we decided to do an ESOP, but it was delusionary. The founders weren’t selling their own shares. They were selling new shares. They were approaching in their mid-60s.
I said, “We have to figure out a true succession model for the two of you. Who’s going to own this company if something happens to the two of you or when something happens to the two of you? The machinist who’s been buying shares in the company for the last twenty years doesn’t want to be the owner. He loves the investment that he’s made and the sense of ownership that he has but he doesn’t want that responsibility.
We talked through several different options like selling out to private equity or a strategic buyer or competitor. That was not the legacy that they wanted to leave behind. They’d proven that employee ownership was successful for us. The only model that made sense for us that allowed all employees to participate was an ESOP. An ESOP is an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. It is a program that is very structured.
It’s managed by the Department of Labor and ERISA, which is the organization that manages all of our retirement benefits. We decided that it was going to be the best path for us so that everybody could participate in ownership. We began that transition in 2015 and we finished it in 2022. We’re now 100% ESOP-owned. We are enjoying the benefits and the challenges. In any kind of transition like that, that comes with the territory.
I didn’t realize it would be such a long process.
We decided to do it over time. It doesn’t have to be. It’s because we had all of these employee shareholders who had bought stock in the company and they wanted to continue to see the return on that investment and we didn’t want to be unfair to them with the new ESOP. We said, “At eight years, we’re going to stop with distributions and we are no longer going to pay distributions.” We stopped allowing employees to buy stock in the company when we did the ESOP.
The founders wanted to still stay owners as well. It was a transition that we did on purpose. Many companies will say, “We’re doing 100% and going for it.” We did ours over time, which was great in many ways and presented more complexities in many ways. The nice thing that people don’t necessarily know about ESOPs is that there are lots of different ways for founders to extract value from the company if they’re not ready to leave, but they can start this process. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We went the slow transition route.
You used it in the beginning, accountability. Sometimes you were in waves in your life about being less accountable and we were talking about ownership. I talk a lot about those two. Again, with the energy of words, I usually say and I’m interested in how you position this in the book and how you lead. Accountability is a byproduct of ownership.
When we focus on ownership as leaders versus accountability, we’re going to get all the benefits but we’re going to get so much more because there’s that true buy-in. I’m vested in what I’m doing because I’m owning it. What’s your philosophy? I didn’t get a chance to read all the way through your book. Give us a little bit of an insight into the difference for you between accountability and ownership.
I agree with you completely. As I said, ownership is about personal responsibility. It is a commitment that you make to yourself and others but it’s forward-looking. “I am going to be responsible for these things. I am going to do what I say I’m going to do. I’m going to show up with a positive attitude. I’m going to own my mistakes. I’m going to take responsibility.”
Accountability is something that typically happens in the past. “This went wrong. Now, who’s going to be accountable for it?” I agree with you. I think that accountability starts with responsibility and with this idea of, “I own everything that happens in my life, my career, and my relationships.” Accountability is like, “Something goes wrong or something is going right,” because you’re holding yourself accountable to those commitments that you make to yourself and to others.
I look at it as this idea of ownership thinking and responsibility is forward-facing. It is that commitment that you’re making. Accountability is when the rubber meets the road, did you keep your commitments? Are you holding yourself accountable? Are other people holding you accountable? Are you holding people accountable for the commitments and the responsibilities that they’ve made? That’s how I looked at it and framed it in the book.
How have you seen this ownership mindset show up positively in your team as you’re building this business? That’s an incredible feat to grow your business and double it year after year. I think this is probably the secret sauce. What are you doing to help people and support people to maintain that level of ownership, especially when it gets hard? There’s got to be pressures and stakes. We’re going to double again and people are like, “Not again.”
Luckily, it’s double-digit growth not doubling every year because I think I would probably lose my mind too. It’s hard. Growth is always hard because it requires change. We have to help our employees with that, but the benefits that we’ve seen from this ownership mentality that we have cultivated at StoneAge are very tangible. We have insane customer loyalty. We have customers who’ve been buying products from us for many years.Growth is always hard because it requires change. Click To Tweet
We have customers who say they would never buy any other product besides what they get at StoneAge. We make industrial cleaning equipment and high-pressure water jetting equipment that you use to clean refineries, petrochemical plants, and food processing plants, the really dirty places. It’s a very dangerous and niche industry. Also, it’s a very important industry. We’ve been doing this for a long time.
Our innovation and our customer service, the way that we solve problems, and the vibe of our company, people love working with us. That’s because people care more. When you care about your employees, they are going to care more about your customers. Customer loyalty is a big one. Also, attraction and retention. The ESOP does pull people in because it gives them a chance to own the company, especially in a lot of blue-collar jobs where people wouldn’t expect to be able to own the company or have owned shares in the company that they work with.
Also, from a retention perspective, I think our turnover this year is 3.5%. It’s significantly below anything that’s going on in any other industries and it’s because we’ve created this great culture. Also, supplier preference. My whole purchasing team treats our suppliers as partners. While there’s still pressure we have to watch costs and take cost-cutting measures, we partner with our suppliers. We bring them in.
We talk about our strategy, how we’re going to grow, and how they’re going to grow with us. We have preferences. When the pandemic hit and the supply chain blew up, we had one of our air motor suppliers say, “I set aside 50 of these air motors for you because I know you’re going to need them and I want to make sure that you have them. We’re not their largest customer but we work with our suppliers so closely that they are looking out for us. Those tangible benefits are some of the things that we have seen.
As a leader, how do you treat your people so that they have more ownership? Trust is a huge issue in a lot of organizations. A lot of people are leaving and aren’t happy there because they don’t feel trusted, or this control or be controlled type of environment. Do you forego reports? What kind of things do you do that help to make people feel trusted and also buy in and are living at that level aside from the ownership of the company?
Lots of ESOP companies don’t have great cultures. They don’t have employees who own it, even though they own the company. It does take very specific curation of the culture. I think that because we have the ESOP, it reinforces the benefits of buying into our culture of owning it. You have to teach people how to think and act like owners. Our success is 100% based on people’s mindsets and the way that they show up.
What we’ve done is we’ve created the Own-it mindset which is our value system. That’s a set of behaviors and attributes that will make you successful within the company and help our employees understand what it means to be successful at StoneAge. We teach our managers how to manage within their Own-it mindset and trust that there’s a foundation for everything. Also, building relationships.
You have to teach people that they can own their decision-making and their work. You have to give them autonomy. You have to give them guidance. You have to give them feedback. You have to say, “Yeah. Let’s try that. Let’s see it.” If it doesn’t work, we’ll figure it out. You make it safe to fail. We train our managers in those areas.
Do you have a course for that? Is that a formalized course?
Yeah, it’s a formalized program that we have that teaches people how to give feedback. It teaches people how to give good performance reviews. We have employee-driven performance reviews four times a year. How do you lean into making sure that everybody knows where they stand within the organization? How do you build trust and relationships with people who you don’t necessarily click with? That’s an important thing as a leader. You don’t have to say to everybody on my team that I love working with them, but you still have to get the best out of them.
Also, you could still respect people that you don’t like. You can do those things that you respect. In that context, I want to respect your time. We are coming to the end of our time together. I want to make sure I can always have you on again. I think this is a great topic. You have so many nuggets of leadership to share that I’m excited to maybe pull apart. Maybe we can do part two at another time.
Anytime. I would love to.
I know your book just came out. I know people are going to say, “I want that book.” Tell them where they can find it and anything else that you want to share with us before we sign off.
The book is called The Ownership Mindset: A Handbook for Transforming Your Life and Leadership. It is a handbook. It has lots of actionable takeaways. You can find it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Go to either of those websites and you can order it. You can go to my website and learn all about the culture that we’re creating here. More about the book is on my website, which is KerrySiggins.com. If you want to connect with me, LinkedIn is the best place. I’m all over LinkedIn. You can reach out to me there if you have any questions or want to touch base, talk about culture, ESOPs, or any of that fun stuff, or own it.
Thank you so much for being here.
Thanks for having me. It’s been lovely to see you again.
Likewise. Thank you all for being here. We can’t see you but we know you’re there and I know that you took a lot of way from this talk and thinking about what’s next. Go out and get Kerry’s book. I’m sure that there’s a ton of nuggets in there. I’m excited to read it myself. That’s all for this episode. Own it. Own your ownership mindset. That’s one of the most important things that you can leave here is that don’t fall into victim mode. Make sure that you develop your ownership mindset and own it. We’ll see you in the next episode.
- The Ownership Mindset
- StoneAge Holdings
- Amazon – The Ownership Mindset: A Handbook for Transforming Your Life and Leadership
- Barnes & Noble – The Ownership Mindset: A Handbook for Transforming Your Life and Leadership
- LinkedIn – Kerry Siggins
About Kerry Siggins
Kerry Siggins is the CEO of StoneAge, the leading global high-pressure industrial cleaning equipment manufacturer. Under her leadership, StoneAge transformed into a powerhouse in the industrial cleaning industry, disrupting how the world is cleaned. Kerry also led StoneAge’s transition to become 100% employee-owned, and StoneAge has won numerous awards, including Outside Magazine’s Best Places to Work.
Kerry is an expert speaker and writer on transformational leadership, culture creation, employee ownership, and cultivating the “Ownership Mindset” – a blueprint for empowering yourself, others, and your company to reach your full potential. A finalist for Colorado’s CEO of the Year, Kerry has the unique ability to inspire others by sharing her journey, thought leadership, and blueprint for adopting The Ownership Mindset.
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