There is an old adage that says, “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” My parents quoted this aphorism on ownership to me enough times while I was growing up. Many teachers probably did as well. Alas, I was but a callow punk in my youth and did not take it to heart until well into my adult years. It is a shame, that.
Earlier this month I published an essay detailing my ordeal some years ago with a tumor (A Tale of Two Surgeons). The point of the piece was how one of the surgeons in the title did take personal ownership of the issue and one did not. For the first, the solution to the issue was paramount while to the other it was inconsequential; he had performed his surgery and that was the end of it.
In the same article, I mentioned that I had chosen ownership as my keyword for 2015. This derives from a post that Dan Rockwell published on his blog “Leadership Freak” in the early part of 2014 (It Only Takes One Word). In the language of Dan’s article, ownership adopted me, and that is closer to the truth.
So now that I have this keyword – this one word focal point – what do I do with it? To me, ownership means taking personal responsibility for the results of a task or obligation. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well. It is my guarantee to myself as well as to any other stakeholders of the task or obligation in question that I will stand behind every aspect of my role in the outcome. This is a fine concept, but not something easy to achieve.
Like anything else, there is a discipline that accompanies the concept. This discipline can be described by means of four interrelated practices. These are:
- Doing the work: The most important practice is simply knuckling down and doing the work. In many cases this requires a serious commitment of time and effort in one form or another. In order to take ownership, one needs to understand what the outcome looks like and what it takes in terms of time and effort to achieve that end. In evaluating whether or not to take on the responsibility (assuming that one has a choice), there are fundamental questions to answer. Do I have the skill necessary to accomplish this outcome? Do I have sufficient time? Do I have access to the tools and information I will require?
- Setting priorities: It is rare to have simply one deliverable on one’s plate; I typically have several. Consequently, setting priorities is a crucial aspect of ownership. Which obligation is most important? Which one will require the most time? Which has the most stakeholders? Which has the earliest deadline? Which obligation has critical path dependencies? These are but a few of the questions needed in order to schedule my days so that I can guarantee the outcome.
- Evaluating the results: In the first bullet point I pointed out the need to understand what the final outcome should look like. Throughout the process, it is critical to be constantly evaluating against that image. Whether you are ahead of schedule or behind, it affects both your priority setting practice and your work practice.
- Saying “No”: Individuals who take ownership of their work are usually the first to become overcommitted. I feel as if there should be a Country music ballad to that effect. Be that as it may, being able to recognize that one is fully committed (or overcommitted) is an important skill in and of itself. One must be able to say, “I’m sorry, no.” as firmly and as clearly as possible. Individuals who take ownership do not wish to disappoint others; it is part of why we take ownership. However, it is one thing to disappoint someone by saying, “No,” and quite another by saying, “Yes,” and then dropping the ball.
One of the trickiest challenges of truly taking ownership of anything is our personal tendency to set our standards too high. This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on how we approach those standards. My wife admonishes me about this frequently. For example, “Steven, you are applying Los Angeles Philharmonic standards to a community theater musical production.” And she is right. I am. I know what the music is supposed to sound like in a perfect (or near perfect) world. But instead of lowering those standards, I use those standards to push myself to excel and thus exceed the expectations of the cast, director, and audience. In achieving that standard, I will not have disappointed myself, and at the same time have pushed myself to achieve more than I would have with a lower standard. That, however, is the crux of the challenge. It is having the self-awareness to realize that I have achieved more than I could have, while at the same time recognizing that it still may not have met higher standard that I used for measurement and at the end of the day being okay with that (this time). It means that my workmanship will be even better next time, no matter the task.
The flip side of ownership is when you do drop the ball. Anyone who tells you that he has never dropped a ball is a liar, a fool, or a bum who has never tried to do anything. Believe me, I have dropped my share and you have but to read my “My Favorite Failures” series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) to know that I speak the truth. Taking ownership does not prevent failure. Life does not work that way. Taking ownership means that when the project goes south, you take responsibility and make it right for everyone concerned. This is advanced class material and the most difficult element of ownership. Being able to stand up and take responsibility even if it was not your fault specifically, and then doing what it takes to bring it to a successful conclusion is rarely easy or profitable in the short term. But it is the stuff of which reputations are made.
For me, having had ownership adopt me for 2015 is fortuitous because it gives me the tools to resolve several key personal dilemmas with which I have been wrestling. It affords me a set of questions to ask when evaluating new projects and prioritizing existing ones. It replaces resolutions because it touches everything I will do this year, not merely one or two aspects. A different word adopted me last year. Looking back on it as 2014 came to an end, I found astonishing the degree to which that one word truly had shaped my personal and professional development in a positive way. I had kept it at the top of my mind all year and I can articulate clearly the benefits. I look forward to performing the same exercise a year from now.
What is your keyword for 2015? What leadership qualities do you look for on your team?