Take Ownership!

Ownership_HeaderThere 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?



My Favorite Failures…and the Life Lessons They Taught Me (Part 3)

Chopin_HeaderHere is the finale in my series of failure stories.  As before, every single word is true.  This time, there were no names to change except, perhaps, my own.

The Eight-Thumbed Piano Man

For a time, I was the music specialist in the Dance Department at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.  The job was multifarious and included accompanying dance classes (ballet and modern) on the piano, managing the audio/video equipment, creating music tapes for special events, and generally helping out wherever I was needed.  I also managed the department’s final Dance Showcase of the year.

The Dance Department had just undergone a major upgrade.  It had a visionary new director and had recently moved into brand new studios in one of the freshly renovated older buildings on campus.  It had also acquired state of the art sound and lighting equipment expressly for the main studio, which could be used as an experimental performance space.  The Dance Showcase was to take place there.

Because it was the end of the school year, both faculty and students were happy to defer many things to me.  I was equally happy to have a job and be useful.  I designed the posters.  I set up and ran the lights and sound equipment for the rehearsals.  I produced the tapes of recorded music that would be used for most of the showcase works.  Most important, I was the event stage manager.

Early on, one of the teachers asked me to accompany the ballet piece he was choreographing for the showcase.  His work involved about a dozen dancers from one of his classes and he wanted to use a Chopin Waltz as the music.  I was delighted to be asked and agreed readily.  It was not a particularly challenging piece, as Chopin Waltzes go, but was in a difficult key and had some awkward leaps in it.  However the piece came together and I rehearsed with the class for several weeks before the performance.

Needless to say, the day of the performance was hectic. What with getting the studio set up and attending to all of the last minute details, there was not much time for anything else.  I had given little thought to that Chopin Waltz and more to what I needed to do right before and right after it I played it.  I had not even allowed time to warm up properly, much less focus.

And then it was show time.  The audience was seated, the lights were out, and the Dance Showcase began.  Everything was going smoothly.  The sound and light cues went seamlessly.  The dancers were on their game.  It was wonderful.  Then came the ballet piece.  I pre-cued the subsequent number, turned around, and sat down at the piano.  The choreographer gave a nod and I began.

Somehow in the few seconds between setting that sound cue and sitting down on the piano bench, I had grown eight thumbs and my hands had turned to blocks of quartz.  Had someone rearranged all the keys on the piano?  Were those really grapefruits in my hands?  It started badly enough and gradually degenerated into a catastrophe.  I had to stay with it for the sake of the dancers, but Frederic Chopin was scarcely in evidence.  I managed to pull it together enough in the coda to end on the right chord, but the stunned silence followed by weak applause told me just how bad it had been.  Well, that and the audible comment from someone in the audience, “What just happened?”  I slunk back to the sound console to run the next cue, trying to make myself invisible.

Analysis:  This lesson is about role clarity.  Performing is a role with very specific requirements that extend far beyond practice and rehearsal.  The mind needs to be fully engaged and the physical mechanism (e.g., voice, fingers, muscles) limber and ready.  In this case, I missed all of those requirements, and in the process let a lot of people down. It is very difficult to perform multiple roles at the same time, particularly when the requirements of those roles conflict.  This is as true in consulting as it is in the arts or anywhere else.  Lack of role clarity combined with a lack of role focus is a prescription for failure.

LessonNever perform in the same show you are stage managing.


That brings us to the end of this largess of self-revelation.  I am feeling a bit exposed, so allow me to cover up.  The good news is that these three failures are not representative of my total output.  Over the years, I have been reasonably successful at most things to which I have set my hand.  And I have had one or two stellar successes that completely offset the Sanitation Pyre and Dance Showcase incidents. The important thing is that I have never repeated any of these mistakes, and I continue to allow them to inform my work.  The overall lesson is to understand what it is you are working with, always consider the risks and consequences, and never forget to think.

So there it is, Bill. I have finally answered your question.  I may have muffed it nineteen years ago but I think I have nailed it this time, although probably a tad more thoroughly than you had envisioned.  Nevertheless, I think it proves the value of recognizing and assessing our failures as well as our successes.  It makes me wonder, though, how Geoff might have answered it.  I sure wish you had been there for that interview.

And what about those of you who have now read these tales?  Does any one of these lessons resonate especially for you?  Perhaps one of you would like to take a stab at providing your own answer to Bill’s question.

My Favorite Failures…and the Life Lessons They Taught Me (Part 2)

Ashes_HeaderHere is the second installment in my series of failure stories.  I swear that every word is as it happened, although I may have changed a few names.

The Sanitation Pyre

For several years back in my college days, I took a summer job with the city.  The work varied, but generally alternated between some form of road repair and garbage collection.  Most of the time, though, I was assigned to a garbage crew.  In those days, citizens did not bring their trash down to the curb.  Instead, we walked into every yard pushing a large plastic barrel attached to a hand truck.  We would dump the cans into the barrels and then roll back out to the street.

Having no immediate job prospects the summer after I was graduated, I signed up one more time.  When the other temporaries left to go back to school, I stayed on until the following February. Hauling garbage in the hot humid Wisconsin summers was hard work.  Hauling it in the sub-zero winter weather was an order of magnitude more difficult.  Our story takes place on one such bitter cold day in January.

It is important to understand the dynamics of a garbage crew, this one especially.  There were five men to a crew:  the driver and his four underlings.  The driver’s powers were absolute and it paid to be on his good side.  He could make the difference between the job being a misery or not.  He had probably worked “on the city” for his entire life and had achieved the seniority to head a crew after a lot of hard work.  Bob, our driver, stayed in the cab, puffed his stogies, and listened to country music on the radio.  The only difference in the winter was that he kept the windows rolled up and the heat blasting.

As to the four of us on the outside, there was a distinct pecking order.  Rudy and Pete were permanent (meaning union) workers and had been with the city a long time.  Pete was a sweet, simple man who was totally dominated by Rudy.  Rudy was not sweet, nor was he one of the sharper tools in the shed.  Rudy and Pete kept pretty much to themselves most of the time. Tom came next in order.  He was also permanent and had been with the city awhile, but was new to that crew.  He and I got along pretty well.  As for me, I was temporary labor and very much at the bottom of the food chain. Neither Tom nor I took any guff off of Rudy, though.

As I said, it was a crisp, cold January afternoon.  We were clearing an alley so we didn’t need the buckets and hand trucks.  Rudy and Pete had gone ahead to set out the cans.  Tom and I were dumping them into the truck hopper and returning them to the yards.  At one house, there was a can of furnace ashes next to the trashcan.  As per protocol, I removed my gloves and checked the can to verify that the ashes were not still warm.  The can was utterly cold to the touch and exhibited no sign of warmth when I opened it.  I dumped the can.  Two houses later when we cycled the hopper, I thought I saw a spark.  I told Tom about it.  A few minutes later we cycled again.  There was a thin trail of smoke curling from the packer.  We called Bob.

Making Bob get out of the warm cab on a cold day was bad enough.  Telling him that his truck was on fire did not make that scene any better.  At the time, I did not know what half of the expletives meant.  I am older now and understand a few more things.  Bob barked at us to stay put, stuck the cigar back in his mouth, climbed into the cab, and took off.  Tom and I dashed up the alley and onto the street where Pete and Rudy were waiting, just in time to see Bob turn onto the highway at the other end of the block.  Flames were already shooting from the back of the truck.

The rest we learned later. Realizing that he would never make it to the dump, Bob pulled over in front of a firehouse and dumped the load of blazing refuse right in the highway.  It must have been a glorious sight; I wish I had been there to see it.  The firemen saw it as they hosed down the conflagration. The city workers who hauled off the now crystalline mass saw it too.  Augie, the foreman, probably did as well, but he was a study in taciturnity as he drove the four of us back to the yard.  In fact, it was Rudy who did all the talking.  He chattered all the way back, taking me to task and telling me that I would be fired for sure.  I could never really tell for sure about Augie – not even on a good day – but despite the stony face I think he was struggling hard not to laugh.  It would have cost him his reputation.

As for me, I received a standing ovation from the city workers on entering the lunchroom.  I did have to meet with the superintendent to explain what had happened, but after that I never heard another word about the matter again.  At least, I never heard another word about it from the bosses.

Analysis:  I may not have been born an idiot, but I certainly acted like one that day.  I knew at the time that I might be getting a false reading and that I did not have the tools to evaluate the situation effectively. I went ahead and threw the ashes in figuring that the odds were in my favor.  In fact, I feared more the “Miss Slip” that would certainly be called in if I just left the can there.  I figured pretty wrong. Key decisions need to be informed, and inaction is appropriate if the risks inherent in uninformed action are too great.  This comes down to effective risk assessment.  In this case, I did not balance the risk of the Miss Slip against the risk of losing the truck, or Bob, or worse.  And by the time we swung by the next day with the Miss Slip, the ashes would most certainly have been cold.

LessonAssess the risk of blind action…or… If you don’t have the ax, don’t do the gig.


Stay alert, everyone.  Coming Monday is the series finale, The Eight-Thumbed Piano Man.  I will also present the wrap-up to this discussion.

My Favorite Failures…and the Life Lessons They Taught Me (Part 1)

Notes_HeaderMy colleague Bill has a favorite interview question.  It is a question that really helps an interviewer get to know the job applicant.  It reveals preparedness and self-awareness, shows how quickly someone can think on his or her feet, and is a terrific measure of personal integrity.  The question has two parts.  “What is your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?”

This is not an easy question to field, particularly if one is not prepared for it ahead of time.  You need to be quick-witted enough not only to pull such a failure out of your hat on the fly, but also turn right around and synthesize a lesson from it.  Most of us don’t go around advertising our failures, so unless one was reasonably recent it is not going to be top of mind.  Many people do not want to answer the question at all lest it should reveal weakness.  It does, actually, but not necessarily the way they might think.  I have watched interviewees skate around it, tap dance around it, and try to sneak around it.  I have also seen a few rare people square their shoulders and rise to the occasion.

Personally, I have been asked the question only once.  It was Bill who asked it in an interview over nineteen years ago.  I was unprepared as I recall, and muffed it pretty thoroughly.  I must have done something else right because I ended up getting the job.  But in reflecting on this the other day, I realized that it is still a difficult question for me.  The challenge now is to choose which of my biggest failures to showcase.  There are several excellent examples, each with a lesson.  Then I thought of you, my readers.  What if I were to lay the options before you?  Perhaps you can decide for me.

Each one of these three cautionary tales is…well…a tale and therefore requires some telling.  Rather than string them all together in a single post of Wagnerian proportion, I have decided to serialize them instead.  Here is the first of my three favorite failure stories for your entertainment and edification.  They continue to inform my life and work, as you will see.  Every word is true, although I have changed a few names.

Geoff the Consultant

I was working for a small BI consulting firm in California when this took place.  Engaged on a number of high profile projects and stretched for talent, we were looking to bring someone new into the firm who could pinch hit in several key areas.  That is when we found Geoff.  Geoff was an experienced consultant with a long list of successful projects at major Fortune 500 companies.  His resume aligned perfectly with our needs, his references were stellar, and he interviewed superbly.  We all agreed that he would make a great addition to the team.

Having just completed a major project for a client in San Francisco, we were preparing for a demonstration of the solution.  Participants were coming from around the world and represented both technical and business users  (including a key Vice President from the New York office).  The event would consist of three full days of presentations and discussions, followed by a Friday morning wrap-up session.  Martin (the other developer) and I would lead the sessions, presenting specifics about the analytics as well as the underlying data. We tapped Geoff to sit in the back of the room and take notes, keep track of the “parking lot” issues, and generally act as scribe for the sessions.

Gosh, Geoff was a good-looking fellow.  He was trim, fit, and sported a full head of wavy brown hair.  The tailored sport coat, dress shirt open at the neck, khaki trousers, and polished Oxfords made him look every inch the world-class consultant.  I don’t know about Martin, but I sure felt out-classed. I also don’t know what the Vice President from New York felt either, but Geoff made a point of chatting her up during most of the breaks.

The sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday went well and at the end of that second day I asked Geoff to send me his notes so that I could get a head start on creating my summary for the Friday morning wrap-up. Geoff assured me that he would send them from the hotel right after dinner.  That sounded fine to me.

Martin, Geoff, and I dined at a nearby restaurant that evening.  The conversation was distinctly odd. Martin was trying to explain to Geoff about the technology we were using and how it was different from a spreadsheet.  What made it peculiar was that Geoff had spent the prior two weeks in technical orientation with Nick, our chief developer.  Geoff’s questions that evening were garbled and confused, suggesting that the training had taken place through an early incarnation of BabelFish with Nick translating from English to Russian and then back to English while Geoff had perhaps gone from English to Korean to English.  Geoff’s seeming obtuseness confused Martin as well, and I could tell that my colleague’s frustration was rising as he tried to explain relatively simple things.  I made a mental note to get a read on Geoff from Nick.

The meeting notes did not arrive as promised.  When I cornered Geoff the next morning he apologized, saying it had simply slipped his mind.  I asked Geoff if I could have them right then.  He didn’t have a network connection.  Could he put them on a zip drive?  He didn’t have one with him.  I told him that I had one.  He told me that he wanted to clean the notes up a bit first.  It was time to start the session, so I could not pursue the matter.

However, knowing that Geoff was flying out on Friday morning before the wrap-up, I reminded him twice on Thursday afternoon to send his finalized notes before dinner so that I would have time to prepare the summary.  “Of course, Steve, no problem,” he said.  The notes did not arrive that evening.  Instead, they arrived by email at 4:45 AM on Friday morning. Geoff had been kind enough to copy the Vice President from New York.  Then I opened the file containing Geoff’s notes.  I nearly soiled my kilt.  They looked something like this.


I kid you not.  There were seven blank lines between every block of words, running on for thirty-seven pages of uselessness.  I rang the boss at 5:00 and we triangulated on how best to avert disaster.  I was able to create a reasonable summary from my own notes and complete the wrap-up successfully.  My boss managed to reach our client, who called the New York Vice President to let her know that a file with unfiltered meeting notes had been sent to her accidentally.  I have no idea whether or not she ever looked at them.  Geoff never understood why we did not consider these to be consultant-quality notes, or why he was being terminated.

Analysis: I failed here in two crucial ways, letting my boss down and nearly jeopardizing a client.  First, I did not seek proof during the interview process that Geoff was actually and specifically capable in any capacity.  I relied on both the resume and the recommendation, knowing full well that neither is proof of substance. But then, I had never met anyone before who could talk such a good game on so many levels and still be inept. The minimum requirement should have been a writing sample.  For a technical position, it should have been code samples.  To this day, I demand work samples that demonstrate competence no matter how glowing the recommendation. The applicant must be able to prove that he or she actually did the work and must be able to speak intelligently about it.  My second failure was not supervising the new guy.  All the warning signs were there for me.  After a two-week orientation with Nick, Geoff was still lost in any conversation about our practice. That made me all the more uneasy when he was schmoozing the New York executive during breaks.   In retrospect, I should have been all over that situation. Until there is a track record, nobody goes unsupervised.  I will not be Geoffed again.  No, no.

LessonIf the dude can’t prove it, he doesn’t have it.


Please stay tuned, friends.  On Thursday I will release episode two, The Sanitation Pyre.