Own It

A scenario I’m sure you can relate to is that you grab a coffee with friends and having the conversation quickly drift to the regular work rants. You know those people. They always seem to have the same kinds of stories: the boss never listens to what they say, things are not being done right, etc.

I was talking to a VP of Engineering and hearing him describe for the umpteenth time his issues with his boss. “You know,” I said, “it’s not likely to change if you don’t step up and make it happen.” At this point, some simply shrug and reiterate their helplessness, which is a matter for a different article (and I highly recommend Marty Seligman’s book). The more optimistic leaders tilt their heads sideways and that’s when the conversation becomes interesting.

It Takes Two to Tango

A lot of people are prone to ranting and venting without taking action at work. I think many are inculcated to act like this after working in too many lousy environments that do not truly empower people and teach us to follow tasks (much like most schools). However, in my experience, that’s very rarely the case in high tech. Yes, there are bad bosses and poisonous cultures around. However, the vast majority of companies don’t suffer from maliciousness—just inexperience and stress.

That is why I have become very attuned to picking up rants and always try to transform it from a venting session to something that requires more thought. After all, you cannot expect things to get better by themselves. And the same, of course, applies to your employees as a tech leader: you don’t want them to let off steam but never actually make things better. That leads to burnout and an environment no one enjoys.

The right mindset to cultivate in your company, for yourself and everyone around, is the mindset of taking ownership. Don’t wait for someone else to say something. Don’t hope things will magically improve. Don’t assume the issues are known to everyone already and are simply being ignored. You want to cultivate a culture where speaking up is seen as a value. Everyone has each other’s backs. You want an environment where no one will let you walk around with the figurative spinach between your teeth—even if it’s not always easy to make it known.

To do that, you might need to work on inducing ownership in your team and how you should take ownership yourself.

Inducing Ownership

To help your team gain the right mindset, I recommend these steps:

  • Listen: The easiest way to stymie ownership is to not listen to people when they already speak up. Take ideas, criticism, and questions to mind and refrain from knee-jerk deflections. Listening doesn’t mean just hearing the words, but considering the feedback and answering after having given it ample thought.
  • Relay: When you get a good question or feedback from someone, consider relaying that feedback to the rest of the organization. Answering that person’s concerns privately during your 1:1 is good. However, if she had these concerns, then others in the team might have them as well. Further, by communicating in the open that you got criticism and talking about it openly with everyone, you encourage others to speak their minds.
  • No-excuse coaching: You and your managers should focus your coaching efforts to actively teach your team to stop making excuses and think forward. When you hear someone rant, rather than letting them vent, do some coaching judo. Use their complaints to help them find a way they can do something to change things. Make them see where ownership is a possibility for them and put aside excuses. I’ve written about removing excuses here.
  • Why didn’t the dog bark? A tool I often use with my clients when we consider something that didn’t work well. When you retrospect and realize that something went wrong and that management or others in the team simply had the wrong picture in mind, ask yourself: why didn’t anyone speak up? Did you make it seem like no criticism would be welcome? Do you need to talk to a specific employee that might have helped avoid a mistake but didn’t feel confident to say anything? A dog won’t bark when it sees someone it knows. Is your team used to seeing doomed projects?

Taking Ownership

To maximize the ownership that you take and have over the entire group and business, there are different tools. These are more relevant at the executive and senior management levels:

  • Foster radical candor: I won’t try and replace a whole book with a couple of sentences. I’ll just say that you cannot claim to be an executive if you don’t learn how to speak your mind, especially to your colleagues and boss. This is a must-have capability, and if you lack it, you should consider getting a coach/mentor even solely to improve in this specific area.
  • Gain partnerships and allies: To kickstart your ownership (or taking it to the next level), you might form a coalition to make it easier to push your agenda forward. In certain scenarios, being able to bond with your colleagues over specific issues is the only way to make a change happen. Rather than developing the (default in our industry) adversarial relationship with your Product counterpart, for example, consider making it your best partnership.
  • Truly understand all sides: Have you ever listened to someone complaining about something and thinking to yourself that they’re missing half the picture? They are assuming malice or lack of attention, where in reality, the issue is well known and not prioritized? Or being addressed in a manner they are not privy to? The same applies to you, my friend. As part of your effort to gain extreme ownership, you should learn the entire picture. Rather than complain, ask why things are the way they are. Inquire whether some work was done to address an issue in the past. Don’t assume you’re the smartest in the room.
  • Don’t be a spinning plate, be a plate spinner: Similar to the previous point, another way to feel like your efforts are not worthwhile (and so lose ownership) is to provide feedback in a way that never results in any action. When you come up to someone with a complaint, you might be regarded as another task. People are already busy spinning several plates, and you’re handing them another one. Instead, try and think of a way for you, not just to complain but also to aid them. Can you take away one of the plates rather than add one?

Ownership is a must for world-class teams and should be ingrained at all levels of the organization. It is crucial because it forms a positive feedback loop: people who take ownership make the team better together, and teams with a culture of speaking up and cooperation then drive people to take even more ownership. Own it up.