I first came into a leadership position after one year in the workforce. I knew I wasn’t the first choice for the role, but that I was considered a choice at all floored me. Those who knew me at school would probably have been surprised. I had never held any sort of leadership position as a child, and I doubt that anybody would have expected me to. I didn’t come across as “leadership material”.
So, how was it that after such a short period in the world of work, I was being tapped as a leader? It wasn’t obvious to me at the time, but in hindsight it was clear that it was because I exhibited strong ownership. In fact, my career has been shaped in large part by my innate sense of ownership. From individual to team lead to manager, and from functional leader to COO, every progression in my career has come about less because of talent or raw hard work, and more because of my inability to suppress that ownership drive.
By ownership, I mean that I always identify closely with the success of the projects and teams of which I am a part. For me, it is more uncomfortable to sit silence with questions and concerns about what we are doing, then it is to give voice to those questions and concerns. And so I do it automatically, tenaciously if necessary. I won’t rest until I am comfortable that we know what we are doing and why we are doing it, so that we can succeed.
This sense of ownership I possess isn’t some sort of moral virtue, but rather an attribute of my personality. It is, however, a very useful characteristic to possess. In practice, this itch to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing is the uncomfortable grain of the sand around which the pearl of leadership grows.
Helping others own it
Our strengths become our blind spots. For a long time, one of my failings as a manager was that I assumed that others had this same imperative to own their work that I did. But that was not true. Others were smarter, harder working, more innovative. But often their work did not cleave to what was most important in the project. I just didn’t understand it.
My advice was terrible. Like the PE teacher shouting “just throw it harder” at the hapless nerd with poor hand-eye coordination, my feedback to others was simply “you need to show more ownership”.
Not very helpful.
Here is what I’ve learned, and what I can now advise others: ownership is a habit.
The (Cambridge) dictionary definition of habit is “something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it”. Because ownership was such an ingrained habit for me, indeed I did not know that I was doing it.
This is the set of practices that, when practiced often and regularly—when practiced habitually—are at the bedrock of ownership:
Before you do something (anything), pause. Ask yourself: Do I know why I am doing this? Do I believe this is the most important thing for me to be doing at this time?
If you can’t answer those questions, do not start doing the work. Instead, overcome whatever discomfort you may have in order to get the context you need to be able to answer them.
If you disagree with what you learn, engage politely but doggedly in debate with your peers and leaders. You may ultimately need to disagree and commit, but at the very least you must articulate your perspective. Get to the bottom of everything.
Do the same thing at a team level as you do with your own work. If you are part of a team, you succeed or fail together with everyone else. So it is your business to ask questions about the work of your entire team, not simply the work that is directly yours to do. It is your business, and treat it as your right.
If you see something that concerns you, escalate. Owners don’t keep concerns to themselves. The concern may turn out to be invalid, but that is something to be discussed as a team.
It gets easier
The actions that form most habits are very simple; it is the act of training oneself to perform those actions until they are in fact habitual that is challenging. There is plenty of material out there on habit formation. James Clear’s Atomic Habits is what most people seem to read on the matter these days, and why not? It’s a good book.
The other thing about the set of practices described above that many people find hard is the need to overcome the fear of being seen as “difficult”, and of suffering some sort of retribution as a result.
I understand this fear. If your workplace is sufficiently dysfunctional, the fear may even be justified. There are places where the right thing to do is shut up and do what you’re told without question. All I can say is this: across my career, in multiple countries, in various companies with differing cultures, speaking up and acting like an owner has only ever paid off for me.
You will have to contend with the fear of speaking up, but let me add another fear you should be mindful of: the fear that keeping quiet, that failing to display ownership, is holding you back.