5 Things You Need To Own As A Leader
Early in my career, I was in a meeting and our chief merchant at the time asked for an opinion on a particular tactic. I hesitated to offer an answer, looking around the room at who may step forward and answer his question first. When he noticed that, he looked directly at me and said “in the absence of an opinion, you are welcome to mine!” What he picked up on is that I may have been going through the motions of building a strategy, but I wasn’t OWNING it. I was abdicating my responsibility and letting others decide for me.
Later in my career, different company, I was presenting a business case to the new owner of our organization, one that I believed would help us to transform our customer experience. I had spent months developing the idea, weeks building the presentation, and was now presenting it page by page, detail by detail. As I was making my presentation, I noticed that he was staring right at me, not really looking through the document in front of him, but instead just looking at me as I spoke. I paused for a second, somewhat uncomfortable, and asked him if I had made a mistake in how I had built the presentation. He said “I’ve already reviewed the strategy and while I like the idea, I am trying to determine if you are going to OWN it!"
The truth is, we live in a world and at a time where it is easy to deflect responsibility, to avoid making decisions. We see this in politics, we see this in business, and we see the disappointing and often dangerous results of inaction. A lack of progress, of innovation, because some leaders are afraid to take risks. Titles don’t make one a leader, it is one’s willingness to step forward, to own their responsibility and their actions.
The following are lessons that I have learned from strong leaders that I have worked with over the course of my career, and including learnings from mistakes that I have made along the way.
Own Your Words. I am, at times, unfiltered. I spend more time reacting “authentically” and not trying to craft a politically correct answer. So, as you can imagine, I have unwittingly stepped on my fair share of landmines (personally and professionally, I might add). I’ve learned two very valuable lessons through this process. First, words matter. Sometimes you need to spend the time to craft what you say with more intent because of how different people or groups may react. It doesn’t make you less authentic, in fact, it may actually get your authentic point across better. Second, regardless of how hard you try, you are going to say or do something that is going to rub someone the wrong way or be misconstrued. When that happens, own it. One of my favorite associates (not that I play favorites) has this habit of saying something that another may take the wrong way and she will immediately say “MY BAD!” and rephrase it. Take the sting away immediately, own what you said, and work to take one’s perception of what you said and redeliver the message so you can get your point across.
Own Your Situation. I once participated in a leadership development course and being a “solver” (fellow solvers, you know what I am talking about!), I jumped in and tried to solve the issue that we were being presented with. Afterwards, an executive coach took me aside and offered me some advice. Jumping in and trying to solve an issue and owning a situation are different things. You need your team to engage and often take the lead in solving various situations, but as the leader, you need to let them see that you own it with them and will stand by there side whether the solution succeeds or fails. If your team doesn't see that ownership, you aren’t likely to get people putting their best efforts forward. You also have to be careful here - those who lead with empathy can often times try to own situations that aren’t theirs to own. I’ve been guilty of that. What I have learned is that sometimes you may have to step in to fill a void, but you can’t stretch yourself so thin that you don’t have the time or bandwidth to do what you are truly responsible for.
Own Your Decisions. One of my biggest “peeves” - those in a position of responsibility who are presented with multiple options but “wait" for more information, or more analysis, or more options, or more people to offer opinions, or for other options to present themselves. In reality, these leaders are often making decisions by NOT making a decision, choosing to let options simply fade away so that they are left with no other choice but to take the one option that they are left with at the final deadline. That way, if it is a failure, they can simply say “Well, I had no other options!” The best leaders that I have worked with take the information that they have, ask the right questions and for the right input, and make a decision while most options are still on the table.
Colin Powell has a 40-70 rule for decision making that I believe in. He believes that with less than 40 percent of information, we are likely to make a wrong decision. Conversely, if we keep looking for information beyond 70 percent, we are likely waiting so long that the decision will either make itself, or will be made for us. As leaders, we need to take responsibility and own the decisions we make in a timely manner.
Own Your Mistakes. How many emails do you read on a daily basis that should be titled “CYA” (ping me if you don’t know what that means). I had to send a message to my team recently about a particular situation with enough “blame” to go around, but assessing blame wasn’t going to solve the situation. Owning the mistakes, fixing them and learning from them, and developing a better plan going forward as a result is what was called for. Those on my team who are real leaders immediately responded with "I own this one" and started to present solutions.
As a leader, sometimes I will start a conversation by saying “ok, this one is on me, ultimately my responsibility and I own this mistake - now help me fix it” and immediately the attention of those involved focuses on looking forward rather than backwards. If I show that I am comfortable owning my mistakes, I am hopefully encouraging those on my team to do the same.
Own Your Journey. I’ve learned bits and pieces about this from various people in my life. I had a boss a few years ago who every year, writes down his goals and over the course of the year, checks in to see how he is progressing. I’ve mentored several over my career, not because I chose them but because they came to me, wanting to invest in their own journeys and not leave their direction to chance. My wife, when we were approaching fifty, encouraged me to think about who I was at the time and what direction I wanted to be heading into as I hit that milestone, from a physical, emotional and mental perspective. Others will have influence in your journey and regardless of the path you take, no destination is guaranteed. But it is far better to own your journey and invest in it then to simply have it decided for you. Yes, there are always reasons why you didn't get the project, the promotion, or the job. But focus on what you have within your control and own your own journey.
Leadership, whether you are leading a team or leading your own life and your individual journey is not a science. It is trial and error, making the best decisions you can with the information you have, and when you own that, to the extent that you can, you are in a much better position!