Aside from growing my own, I’ve also supported a lot of CEOs in growing their leadership teams. There are many differences between the teams, their skills, backgrounds and personalities. But there’s a common factor that separates teams which makes things happen from teams which don’t.
It’s not so much a skill as an attitude.
In a word?
The more people in your team who exhibit ownership, the more effective that team as a whole is. And if some of your team show it and others don’t, the sooner you move the ones who don’t out and into roles outside the team, the less likely you will be to lose the stars who are showing it.
How do you see who has it in your team?
First of all, recognise that ownership isn’t about role or seniority. Like f’rinstance…
A salesperson demonstrates ownership when they take full responsibility for making a deal happen. They won’t hide behind “we didn’t really want the deal anyway”, or “Joe really lost us credibility when I put hime in front of the client”. In fact, they won’t even hide behind \*you\* holding them back.
In his book, [The Ultimate Sales ](https://uk.bookshop.org/a/9102/9781591842156)[Machine](http://btq.link/ultimatesalesmachine), Chet Holmes tells the story of a sales deal in his youth. He’d built up a good relationship with a prospect, and was going to fax him a note following a meeting which included some human points of connection (fax may give you a clue as to when this happened!).
His boss looked at the fax and instructed him not to send it, on the grounds that it was “unprofessional”. Instead, he gave him a boilerplate followup note on how the product does x, y and z, and how this would be a great fit for the client given their technical environment.
Chet took this note. And after his boss went home, he instead faxed his original note. And off the back of it, closed a significant long term deal and relationship with the client.
Rebuked by his boss more than once for other similar misdemeanours, Chet not only became the best salesperson, but then resigned as it was tough to always fight his boss on this.
He tells this story to illustrate the importance of relationship in the sales process.
But the real story I heard was about ownership. Chet wouldn’t even let his boss stand in the way of owning making the sale happen.
I’ve worked with many salespeople who, in times of boom, would be bigging up how great they were in meeting their targets, and who in times of downturn, blamed the economy when they weren’t.
That’s the opposite of ownership!
A software developer or consultant demonstrates ownership when they ensure that their code is quality and, more importantly, actually answers the questions being asked of it. They won’t just do the spec, they’ll understand why the spec is as it is, and make sure they answer the real question, not just what’s in a functional spec.
A project manager on that same project demonstrates ownership when they allow the developer to do this without blowing the project budget. They’ll talk to the client and make them understand why they may have been asking the wrong question, and why value comes from her team actually developing something that answers the question rather than fitting the specification, and will ensure that the client also pays for it willingly.
An intern will demonstrate ownership by always being 10 minutes early. They’ll demonstrate it by proactively asking questions. They’ll demonstrate it in their hunger to learn and take feedback.
A member of your leadership team will demonstrate it by just making the things that should happen under their watch happen. By not leaping into analysis-paralysis as a way to slow it down, or in reality to stop them from taking a risk. By not finger-pointing or looking for an excuse to either not get started, or not complete.
It’s important to see that everyone in any role in any seniority can demonstrate ownership. You then create an environment for those who are taking ownership to grow, and to get into roles with more and more responsibility.
“La libertad no se mendiga, sino se conquista con el filo del machete”.
A tad brutal for a newsletter – apologies. But this famous quote from the Cuban liberation guerrilla leader of the late 1800s means “Liberty isn’t begged for. It is won with the blade of a machete”.
Another way to recognise ownership is when your team either demands it, or just takes it.
The best leaders demonstrate their ownership not by pleading with you to give it to them, or whining that you’ve not given it to them, but by winning it through continued effective leadership.
I was speaking to the MD of a company I’m supporting recently. We talked about his leadership team, and I asked him if they demonstrated ownership. His response effectively was that many would if they were given the chance.
My observation on this is twofold.
First, real owners own things with or without being given the chance. I refer you back to my early comment on interns. It really isn’t about being given permission.
But there’s another way to recognise someone who has ownership tendencies. They will push you for it, and if they’re prevented from having it, they don’t hang around.
Put another way, if your team’s not pushing you for ownership, they don’t want it.
The most successful founders exhibit this in bucketloads themselves. Often, they set up on their own precisely because they’ve been prevented from ownership in the environments they’ve worked in before.
If you’re a founder, tell me I’m wrong.
Often, you may feel that those members of your team who also exhibit it most clearly could go and set up on their own too. And they could. Your challenge is to give them the ability to own without having to go elsewhere to do it.
And if you deny them it, then they will leave you. You’ll have lost the people with the most valuable attributes in your team.
One time when I was doing one of my few stints in a large corporate (never a pleasant experience for me!), I hit a problem I needed to solve.
I was being asked to make a number of people redundant. There wasn’t enough work for them, and so our corporate headquarters demanded a list of people to let go. No ifs. No buts.
The most sensible way to solve the actual issue would have been to sell more – enable our sales team, or even better, let those who could sell do so. And that is what I was trying to do – to get out and sell.
But our gargantuan systems were set up in a way that even if I’d brought a client begging to our doors, I wouldn’t have physically been able to get a project going. It wouldn’t have had signoff. It wouldn’t feature in anyone’s quota, and couldn’t be assigned. And my manager at the time made it very clear to me that selling wasn’t my role – my role was to deliver a list of names for redundancy.
I was being denied by systems and bureaucracy from owning the problem and solving it.
And so I proposed my name at the top of that list.
If the environment I was in quite emphatically couldn’t have me own what I needed to own, I needed to go somewhere where those blockers weren’t there.
(By the way, ownership creates its own scars too. Decades after the incident I described, I still find myself wondering what I could have done differently to grab ownership and resolve the issue. I was also all to aware that I chose my own redundancy – the rest of the team who went with me didn’t have that luxury. And those scars for me still run deep.)
What are the key traits which define ownership? Here’s what I typically observe. Not an exhaustive list, but to some extent most of these are usually there in people who exhibit and internalise an attitude of ownership.
– Self-discipline. People without self-discipline often make promises that they mean to keep at the moment they make the commitment – they’re not blatant liars! However, when it comes to the discipline of delivering on that commitment, they will find excuses not to. In their mind, the excuses may feel real. But someone who owns their commitments has the discipline to keep them in almost all circumstances.
– Drive and persistence. People who own commitments will continue to get something done if it’s hard, if the odds are stacked against them, and if they keep hitting hurdles.
– Attention to detail and intellect to understand the bigger picture. People who own an area don’t commit easily. They commit when they’re confident they understand enough of the detail that they can get it done. At the same time, they will understand the bigger picture, which means that they know why the thing they’re committing to needs to get done. This gives them the flexibility to change how they approach it until it’s done.
– Resourcefulness and self-efficacy. True owners believe in their ability to get things done. Not a brash belief – they know themselves well enough not to stray into arrogance – but certainly a confidence in their abilities, including the ability to find other resources they can use. This is what enables the flexibility mentioned in the last bullet.
– Risk-taking and bravery \*just\* ahead of capability. Although ownership involves understanding enough of what you’re taking one, owners will often also be confident enough to take risks and embrace uncertainties. This is essential especially as they will often take on something that is a stretch for them.
– Continual learning. Owners always, always look for growth and learning. Usually in service of being able to be more effective at what they do.
This invariably shows up in a couple of ways. They take things on, with or without telling you. And What they take on tends to always happen despite the odds, including ones you inadvertently put in their way.
So if member of your leadership team consistently doesn’t get something done which they’ve committed to, it’s rarely about the actual thing they’ve committed to.
If they constantly throw up the 37 edge-cases why something won’t work, it’s rarely about the thing.
If they always make it too complicated to happen, it’s rarely about complextity.
These are all patterns of a lack of true ownership.
In that instance, have a discussion. Get to the root of why the pattern is there. Then either support their growth as leaders in developing their ownership capacity, or accept that they may be great at their work, but not cut out for your senior leadership team.
\*\*AND\*\* be open to the possibility that your own style of leadership may be preventing them from truly owning their areas of responsibility, and if that’s the case, that’s the thing you need to fix before the great ones all leave you!
But without a leadership team that genuinely owns what it is responsible for, then your company won’t reach its potential – impact, profit or purpose.
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