In my bios on social media, I include “serial mistake-maker”. I make ’em early and often, some repeatedly, and I feel like people should know that about me ahead of time. My most oft-repeated mistake?
Taking over instead of taking ownership.
I began my career working for a company that was transitioning from a tech-oriented start-up to a buttoned-down division of a very large corporation. Hired on full-time after wrapping up an internship in my last year of college, I was tasked with making improvements to bad processes in a group that was decidedly a red-headed stepchild.
Long on education and want to, and painfully short on self-awareness and EQ, I started the role with the ferocity of a thousand suns. Progress was made. Solutions were proposed. Some things actually got fixed. Along the way, I frustrated almost every teammate I encountered. The problem? I thought I was hired to take over when I was really hired to take ownership.
Taking over is the process of muscling through to accomplish a goal (for those familiar with DiSC personalities, this can be a classic ‘D’ trait). It’s a take-no-prisoners, leave-nothing-in-your-wake way of getting things done.
In this case, I was solving a specific process problem. My vision was mine and mine alone, based almost entirely on my own assumptions and perspectives without looking at the implications or getting feedback from the people impacted by the change. Getting my colleagues on board consisted of a half-day one-man show masked as an interactive dialogue in which I shared my grand vision without any external input. Any progress that I did make was entirely dependent on whether or not colleagues were willing to put up with me at that moment.
The results? Mixed. Some things got done. Some things didn’t. Mostly, the wildly optimistic vision I set out to achieve at the beginning was missed.
Ever seen this before?
At the time, I felt like what I was doing was leadership. Based on what I had learned and seen before, results were rewarded more than process. If you asked 23-year-old me, I’d have told you that I was doing exactly what I was hired to do.
The flip side of taking over is taking ownership. Taking ownership requires a vision that explores what is possible, tests the status quo, and is bold. It means being accountable to the entire team by communicating clear objectives, keeping two-way communication open, and setting goals that get everyone energized. With the team ready to roll, steady progress is made using well-structured processes, addressing challenges along the way and celebrating successes when milestones are hit. It’s less dramatic, but it’s way more effective.
Why didn’t I know this a decade ago?!? I didn’t know any better. And I’m willing to bet that’s a lot of Millennials you encounter.
The reason we take over
Taking ownership isn’t the dramatic kind of leadership that gets noticed, especially at the time when turn-of-the-2000s dot-com millionaires were being praised for their pioneering spirit. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I wasn’t in a situation to become a dot-com millionaire, but rather a person hired to make my company more effective. Instead of positioning me for greater opportunity, my limited successes simply allowed me to be set up for an even more painful fall.
Additionally, taking over just feels better for certain people. They understand the potential collateral damage but believe that it’s worth it to get things done. And sometimes it is, but often it’s not.
The difference is people
When traveling with my boss to corporate HQ, we met with the senior VP of payroll who was a really cool person with a ton of responsibility. While we were out to lunch, she talked about how she was going back to graduate school so make sure she was competitive with the smart young people coming into the company, nodding at me. Looking back on it, she left me in the dust, and for good reason. She had the EQ that I didn’t have.
That’s why we’re so passionate about training Millennials early in their careers. We want them to build the good muscle memory habits they need from the start so that they can more effectively make themselves and their companies better. It took me a decade to really begin to understand how to be a better boss. Does your organization have that kind of time?