Ownership: The Critical Skill In The Future Of Work

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Table Of Contents

Ownership Courtesy of the institute of leadership management

Bureaucracy is a construct designed to maximize the distance between a decision maker and the risks of the decision

~ Nassam Talib

Leaders of businesses often say they wish their employees would "think and act like owners." This wish often rings hollow because employees are clearly NOT owners, and most of the time do not operate with the same resources, constraints and incentives that owners do.

Despite the clear mis-alignment, I believe the mindset of ownership is the single most crucial skill that will be in demand today and 50 years from now. Anyone looking to play a part in the labor force of the future needs to understand what ownership means, and what is truly being asked of them.

What Are CEO's and Managers Actually Wishing Of Their Employees?

Leaders are asking you to relieve their anxiety.

Today's economic complexity means that leaders are often NOT the smartest person in the room on any one thing, but tend to have a broader view, and excel at putting the puzzle pieces together. By definition, leaders are relying on their employees' judgements, processes and self management to make more informed decisions. Taking themselves out of the process, they must TRUST employees more, and this can be anxiety provoking for smart, type A, control freak bosses.

That's all a long way of saying that all business leaders want is to not worry about their direct reports in terms of quality output and decisions.

In short, they want people who manage themselves, and don't need to be managed.

That's where ownership comes in. When you make the mindset shift to 'own' all of your decisions, actions AND outcomes, you handle your business in a different way. One that evokes confidence from your boss. Your boss now has one less thing to worry about. Countless fewer meetings with you, and much less time vetting your work product when they need to communciate up.

What Does It Mean To Act Like An Owner?

Acting like an owner means taking responsibility and domain over whatever you oversee. It means breaking down the bureaucracy. We can not count on Managers to break this down, because many managers are protected by the bureaucracy.

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But you want to progress. You are the CEO of YOU.com. The buck stops with you and only you for your decisions. You can not control everything around you, but you must work to understand what you do control, and own it. This is Extreme Ownership in the words of former Navy Seal and Leadership Consultant Jocko Wilink.

Why? Because the business that you own is your ability to be employed - your income stream for the rest of your life. That is your product, your service, your operations.

The Directly Responsible Individual


What Steve Jobs and the leadership team at Apple intuitively understood was that in large companies, the more participants there are, the less responsibility everyone feels. You can hide in groups. But when your name is called to own an outcome, there's nowhere to hide.

Apple kept meetings very small. Steve Jobs had a "no spectators policy." So everyone that was there was directly responsible for a key piece of the project.

This is not the norm in corporate America - especially if your company is greater than 20 years old. In my corporate consulting time, I routinely saw 10-20 person meetings where no decisions were made and no next actions set. This lead my teams to waste months championing projects in a road show like process to get buy in (but from whom, I'm not sure).

The Rise of the Freelance Consultant

However, I believe that one of the main drivers behind the demand of the freelance economy by corporations, is that they are getting better output, and more efficiency from their freelance contractors even thought those contractors may cost 50%-100% MORE per hour.

There is one simple reason. Freelancers are Directly Responsible Individuals. Freelancers are business owners and have different incentive systems that force them to own their work product and outcomes more. In a company of 1, there's nowhere to hide. By definition, freelancers have to take a client focus, and, since they do not have the same protections as employees (ie. they can get "fired" easier) they are incentivized to to bust ass. There's nowhere to hide in teams or in groups.

Of course, I'm biased. I've been a contractor or business owner for almost all of my 17 year professional career.

How Do You Take Ownership?

Here are a few lessons I've learned on how to take more ownership, and thus get more freedom at work.

  • View your boss as your client. Your manager is your client, and has the power to stop paying you if your work product is not satisfactory. Just like I have the power to not buy services from my accountant if he drops the ball. You don't have an unconditional right to be employed. Client-service focus means being more proactive in solving problems for your manager, instead of waiting to be told what to do.
  • Push for more Ownership from your team. Make suggestions for better accountability. Push for a DRI system. Ask to run a meeting with an agenda. Or take more drastic measures. I team member and I devised a meeting clock of sorts, where we would add up the hourly cost of everyone in a meeting, and calculate the human cost of that meeting. This was a transparent way to show the company how much meetings were costing.
  • Over-communicate, concisely. Develop a clear cadence for communciation with your boss. Keeping them up to date on the good and the bad shows you are on top of it, and that you're thinking strategically. Master the art of brevity. A rule of thumb: more touchpoints, in less total time.
  • Own the 1 on 1. The one on one meeting cadence that permeates corporate america was designed for you to let your boss know where you need help or support. However, today these meeting regularly get bumped because they lack structure and meaningful conversation. You need to provide the structure - not your boss. Come with an agenda, use meeting notes and agenda items to track progress and keep your manager on top of what you need. Finally - don't let your manager cancel a 1 on 1, ever.
  • Anciipate questions, and have answers. One of the biggest lessons I've learned is to shift myself into the client's seat, and ask "what would I want to know?" This is super simple, but when you do this effectively, it is a huge relief for a manager. When a manager says, "well, you just answered my next question" what they feel is confidence that this guy or gal is on top of things. And when that happens, the boss gives you space, freedom and more responsibility. This is especially crucial in remote situations.
  • Be Responsible for expanding your skill set. As an employee, your product is you. Growth can only come from expanding your skillset and earning a higher dollar per hour of your services. Developing a system to constantly and consistently update your skillset outside of work is on you. It is easier than ever to take a course on Coursera, read a book or ask a subject matter expert for help.

Ownership Is The Key To Freedom

We all want more freedom and autonomy to do our best work, but we can't control all of the circumstances of how we do that work, yet. We can't control when the CEO changes priorities. We can't control the macro economy. The only thing we can control is our level of ownership over our actions and work output. And the only people that can make changes to that output are you and me. So, own your actions and own your progress. Be the CEO of You.com, and you'll earn the trust of your boss. You will create more freedom in your work, have more fun, and you are sure to own great results and career growth.