πŸ“Œ Why Extreme Ownership Matters.

Here's a personal story from my first couple years of working.

See if you can spot what's wrong with it.

In the winter of 2013 I received my first business travel opportunity. My team had secured an Australian client, and my manager decided that a few of us would fly out there to deliver the engagement.

Now, I also worked for a small company at the time, and there was technically no official budget guidance for flight tickets. Most of the time, people just relied on sensibility and judiciousness.

But this was a rather last-minute trip, and flight prices were already on the rise. So as part of trip planning, my manager asked:

"Hi Herng – please take a look at flight ticket options for us, and get a sense of what could make sense for our budget."

So I opened up Expedia (or maybe Booking.com), typed in our destination and dates, and screenshotted a bunch of itinierary combinations.

I then included the screenshots into an email, added a short summary of all the airlines and corresponding prices, and sent it off to my manager.

Then I grabbed a coffee and went on about my day β˜•.

πŸ“Œ The post-mortem, 10+ years later.

It's now more than a decade later, and I still remember this incident.

I'll talk about what I would've done differently (and how) at the end, but here's the takeaway of the story: I EXECUTED the task. But I did not OWN the objective.

Why does this matter though?

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πŸ“Œ The one thing that determines all things.

If I could choose one thing to optimize for people that I work with (and for myself): it would be true ownership.

Not smarts, not hustle, not likability, not efficiency, not attention to detail...

No. None of the above.

Just the ability to think and act like an owner for all things that matter.

Don't get me wrong. People who do not think like an owner can still be fantastic. But they tend to be fantastic at executing tasks only – assuming you are prescriptive enough to spell it all out.

But they might disappoint you when it comes to executing your objective.

And you can only go so far in your career if you can only be relied on for tasks, and not objectives.

Let's now talk about what ownership means in reality.

πŸ“Œ What ownership actually means.

The concept of true ownership is easy. It's the actual behaviors that are hard.

Let's take a simple example to make it as real as possible. We'll also be a bit extreme for the purposes of illustration. Imagine the following brief:

"We have a full-day discussion with senior leaders coming up next week. Could someone help figure out the food and beverage arrangement?"

Let's say we're on the hook for this. Here's what basic execution looks like:

  • Figure out the number of attendees...
  • Figure out start and end times and other logistics...
  • Prepare enough snacks, tea, and coffee for the room...
  • ...and call it a day.

By contrast, when you have full-fledged (and even extreme) ownership, you recognize that while the task is about food and beverage, the objective could be about much, much more.

Think about it: full-day discussions are tiring. But having snacks and coffee can help keep people energized and engaged.

In other words, you are playing a small part in a much larger mission to enable leadership to have a fruitful, efficient, and impactful discussion.

This becomes your true objective. Not whether you should order flat whites or long blacks.

And once you realize this, you might start asking a few questions and see your end goal somewhat differently.

βœ… For instance, you might ask:

  • Could I get visibility over the agenda and break times? I want to help ensure that we don't go too many hours without a proper break (and that people actually do have time to recharge).
  • Could I understand the dynamics of the workshop? If it is fast-paced or serious in any way, I'd want to make sure I opt for food and drinks that don't make a mess. Messy muffins or greasy chips probably wouldn't be the right choice.
  • Could I understand the room setup? Will we have boardroom tables or is everone facing the front? How much space do we have for food and beverage? How do we set it up to minimize disruption (e.g. people walking in front of speakers) to the session?

βœ… In fact, to go the extra mile, you might even ask things beyond what you were told to do, for instance:

  • Is there anything else I can do to help with the content of the workshop?
  • Does anyone need to be pre-briefed?
  • Is there handout material that needs to be printed out ahead of time?
  • Since leaders will be flying across the region, do we need people to guide them to the meeting space (and minimize time wasted from lack of directions)?
  • Do we have people capturing key takeaways (if not, can I help)?
  • Are there key meetings our people will miss that day (due to facilitating the session) that I can help cover?
  • Do we have a plan to socialize the decisions / takeaways post this session with other stakeholders (and if not, can I play a meaningful role there)?

...and the list goes on.

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πŸ“Œ What do you get with extreme ownership?

How did we get here?

We started with figuring coffee or tea. Somehow now we're on the brink of inserting ourselves into an exec meeting and getting a peak inside the machine.

And yes, we may have just signed ourselves up for way more than we're getting paid for.

But here's the thing: People with extreme ownership don't think about that.

They simply ask:

What is the underlying objective? And how can I solve it?

In fact, there's also one thing they DO NOT say to themselves, which is:

Someone else probably has figured it out (or will). I don't have to worry about this.

So what happens when you demonstrate extreme ownership? Here's all the goodness that might happen:

πŸ™‚ People want to work with you.
They know that they don't have to spoonfeed you everything. They know they don't have to keep checking in on you. You make their lives so much easier. They know that they simply have to align on objectives with you, and you will do your best to figure out the rest.

(And if you can't – they know you'll raise your hand in a timely manner.)

πŸ™‚ People trust you more.
They know that you are fully invested in the team's success, and that your incentives are highly aligned with theirs. They will trust you with important information and context.

πŸ™‚ People will give you more opportunities.
They will give you opportunities that are "beyond your paygrade," because you've demonstrated your will (and your ability) to deliver beyond your remit. And success tends to beget success – thus starting the upward spiral.

πŸ“Œ More examples of true ownership.

Here a couple more examples of what "true" ownership looks like.

The Brief: "Analyze this past quarter's revenue trends."

🚫 Executing the Task:
"Here's the chart you asked for. Let me know if any questions."

βœ… Owning the Objective:

  • "Who's the audience? How familiar are they with the business?"
  • "Is this intended to enable a certain decision?"
  • "What additional context do you have that might be helpful?"
  • "I also have access to these other datasets that can help us validate certain hypotheses. Would it be helpful for me to turn these findings into a one-pager and call out some risks I see?"

Let's try another one.

The Brief: "Ask each of our country managers for their annual plans so we can consolidate them."

🚫 Executing the Task:
"Here's 2 of the 5 plans. I emailed them a week ago but only 2 of them replied. I chased again but still got no response."

βœ… Owning the Objective:
"Would it be helpful if I created a region-level summary based on the materials to socialize with key stakeholders? Also, a couple of our markets appear reluctant to share despite multiple rounds of chasing; I believe it'd be helpful if we can speak live to them to address some of their unspoken concerns and show them what we're planning to do with their plans."

πŸ“Œ A caveat (to make sure you don't kill yourself).

Let me be clear – extreme ownership over everything is impossible. Nor should that be the goal. You will burn yourself out if that's the case.

Instead, think hard about what you want to own, and whether the objective justifies your time and effort. And if the answer is no – there's no issue with intentionally doing just enough to get things done.

(After all, there's no such thing as prioritization if there's no deprioritization.)

Let me take this a step further: I truly believe that either you own something 100%, or you don't own it at all. It's hard to half-ass it. And if you're not planning to own something fully (again, that might be totally OK) – be very clear about where you start and stop.

Just don't kind of own it. You'll get the worst of both worlds.

But how do you decide whether something is worth demonstrating true ownership over?

And how do you remind yourself to think like an owner?

πŸ“Œ This is how to make ownership a reflex.

Behaving like a true owner may feel uncomfortable, tiring, and stressful at first – but over time it will become a simple muscle reflex.

But until you get there, here are some practical tips:

1️⃣ Ask a lot of questions.
People with true ownership are curious. They feel that they are equally (if not more) invested in the objective, and they will ask as many questions to get to the bottom of things as a result.

Corollary to this: if you enlist someone's help and they ask very few questions and demonstrate very little curiosity – either you're not selling the vision enough, or they're perfectly comfortable just completing the task and moving on.

2️⃣ Tell yourself that the buck stops with you. Even if it doesn't.
Look, most of us are not that important – the business will likely be fine if we move on or do a B+ job.

But in your mind: tell yourself that the buck stops with you.

Don't assume someone else might pick up the slack. Don't assume someone else has likely thought of everything already and you don't have to ask too many questions.

(And if you're not sure – do everything you can to clarify. Ask questions and chase down people until you get what you need. Just don't do nothing.)

3️⃣ Pretend you own half the company.
Think of yourself as a majority shareholder as much as you can. Pretend that every dollar that the company makes/loses has a direct impact on your bank account.

You'll find yourself suddenly asking very different questions and taking very different actions.

4️⃣ Practice one phrase often.
You're not expected to know everything. Being a true owner does NOT mean that you need to figure out everything on your own 10 steps ahead. It does NOT mean you are expected to always have a perfectly-baked plan. That is not the expectation.

Instead, you will often have more questions than answer. From others and from yourself. And when that happens, make it a reflex to say:

"I don't know, but I can find out."

Such a simple phrase, but it reminds yourself that nothing is a deadend. Almost everything is simply a matter of someone having the will (and the ownership) to keep unpeeling the onion until it leads to somewhere useful.

In other words:

βœ… Saying "I don't know" in and of itself is perfectly fine.

🚫 Saying "I don't know" because you don't want to think about the implications of not knowing – is not fine.

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πŸ“Œ And finally – what I'd do differently.

Let's go back to my story in the beginning, where I executed the task of comparing ticket prices and itinerary options perfectly (but little else).

But had I demonstrated true ownership thinking, I probably would've done some of the following:

  • Clarify the potential meetings involved on this trip, including the good-to-have's and the musts
  • Develop a point of view on the value of arriving late and/or leaving Australia early, if it came at the expense of more meeting slots with the client
  • Take into account the downside of excessive transfer time and poor departure/landing times, and make a note of any red flags
  • Then recommened an itinerary option that takes these factors into account, but also lay out the pros/cons to provide full visibility.
  • Offer to chat live soon to help make the team a call (before ticket prices rise further) – as if I were paying for the tickets with my own money.

If I did all that – THEN I would've deserved my coffee β˜• :)

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