In my first job, I constantly heard from management about the desire for employees “take ownership” over our work and the business. They didn’t mean literal ownership of course, but it took me awhile to get the real message.
After an early promotion was delayed, I received some helpful mentoring on what the company was really after. They wanted proactive problem-solvers. While I thought I was one, I wasn’t showing enough action to convince others.
Looking back years later, I now understand what my first managers wanted and have come to value it in my professional relationships as well. In fact, I’ve noticed three distinct groups of people I’ve managed over the years and what they do:
Poor employees complain and blame. Average employees do what they are told. Promotable employees come to bosses and clients with solutions and proactively take action.
My problem early on was that I was an average employee. I didn’t complain, but I also didn’t proactively do a lot to resolve problems when they came up. It held me back for awhile, but now I know better.
Today, I use these three steps when addressing issues with bosses, organizations, and clients. Use these steps and you can avoid the same mistakes I did and sound like someone who’s ready to get promoted:
1. Collect the facts
While poor performers are pointing fingers and average performers are unsure what to do, top performers systematically collect facts about the situation so they can more confidently take actions that address root causes.
Top performers also know that few people aim to generate problems. That’s why they also look at systems, procedures, and organizational culture for clues on what may have triggered the issue and how to solve it for good.
2. Demonstrate your ability to take action
When Colin Powell advised leaders after his retirement as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he prescribed this formula:
Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired. Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut.
Many of the leaders I coach make the same error I did early on; they wait for the information acquired to be 85–90% or higher before taking action. This delays solutions and demonstrates to others that you can only handle situations where the answer is obvious and safe (not exactly an amazing leadership trait).
Today, I’d much rather have someone take the action they thought was right than wait around for me or someone else to make the call.
3. Come to the table with solutions
If the situation is complex and it isn’t appropriate to proceed without input, top performers go to the boss or client and brief them on the above and then clearly recommend the action to be taken.
Average employees go to the boss or client and ask, “What should I do?”
With rare exceptions, I consistently find bosses and clients appreciate proactive problem-solving and action. Often, this leads to them either endorsing a recommendation fully or incorporating much of it into their next steps.
Finally, once you’ve earned trust over time, it’s rarely necessary to wait for formal approval. Keep moving forward and keep bosses and clients in the loop on what you’re doing to solve their problems. If they disagree, they’ll tell you.
More likely though, they’ll be wishing they had more people like you.