How do you practice ownership at work and not let it take over your job?
August 18, 2018 6:06 AM   Subscribe

If I take "ownershop" of my job, I'm supposed to be willing to do whatever I see that needs to get done. What advice do you have about not letting the side tasks take all your time? What should I be communicating to my managers?

One of Bezos' 14 leadership principles is to take ownership. This is described as never saying, "that's not my job." . I like the idea in principle, and I've seen CEOs picking up trash in the parking lot, etc. For me though it has ended up taking over all of my time. I'm not a CEO. I'm a software developer and trainer, yet people come to me all day with a steady stream of tech support issues. I'm asked to fix the simplest things. At one pont I even started saying, "that's not my job, but I'll help you with it." I've tried a few things, like setting aside hours in the afternoon for handling the backlog of problems. Even then it didn't work. Too many people needed the problem fixed immediately so they could keep working. I've told my managers multiple times that I'm willing to do whatever is needed. I'll clean toilets if that's what they need right now, but I don't want to be the janitor - that's not my role here. All of that sounds like I'm rejecting the principle of ownership. I've made appeals to the leadership for a tech support budget and every year it gets cut, and I have no authority to hire or get help. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that they don't seem to care that my major role isn't getting done.
So how do I "own" my work and the organization without all the little demands owning me?
posted by birchhook to Work & Money (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think trying to never say "that's not my job" needs additional parameters. Like, Bezos wouldn't accomplish anything if he was doing janitorial work all day, either. So, at some point, you do need to say things aren't your job. You just need to have a particular sort of idea of what your job is that is not constrained to the narrowest possible interpretation. Your job, in this model, is to help your company do the best it can.

If you really are the only person who can do X and X is needed but you keep finding that X is stuff that doesn't make use of your skills and nobody seems to care that the other stuff goes unfinished, it isn't rejecting the concept of ownership to be unhappy about that. It's rejecting management that doesn't appropriately allocate resources. I used to take out trash when I worked in small offices and I'd do so again, but taking out trash made up a tiny part of my day and there was no point in our office having a cleaning service if we all pitched in just a tiny bit. It sounds like you're just not being paid to do the job you signed up to do, here, which is categorically different. Your employment situation might not be fixable by attitude adjustment but by looking for more appropriate work and letting them hire an IT person who maybe can write a little code on the side.
posted by Sequence at 6:34 AM on August 18, 2018 [9 favorites]

I've told my managers multiple times that I'm willing to do whatever is needed. I'll clean toilets if that's what they need right now, but I don't want to be the janitor - that's not my role here.

An owner's not necessarily going to clean the toilets. But if an owner sees that the toilets need to be cleaned, he isn't just going to walk away from the bathroom and not do anything. He is going to let the janitor know it needs to be done. That's ownership, too.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 6:39 AM on August 18, 2018 [17 favorites]

"Act like an owner" was a big part of our culture in a company that I used to work for, but it didn't mean doing every job yourself. It meant not ignoring problems. I've known people to not report major issues because "eh, it's not my job." They didn't need to fix it, they just needed to make sure the right person knew about it.

Doing every job yourself can mean 1) wasting company resources, especially if you are doing work that is the responsibility of someone with lower pay than you 2) not doing the job right 3) depriving other employees of the chance to do the actual jobs they were hired to do.

So if someone is calling you with tech support issues, that might mean saying "I'm going to route you to tech support, they'll be able to do a better job of helping you."

When someone comes to me with an issue I have no idea to address, I try to point them in a direction but if it's an issue that relates to my area of responsibility* I'll ask them to circle back with me and I might touch base later to see if they got an answer.

An important concept to balance "act like an owner" is "respect your colleagues' knowledge, expertise and area of responsibility." When someone else in an unrelated role tries to take on the work that I am actually trained and hired to do and have years of experience in - god that's frustrating and can lead to huge issues. Don't do that.

*So if I'm the head foo analyst and if their issue is related to a foo project I'm working on, or that the solution to their problem might be good for me to know about. In those cases the solution impacts my job though finding the solution is not my job.
posted by bunderful at 6:46 AM on August 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

Ownership is absolutely not about doing everything yourself. In this context there are two kinds of ownership:

1) Absolute ownership of the areas that have been delegated to you. If you need something, you need to convince your bosses that they need to pay for it. But there is a caveat here (see below)

2) Never walking past a problem and thinking "that's not my problem", as NotMyselfRightNow said - that does not mean you have to take care of it yourself. If someone's called the plumber and they're on the way, you don't need to be unclogging the pipes - on the other hand, if no-one has called the plumber, you should do that or figure out whose job it is to do so.

I've made appeals to the leadership for a tech support budget and every year it gets cut, and I have no authority to hire or get help. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that they don't seem to care that my major role isn't getting done.

At this point, you have to remember that the thing you own before all others is your own time. I'm not telling you to quit and go work elsewhere because I don't know your circumstances, but you should think about it.
posted by atrazine at 6:55 AM on August 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ouch. On behalf of my past self, who really insisted on learning some things the hard way, I really feel for you here.

First, I think it's important to take a step back and try to apply some bigger perspective when absorbing inspirational principles. I mean, I'm sure Amazon is a company in which some people get to have really fulfilling careers through taking as much ownership as they can upon themselves. It's also a company in which other people get paid terrible wages and drop dead on warehouse floors. You're wise to spot the difference between the lofty abstract ideal and its application and implications, as well as to question whether there's too much asymmetry in who gets to benefit from the ideal.

In this case, it sounds like your current approach to the ideal isn't serving you, and it isn't even really serving your company in anything other than a short-term sense, because it's masking operational problems that really need cheaper and more robust solutions. You are (or should be) a more expensive resource than what it sounds like is required to do the work you're doing, and doing for a significant portion of your time. And if you are actually bringing this to the attention of management and they don't seem to care, then that's saying something about your management.

I think there are a couple of things to consider here. One is: what are ways that you can apply your conscientiousness towards solving the business's problems, but at a level more appropriate to your actual role, skills/expertise, and career goals? You mention that part of your role is as a trainer. So: how repetitive are the tech support issues that people come to you with? Is there a way you can take a training approach and create reusable assets for the organization on how to fix these? E.g., could you start recording screencasts with voiceover explanation of solving common issues, and starting to post and publicize those somewhere internally, maybe? Are you able to identify other upstream challenges causing so many user problems? Are you able to use your skills to start quantifying the business costs of these problems?

Part of what this can do is both start you on a path of incrementally re-claiming your time, by teaching others in the organization how to fish. It also creates visible systems and artifacts, that make the work that you are doing to be helpful right now more visible within the organization. Because depending on how large your organization is, there's a good chance that all of your dedication and accountability are completely invisible where it really matters.

Another thing is simply to re-ground yourself in: what does taking ownership of the job I'm actually supposed to be doing look like? In a way, it can be seductive to get caught up in all of these little needs, because you're being helpful in the moment and there's a micro-reward from the grateful human who can now do their job. But what I also read in the lines of your question is that you've given up your sense of ownership over whether you actually get your "real" job done. That's not really being true to the principle then, is it? I will also say that it's easy to get lulled into a false sense of security by thinking that, because your leadership seems to prioritize the helping in the now more than your actual role being performed in the now, that they will be willing or able to remember that at some point in the future when some consequence of you not being able to spend time on your actual role emerges. In your mind you may recognize their inaction as them making a conscious decision and therefore accepting a choice with some probability of consequence X or Y. From my experience, it's actually a relatively small percentage of leaders who are able to translate day-to-day management choices into their bigger picture of outcomes in that way.
posted by shelbaroo at 7:00 AM on August 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

One more thought - in tech specifically, "ownership" is often about trying to fix things so they're less likely to break again. If you regularly have to fix Widget Tighteners, can you get your procurement team to get more loaner/spare Widget Tighteners so people who rely on them can use the spares while theirs are being fixed? If your backlog is out of hand, can you make a powerpoint with graphs about it and argue to higher-ups that increased headcount will improve org productivity and save money? Ownership of a house or car doesn't mean "fix all the problems with it myself" but "bother to investigate solutions to problems and follow up on them."
posted by bagel at 7:13 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

For a year or so my department was chronically understaffed. I kept doing the extra work, so all management saw was that the work was getting done. It wasn't until I sat down and laid out how much overtime I'd been working that they truly understood the scope of the issue.

Doing all the stuff is not taking ownership (though I'm not faulting you for being helpful); its treating the symptoms without looking at the overall picture. Take a step back and look at the big picture. Define the scope of the issue and then suggest solutions. That's truly taking ownership.
posted by vignettist at 7:47 AM on August 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

How much documentation are you doing. Document how much time you’re spending on basic IT issues and how much that costs vs having either a new person do it at a lower salary or deputizing an existing person as a growth initiative for them.

Maybe set up a ticketing system (you could use Jira).
posted by vunder at 7:58 AM on August 18, 2018

I think the answer is in the rest of the description of managers' ownership: "They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team."

If your central role isn't getting done, you're not doing what's best for the company long-term. The idea isn't that you do everything yourself - it's that you don't ignore things by saying "it's not my job". If it's something quick to fix on a one-time basis, sure, do it yourself. But if it cuts into your time to do what you were actually hired to do, how is that helping anyone? CEOs can pick up trash, but they can't spend all day doing so.

I like (parts of) Zappos' approach. Zappos is an Amazon subsidiary and they follow Holacracy. The central principle is that everyone has defined roles, and defined accountabilities within that role. If there's an accountability (like tech support) that isn't explicitly in anyone's role, you don't ignore it, but instead of defaulting to taking it on yourself you think about which role it would fit into, or whether a new role needs to be created. Taking on accountabilities that someone else would have more expertise - and desire - to do is not what's best for the company.

We're moving towards Holacracy in my workplace, and if I identified something like tech support that wasn't in anyone's role, I'd go to the CEO and suggest that we identify who has the expertise and time to do it, or that we need to hire someone and how we could share the role in the interim. We have a culture where it's very much encouraged to tell someone who asks you to do something "that's not my job". The important thing is that you don't stop there - you tell them whose job it is.

Are there other people in the company capable of providing tech support? Maybe you could have a rota where you take turns so that each of you still have time to do your other accountabilities.
posted by ersatzhuman at 8:06 AM on August 18, 2018

Agree with the above but here’s a concrete suggestion for the tech support demands. Set aside “office hours” where you help people on a first come first served basis. For emergency requests implement a trouble ticketing* system, where they need to describe the problem in writing. If it’s urgent enough to take your time, it should be urgent enough for them to document the problem. You can update the ticket with the amount of time spent and now you have a document trail.

*The ticketing system doesn’t have to be formal, even just email is ok, but it serves a few important purposes. Documentation, but perhaps more important is it will filter out the most trivial requests. It also gives you a chance to put some of the onus back on the user, your goto response could be “I’d really like to help you with that, but I need a ticket fitst.
posted by forforf at 8:54 AM on August 18, 2018

This sounds more like a boundary-setting question than an ownership question, to me. Yes, it's good that you want to help out wherever help is needed. However, you have a core set of duties that need to get done and it's right and proper for you to defend the time that you need in order to make sure that you're taking care of those core duties. Your management should support you in this, but you should also feel free to say something like "I'm sorry, I can't help you with that right now—try opening a help desk ticket with IT." Your core duties are important to the company and they need to get done. That's what you were hired for.

Your core job is not "do whatever needs doing," it's "develop software and train people to use it." You're failing in your job if you're not blocking out the time you need to do that. It's great if you have time to pick up trash or provide tech support—in fact, when I need to take a little break at my own job I'll often go do some dishes in the kitchen or see if they could use a hand in the warehouse for a minute, and there are whole days when I work with installation crews or help at marketing events, when my core job is in a lull—but if you don't have time then you don't, and people should respect that. It's OK to tell people that you're too busy, if it's the truth. Your management should back you up if necessary, but the first line of defense is you. You're responsible for managing your own time, including setting boundaries on other people's use of that time.

Now, as far as "ownership," what you describe is not really the way that I conceptualize it. Taking ownership of your job, to me, means that you take responsibility for making sure that your job is being done well and that you have the resources to do it. It means taking responsibility when you make a mistake, it means looking for ways to do your job faster and better, it means looking at how your job fits into the bigger picture of your company's mission and working with the people around you to make sure that what you're doing supports what they're doing. It means going beyond just robotically doing what you're told and not worrying about whether it actually makes sense, to actively trying to find ways to produce a better, more cost-effective work product for your customers and coworkers. It doesn't mean that you do every job in the company though, or that you put yourself at the beck and call of everybody who wants to use your time. It means finding ways to maximize your effectiveness.

Jeff Bezos's definition of ownership sounds like a bunch of feel-good corporatist bullshit, to be honest. I wouldn't put too much stock in it. There are things that are not your job, and you shouldn't be doing them if they're taking time away from the stuff that is your job, because your job is important and it needs to get done.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:01 AM on August 18, 2018 [8 favorites]

Delegate! Just because you shouldn't say "that's not my job" doesn't mean you can't say, "that is their job," and point to a person who can help them. This isn't shirking, it's providing efficiency. It's not good or smart for you to be context-switching all the time.
posted by rhizome at 12:36 PM on August 18, 2018

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