No More Finger Pointing

I am very disappointed in all of you.
Just a few years ago, when Joe had a baby, the whole company would chip in. We were able to buy a great present. And now, just 17 people out of 120!? What happened to you, why don’t you care?

This is the gist of an email sent as part of a company-wide email thread attempting to collect some money to buy a present for a first-time father. This particular paraphrased paragraph was sent by the CEO. Not just the CEO chimed in with disappointed messages, many other senior leaders of the company sent messages of a similar tone.

When this happened (quite a few years ago, and a few jobs back), I had just joined the company’s management team a few weeks earlier. As the rookie in this position, I wasn’t super confident it was my place to point out the (to me) obvious, but after some deliberation I decided to do it anyway (not as a reply-all, don’t worry, in fact it was during a meeting):

You are the leaders of this company, it is your job to create the right company culture. If you don’t like what you’re seeing, don’t look anywhere but yourself.
This is on you.

I have a few hobby horses. Extreme ownership is one of them. The idea of extreme ownership is simple: if something goes wrong, by default I assume responsibility. By default, the blame goes to me. While it is human tendency to try to divert responsibility as soon as possible and point fingers in any other direction — people practicing extreme ownership start with themselves.

In practice this is easier said than done, because there are so many things in life you feel you don’t have control over. And let’s be honest, we don’t have control over everything. However, we do have influence. While influence doesn’t guarantee an outcome, it does give you the ability to at least nudge things in the right direction.

I have found it to be pretty rare that when things going wrong around me, there is nothing that leads back to me. Nothing that I could do to have influenced the situation, or influence it in the future.

Therefore, I always ask myself two questions:

  1. Did I do everything in my power to prevent this from happening?
  2. Is there anything in my power I can do to prevent this from happening again?

Especially if you’re in a leadership position, have a good look in the mirror when things aren’t going to your liking.

No more finger pointing.

It's hard not to draw parallels with parenting to make this point even more clear.

As a parent you cannot yell at your kid: “Stop yelling!”

When phrased like this, it sounds ridiculous. Reality is people do it all the time. I do it all the time. This is simple in theory, but pretty damn hard in practice.

A father of a 6 year old once complained to me that his son was addicted to violent cartoons, and playing games on his phone. I had to bite my lip not to ask: “So, who lets him watch those cartoons, and also: WHO GAVE HIM THAT PHONE?” It's like giving drugs to someone every day and then being surprised they become an addict.

This is on you.

Coming back to this CEO’s email we started with. The thing here is: if you care about creating a culture with a strong sense of community and generosity, that doesn't just happen by thinking happy thoughts. Do you consistently invest in creating this feeling of community, especially as the company grows? Do you structure the company to support it? Are you yourself an example of generosity?

If not, this is on you.

If yes, this is still on you. What more can you do, because it's clearly not working.

When I moved into my first management position many years ago, we were having a rough time keeping our website running. Sometimes a few nights per week I would get a 2 am phone call because the system was down and needed to be fixed. I spent many sleepless nights under high pressure, and I found it immensely frustrating. I felt victimized, and often felt others in the company didn’t feel the same responsibility I did to stick around and fix problems until completion.

Then, I sent an elaborate complaining email to everybody in the company. This was wrong, and that, and that, and I hadn’t slept in weeks, why did nobody else care?

My boss at that time was kind enough to slap me in the face with reality:

“I hear you’re having a tough time. I get it. However, if anybody can do anything about it, it’s you  —  you’re the VP of Engineering. So, what are you going to do about it?

He was right. Both my complaints (stability problems and the attitude of people) were 100% my responsibility. If I couldn’t fix them, I was in the wrong position. What really happened here is that I faced a problem and chose to complain about it and point fingers rather than figure out a way to fix it.

I’ve since learned that there are valid reasons to vent. To let all frustration out. It's healthy. That’s fine. As long you don’t expect anything to change as a result.

To actually make change happen, ask yourself: what are you going to do about it?

Which, coincidentally, also happens to be the only thing we have control over, so we may as well focus our energy there.

No more finger pointing.

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