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WTF does it mean to “act like an owner”?
Do what's best for the business, act like your reputation is on the line, and more
👋 Hey, it’s Wes. Welcome to my weekly newsletter where I share frameworks for becoming a sharper marketer, operator, and leader. If you’re not a subscriber, here’s what you missed this month:
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Managers and leaders say they want their team to act like an owner. But what does this actually mean? In this week’s newsletter, we’ll cover 8 ways to act like an owner:
Be as self-directed and independent as possible.
Assume you’ll lead the meeting.
Act like your reputation is on the line, because it is.
Improve your weaknesses so they’re not a blocker.
This is a relay race. Do you have the baton?
Get what you need and set expectations regularly.
Don’t blindly do anything.
Advocate for what’s best for the business.
Let’s dive in…
Read time: 12 minutes
At my first job out of college, I worked as a business analyst at the Gap headquarters in San Francisco. My manager’s name was Allison, and my first performance review was pretty good. I don’t remember most of what she said, but I do remember one of the areas of improvement: Could be more proactive.
I said, “Yes, this totally makes sense. Thank you for this feedback.”
Internally, I was freaked out. I thought I was proactive. I mentally ran through a list of things I did that could be deemed proactive, and wondered how I could be more proactive.
In the middle of this internal debate, my dotted-line manager, Cindy, came by my desk.
“How did it go with Allison?”
“It was good. She gave me constructive feedback about being more proactive.”
“Oh, that’s just what every manager says when they don’t know what else to write for feedback.”
That was in 2008. Since then, I’ve become a manager, executive, and founder, and have myself espoused the importance of being proactive and acting like an owner.
For a phrase that gets used so often, it’s surprisingly up for interpretation what acting like an owner actually means. If you’re lucky, a leader within your company will point it out and celebrate it when it happens. Jake was acting like an owner. What Anne did this week was an excellent example of acting like an owner.
For the rest of us, we’re left wondering, “WTF does acting like an owner actually mean and how do you do it?”
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Acting like an owner isn’t for everyone
Let’s take a step back. Why might you want to act like an owner? When you act like an owner, you signal to your manager and the rest of the company that you’re a responsible person they can trust to keep promises, do the right thing even if you won’t get credit for it, and you put the company’s best interests above your own.
This, in turn, engenders goodwill and builds trust. Your boss sees that you have your priorities straight in terms of doing what’s best for the company, instead of prioritizing your own needs, desires, and conveniences. It shows maturity.
Perhaps counterintuitively, doing what’s best for the company is the best way, and maybe the only sustainable way, to get what you want too.
Here’s how to act like an owner:
1. Be as self-directed and independent as possible
Most managers at fast-paced companies appreciate when team members are self-sufficient and independent. If you need their attention, raise your hand—this is better than waiting for them to read your mind and notice something is off. This means if you need anything—like an extra 1:1, or help getting past what you’re stuck on—the onus is on you to reach out.
Here’s what one senior manager at a skincare brand said:
“When I first started, I thought I didn’t have the power to make decisions on my own and I needed to get approval from my CEO for everything. I would have gotten more done and grown faster if I had taken the wheel sooner. When she went on parental leave, it gave her no choice but to delegate, and everything was fine. I was always so scared to ask for things, scared to do things without permission. Now I know I should take the wheel and keep pushing forward.”
2. Assume you’ll lead the meeting
You behave differently when you’re a participant vs the meeting leader.
At one of my first jobs, my manager asked me to lead a high-stakes cross-functional meeting 15 minutes before it started. It was my first week on the job, and I was completely caught off guard.
I was 24 years old and this was my first marketing role—before this, I had been a business analyst. I knew there were high expectations of me, but I thought, "Surely this first week is going to be about observing."
Fifteen minutes before the meeting, my manager calls me into her office. She says, “I can’t make it to the task force meeting anymore because I’m meeting with the CMO. The task force is 12 people from 7 teams across the company for one of the most important launches in recent years. I told you about that launch yesterday, remember? I was heading up the task force. Starting today, you’ll head it. It starts at the top of the hour, so you might want to start heading over."
This is how I learned that you may be asked to jump into the deep end of the pool from day one. That was thirteen years ago, and the lesson was seared into my brain: Assume you’ll lead the meeting. Acting like an owner means you don’t passively assume someone else will step up—you may be the one who needs to steps up. It was a stressful lesson in the moment, but one I appreciated getting early on because it forever changed my posture.
3. Act like your reputation is on the line, because it is
I once had a direct report, we’ll call him Matt, who kept submitting work with errors, typos, weird formatting, and writing that put cognitive load on customers.
I would repeatedly remind him to use the clear text feature in Google Docs/Gmail, which, if this is the first time you’re hearing about it, is a game-changer. That little Tx button has saved me from sending emails where the “Hi First Name” looks obviously copied/pasted because the font was size 14 in Roboto when the rest of the email was size 12 in Arial. This isn’t even the point of the story, but I think more people would benefit from cleaning up their email formatting, so here’s how you do it:
One day, I sat him down and said,
“Matt, I need you to pretend like your reputation is on the line when you send work to me. I am judging you for this work. I know this isn’t your best. Even though you are signing these emails under our organization’s name, I need you to pretend you’re signing it as Matt, and sending this email to 50,000 of your friends and the public."
Your work is the average of what you ship. If you’re not proud of it, consider investing in improving your craft, finding a function that’s a better fit, or whatever else you think will allow you to show how good you really are.
A tiny percentage of you might say, “Wes, I would publish work with typos and bad grammar under my own name. I don’t mind!”
First of all, this:
Second, you might not mind, but your organization does. Sloppiness reflects poorly on your brand, distracts from your message, and erodes trust. If you’re going to do 90% of the work, you might as well do the last 10% to give it another read and put your stamp of approval on it.
If I were signing off with my name, would I make this better?
Is there sloppiness that might reflect poorly on me or my company?
Am I passing the burden to others to fix my errors?
Does the work I’m shipping represent my ability?
4. Improve your weaknesses so they’re not a blocker
If you’re saying, “I just can’t be detail oriented and don’t want to try,” I will say, “Cool, I will hire someone who is or can be, because the details matter in this job.”
For most knowledge worker roles, being able to produce work that’s error-free most of the time is a prerequisite. I’m not saying you need to be in the 95th percentile of detail orientation. I’m not even that bothered by typos, and think they’re the least egregious type of error. I’m saying if you want to be trusted with more responsibility, you need to be able to produce work that is generally error-free because your manager can’t always be your safety net.
Back to the story of my direct report Matt. Matt admitted that he felt like I’d always catch his errors, so he felt more lax about it. I get that. You might say, “Wes, you enabled him to be less detailed.”
Perhaps I did. But this quip is not as clever as you think. Because what’s the alternative? Let him send an email to 50,000 customers and make them suffer? Andy Grove, co-founder and former CEO of Intel, said it well:
“The responsibility for teaching the subordinate must be assumed by his supervisor, and not paid for by the customers of his organization, internal or external.”
The idea of “let the person fail and they’ll learn” makes sense in theory, but in reality, it’s not worth sacrificing brand credibility and taxing your customers for a team member to learn a lesson. Don’t make your manager or customers pay for your weaknesses. You don’t and probably can’t turn weaknesses into strengths, but you can and should reflect on which weaknesses you want to improve on enough so they aren’t a blocker for you.
If it gives you hope… People assume I was always good with details, but I used to be super disorganized.
For example, in junior high school, I missed assignments because I forgot about them, or jotted it in one of many notebooks, then forgot which one. In my sophomore year of college, I did an internship at a tech PR firm. One of the senior leaders chewed me out because he asked me to organize an Excel spreadsheet, and when I turned in my finished work, he rightfully pointed out all the ways the spreadsheet was messy with random font sizes, centered vs left justified text, etc. I didn’t see it until he pointed it out. But from that day on, I knew what to look for and trained my eye to notice formatting.
Most skills are learnable and you can make many mistakes, but don’t get stuck in a loop repeating the same mistakes over and over. Ideally, you graduate to making better, smarter mistakes, and you improve enough so your weaknesses don’t become prohibitive.
5. This is a relay race. Do you have the baton?
Imagine a relay race with multiple runners and multiple legs of a race. Someone has to hold the baton at any leg of the race. If you're not sure who has the baton, act like it's you. Assume you are holding the baton.
A passed baton is literal—the other person has to acknowledge receipt. If they didn't acknowledge it, your pass doesn't count. The baton is still yours. This is an exercise in trust, personal responsibility, and accountability.
For example, if you send your manager a Slack DM, it might get buried among dozens of others they’re getting. If you don’t receive a “got it” (or thumbs up emoji) back, there’s a chance they didn’t see it. Follow up as needed. The “baton” is not passed off until you have their confirmation. If they don’t pick up the baton on your first try, it’s your responsibility to keep attempting until they reply.
This is from the CEO of a beauty brand sharing a story about how one person who “missed the baton” caused an important launch to miss it’s deadline at the final step:
“We once had a shipping guy who left before the pick-up carrier came for a pallet of product the entire team had worked on for weeks. He’d wrapped up all that was on his top-of-mind agenda and simply left without thinking about it. The boxes were packed and by the door.
When the driver came, there was no-one here to hand off the baton, the pallet of product. We missed the pick-up. The truck had to come again the next day, even though the team hustled to make it by this deadline. He let the team down in an act of forgetfulness. It wasn’t malicious, but he forgot he was holding the baton.”
This is one of the worst things you can say to your manager: “I told you, but I didn’t hear back so I stopped working on it.”
All along, your manager thought you were making progress because you didn’t say otherwise. Nope, that doesn’t fly.
When you act like an owner, you assume the ball is in your court. You keep pestering the person, respectfully and with tact, until you hear back.
Does anyone think I’m holding the baton? Might I be?
Who has the baton next? Did they confirm they received my pass?
It’s similar to the Jobs To Be Done framework by Clayton Christensen. I want a hole in the wall. Your job is to create the hole in the wall. Do not make me ask you how it went, then you tell me the screwdriver didn’t work, and you’ve been awaiting further instructions (but didn’t tell anyone this) to continue.
6. Get what you need and set expectations regularly
Continuing with the hole in the wall analogy, what if you’re not sure how to make a hole in the wall? An owner assumes they are responsible for the outcome. This doesn’t mean they must handle every part themselves or can’t ask questions. It’s the opposite: It means speaking up and asking for help if that’s what you need to get the job done.
When a project comes across your desk, you don’t passively wait for instructions. You know that, without certain information, you can’t possibly read the other person’s mind or deliver a strong outcome.
Let’s say your manager comes to you and says, “I would like to have better search functionality on the website.” This is an excellent opportunity for you to run with the project, define it, and help bring it to life. Before you dive in, get the context you need to set yourself up for success.
Here’s a good set of initial questions to get started:
Why now for doing this?
What is the timeline and general priority level?
What does good enough look like?
Who can help me? What resources can I tap into?
When would you like to hear from me next? For example, do you want to see a first draft or only the final version for sign-off?
When you ask clarifying questions, it will help you get what you need to deliver. Even better: In addition to asking these questions, you can try to answer them yourself. You can take a stab at most of these, which will show your manager you’re savvy and can intuit why this project is happening. This builds trust.
Just as importantly, when you make assertions, you give others something to push back on. I can’t overemphasize the importance of providing something to push back on—it helps people articulate what they want, what they don’t want, and it speeds up the cycles of iteration.
Good: “What does good enough look like?”
Better: “Here’s what I think good enough could look like. Let me know if you agree or have any feedback. If this looks good, I’ll move forward.”
7. Don’t blindly do anything
You might have scripts or documentation about processes that are meant to reduce mental load. But always remember to use your judgment.
For example: If you’re interacting with customers, your scripts might cover 90% of customer questions. This does not mean the scripts should be used in exactly that format or phrasing. Scripts are tools, and should be adapted to your voice and to the context of that specific customer. If you rely too heavily on scripts, you’ll sound robotic. Be warm, clear, and human in every communication—even if that means deviating from your script.
Consider the question behind the question, share information you think will be valuable, and use the opportunity to reinforce messaging you want to reinforce.
What are they actually asking? What’s the question behind the question?
Did I actually answer their question or talk around it?
How can I take control in a way that’s best for the customer and our business?
If a friend asked me this, how might I answer in a direct and thoughtful way?
If you don’t know the information needed to serve your customer, this is a learning moment—who can you talk to to fill this gap in your knowledge? Who else might need to learn this alongside you? Don’t just wing it and move on. There is a human on the other end of this communication who is trusting you to help them. Don’t leave them stranded because you’re eager to move on. If not you, then who?
8. Advocate for what’s best for the business
Doing what’s best for the business is partially thinking of what to do, and partially convincing other people to agree. The latter is often overlooked.
Here’s a clip from the movie The Last King of Scotland that illustrates taking ownership for persuading others. Let me caveat that the real life dictator this was based on was a cruel, bad person. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m in awe of Forrest Whitaker’s performance based on this clip. He received an Oscar and Golden Globe, among other awards, for best leading actor in this film.
There’s a difference between making a casual suggestion vs drawing on the depths of your ingenuity to convince someone of your recommendation. There is a spectrum when it comes to making recommendations:
Nonchalantly mentioning a suggestion, in the last two minutes of a meeting that’s already running overtime, barely putting thought into your argument, explaining it poorly, then whining about how no one listens to you.
Drawing upon your creativity, empathy, logic, insight, principles of influence, and understanding of your business’ goals, to compel others to see what you see.
This is a core duty of being an operator in any organization: You need to understand how to get people to do what you want them to do, often without positional authority.
In your role, you may see things other people don’t, and it’s your job to help them realize an issue is important. I want to be clear: convincing others to see your point of view takes work. It takes effort to:
understand other people’s worldviews
figure out your own logic
strategize how to align incentives
put all of this into words
make a business case
be patient when facing skepticism
It takes effort to make change happen within any organization, even ones that typically embrace change and move quickly. This is because your organization needs to believe your idea makes sense before allocating resources toward it. Getting buy-in isn’t “pre-work.” This is the work. The burden of proof is on you.
You might end up having to disagree and commit. We all have to sometimes, and knowing when and how to do that is a skill in itself. But don’t let that be an excuse to avoid doing the emotional labor of advocating, persuading, and getting buy-in.
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