The nature of a lot of my work means that I find myself put into situations where my team and I come in to continue (or fix, depending on the day) the work of other people who have long since rolled off of a project or out of a company.
Sometimes this means coming into an environment where tensions are already high and trust is already low because of the actions of people who left before you ever arrived. This can lead to some unpleasant interactions. In hindsight, they’re often funny, but in the moment they’re a recipe for a really bad day.
I once found myself apologizing to a member of my team because they had gotten raked over the coals for something that they weren’t aware of as being a problem (and which I inadvertently set in motion because we were all new). They tried to assure me that it was okay and that it wasn’t my fault which, frankly, was extremely nice of them.
I made it a point to turn it into a teachable moment by telling them it may not have been my fault but that it was my responsibility and that those two things are different (though both are important).
As a leader, you may not be the cause of the underlying problems (i.e. it’s not your fault), but it is on you to take care of things going forward – making sure that your people have the information, skills and tools that they need, managing expectations both of the people who report to you as well as the expectations of the people above and to the sides of you, and keeping the lines of communication open to help ensure success in what you’re doing (or at least as close to success as you can reasonably get).
That’s what it means to take responsibility for not only your actions, but the outcome of the projects you’re placed on and the success or failure of the team that you lead. The one common element in all of your successes and failures is you and you need to own that.
If something didn’t go well, examine first if there was anything you could have done differently to improve the outcome then expand the scope to see if there is anything that the team could have done (Hint – most of the changes the team may have made would have probably at least been impacted by something you could have done).
If something went well, look at the things that caused the success and then look at things that you could have done to make it go even better. After all, failure isn’t our only teacher.
Taking responsibility for situations isn’t easy. In fact, sometimes it’s downright frightening, but it’s the only way to consistently get better and to more consistently be successful (again, not everything is going to work out well, and that’s okay too).
However, you’re going to need to temper this mindset a little. It’s true that you’re responsible for things at your level as well as for how the actions of people you’re leading work out. It’s equally true, and just as important, that you empower the people you lead to be responsible for the things at their level (and that they do the same for the people they lead).
This is how you get self-empowered teams that can take ownership of tough problems and (hopefully) succeed where others might not.
If you take literally everything on your own shoulders, your team will come to rely on you too much. This will slow them down and lead to even more problems because they don’t feel like they can act on their own. In contrast, empowering them means that they can make decisions which they are better equipped to make and execute on than you would be. That makes success more likely and, honestly, makes you look kind of amazing to the people above you because you’ve helped gel a team that Gets Things Done.
Do what you can, take responsibility for the outcomes, empower your own people, and see that they do the same. It’s a massive change in mindset for most people, but the results might surprise you.