Ownership, the mindset that changed my career

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⸻ Beyond Data

The value of Extreme Ownership for data teams

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Ownership, the mindset that changed my career

I’ve made my way through many management and leadership books over the years; sometimes, they act more as entertainment than life-changing nuggets of wisdom. It’s hard to internalise a new process or concept into our thinking. There have been few that really stood out and immediately made an impact – which only happens when the message is clear and speaks directly to your soul. For me, the idea of ownership was one of those ideas, and I attribute much of my success to trying to embody this principle as much as possible (I often fail to, BTW).

Leadership is ownership at scale

Leadership is all about ownership. It’s about thinking in terms of the long game, never sacrificing lasting value for temporary gains. Great leaders act on behalf of the entire organisation, transcending the limits of their own teams. They never shy away from responsibility or accountability, never uttering the phrase, “That’s not my job.” This is captured well in the highly successful design agency IDEO’s concept of “Make Others Successful” – a mantra I love.

This principle of ownership is arguably one of the most critical aspects of leading effectively, shaping how teams and organisations function. Let’s consider a hypothetical example.

Imagine you’re the technology lead for an innovative AI product. You own all the technology-related decisions for this product. You’re accountable for the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s not just about the victories but also about picking up the pieces when things go sideways. You are the “owner” of the product in every sense of the word. It’s all well and good telling folks what to do, but that’s not even half the game.

Now, let’s say a team member manages the data engineering for this AI product. They, too, are an “owner” responsible for the triumphs and pitfalls of the data engineering required for the project. If they’re a keen techie, they’re proud of their work and know their domain. There might be multiple owners within a single project, each with its domain of responsibility.

And let’s say someone from another department spots a bug in your product’s data pipelines or ETL process. They come to you, expressing concern. How do you react? If you truly embody the spirit of ownership, you’d be thankful for their vigilance. Then, you’d invite them to sit down with you, discuss their findings with the data engineering lead, and collaboratively outline potential solutions. Because when everyone acts as an owner, no task is dismissed as “not someone’s job.”

Yes, the data engineering team is responsible for building those pipelines, and it was most likely their work that introduced this bug – but did you do absolutely everything in your power to identify this as a potential problem in advance and communicate it with them? Is there a possible world in which you workshopped solutions with the downstream stakeholders and wrote better designs and documentation that would have guided the data engineering team to account for this bug in their first iteration?

Ownership across boundaries

This sense of ownership extends to all areas. Whether it’s advocating for improved HR policies, tracking down the person responsible for a particular feature to request a fix, or stepping up to help the team when things get rough, acting as an owner is critical.

But how would you handle a situation where something goes wrong, and your product experiences a major outage? Would you leave it to the operations team to sort out, or would you jump in to help, despite it not being technically your domain? The former might be what happens in reality, but to embody ownership, the latter is the ideal.

It can be a difficult mindset to adopt, and no, you don’t have to painstakingly take every possible action to cover your tracks – that way, madness lies. But understanding that there’s always more you could have done and taking ownership of that can unlock so much more potential. It begins to breed trust and openness. It allows people to voice their real opinions and share their honest feedback. It inspires and motivates those you work with because they know you’re in the arena with them (if you’re unfamiliar with Brene Brown’s work and the arena, this book is a great read).

Extreme Ownership

One book beautifully encapsulates this concept: “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. It’s a must-read for anyone aspiring to be a leader, regardless of their field.

In their book, Willink and Babin talk about how great leaders must own everything in their world. They can’t pass the buck or play the blame game. When failure occurs, leaders don’t point fingers; they look hard at what went wrong and figure out how to fix it. They don’t shy away from difficult conversations or uncomfortable truths. Instead, they embrace these challenges head-on.

The authors emphasise clear and open communication, urging leaders to ask questions until they’re clear on the “why” behind what they’re doing. They remind us to keep personal egos in check, to prioritise and execute tasks effectively, and to lead both up and down the chain of command.

Moreover, they discuss the concept of “Decentralised Command,” which echoes the idea of multiple ownership within a project. Every team should have a clear leader, but the leader should empower their team members to take decisions independently. This fosters a sense of ownership at all levels, resulting in a high-performing, motivated team.

The book also highlights the principle of “Cover and Move,” which means teamwork. Every element within a team is crucial and must work together to achieve the mission. There’s no room for individual success or failure; the team succeeds or fails together.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, embodying the spirit of ownership is difficult at first but starts to pay huge dividends once your team are aware of it and bought in. It starts with open, honest communication and letting the whole team know you won’t shy away from tough times or hard feedback. It ends with a culture of trust and growth where all are aligned against the challenges you face and not squabbling with one another.

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