The world is full of people with opinions. Television, radio, and other media are brimming over with commentators making suggestions and offering seemingly authoritative advice to government officials and corporate executives about what they ought to do. At dinners and cocktail parties — and around the water cooler at work — we talk about what others should do or should have done, or the flaws of our bosses.
In our jobs, we may give our opinion on an issue from a functional or departmental point of view — in other words, a limited perspective. Or we may give an opinion without fully thinking about the issues and weighing the interests of various constituencies that our boss has to consider in order to make an important decision. We may do this because we don’t have access to additional information or, alternatively, because we believe that broadening our perspective simply isn’t part of our job description.
This kind of opinion giving may be quite appropriate and adequate in any number of situations, but it doesn’t constitute leadership. Leadership requires much more. It starts with taking on a broader perspective in figuring out what you truly believe should be done — that is, as if you were an owner.
I Thought I Did a Good Job
Jim, a vice president of a consumer goods company, called me to discuss a problem he was facing. He was a former student of mine and was calling to seek advice. He had just had a jarring experience, and he was trying to make sense of what had gone wrong.
Jim had been working on the launch of an important new product for his company. He was a key member of a multifunctional launch team that was headed by the senior vice president in charge of one of the company’s key divisions. The team was charged with conceiving of all aspects of the new product’s design, packaging, marketing, and distribution strategy. This product was vital to Jim’s company, because the market share of several of its core products was eroding, and senior executives urgently needed to find new avenues for growth. They thought that this new product would address an important consumer need and reestablish the company’s position in the minds of its customers.
Each member of the project team was assigned one aspect of the new product and its launch. Jim’s responsibility was to focus on the point-of-sale promotion for the product. He felt this wasn’t the most critical assignment, but — given the importance of this project and the high quality of the other team members — it was still a good opportunity.
After several weeks of work, he came up with a detailed plan regarding display and placement for the product within each retail context: grocery stores, drugstores, and other consumer outlets. In addition, he developed alternative point-of-sale materials to be used in some of the regional product tests that were about to be conducted.
During this period, the project team met once a week, with each member of the team reporting on his or her area of responsibility. The senior vice president wanted every team member to be aware of the plans for all aspects of the launch. He hoped that team members would question each other and learn about each other’s assignments, and thereby produce a more effective launch strategy.
Initially, Jim was very pleased with his work on this project. “I thought I did a very good job,” he told me. To come up with the detailed plan, Jim had assembled a subgroup comprising several of his subordinates. He felt great about how things were going, which was why what happened next was so disconcerting.
At one of the late-stage project team meetings, Jim was asked to present his final recommendations. To his surprise, several members of the project team roundly criticized his proposal. They felt it was out of step with the nature of the product, price point, and likely consumer buying behavior. In particular, the members of the larger team felt his point-of-sale positioning was more consistent with an impulse purchase, whereas they believed strongly that this product should be positioned and priced as much more of a premeditated buy on the part of the consumer.
Jim was shaken. After the meeting, the team leader took him aside and asked him how much he really understood about the product being launched. “I’ve been in every meeting,” Jim replied, “and I’ve listened carefully.” If that was true, the team leader asked, how could he be so out of step with the team members regarding the product’s positioning? Jim countered that he thought he had responded well to what he had heard in the meetings, and that he had also drawn effectively upon his past experience working on other successful launches.
The team leader proceeded to ask Jim a series of specific questions: “Who do you think should buy this product? How should it be priced? How should it be packaged?” Jim admitted that he hadn’t really thought about these issues because they weren’t explicitly part of his specific assignment on this project. Other team members, he argued, were supposed to be worrying about those questions.
The team leader was exasperated by Jim’s comments. Before ending the meeting, he gave Jim some pointed advice. He urged him to think about how he would answer these questions if he were the team leader, rather than simply a member of the team with a narrow set of specific responsibilities.
Jim thought this was an odd recommendation. He called me to get my reaction to what had happened and to ask for suggestions regarding how he should respond to the project manager’s challenge. My reaction was straightforward: “Jim, your team leader has given you some great advice. I agree with him. Pretend that you’re responsible for this situation. Really try to think as if you were the boss, or even owned the company. Imagine that your life depended on getting every aspect of this launch right. How would you do it? You’re a talented guy. Think like an owner and use your talents to answer his questions.”
Jim acknowledged he hadn’t thought about this approach, in part because his current and previous bosses had never encouraged him to think or act this way. “That’s going to take a lot of thought and analysis on my part,” he said, “and maybe even some serious soul-searching. Are you sure this is really my role? Do I really have to do all that?”
“Yes,” I responded. “If you want to be a leader, you absolutely do.”
He decided to take this challenge seriously. He interviewed other team members and applied his broad skills and talents to think through every aspect of the product positioning. He even conducted some of his own research at selected retail outlets, looking to see how competitive products were being positioned. After doing all this work, he began to realize that his initial recommendations were at best superficial, and at worst radically misaligned with what he now thought would work for this product launch.
He came to a disturbing insight: he had done a lousy job. He had not applied a leadership mind-set in his work on this project assignment. As a result, he had done inferior work and made himself look bad to others in the company. He decided to summon his courage and apologize to the team leader and the entire project team.
The project team members were gracious about his apology. They were impressed that he had had the guts to admit he was wrong, go back, and redo his work and rethink his recommendations. He proceeded to explain the new positioning recommendations, which his teammates quickly approved. He felt as if he had been welcomed back as a valued member of the team.
He realized that he had learned something valuable from this experience. This was reinforced when the senior vice president, who was widely recognized as a rising star in the company, told him, “From here on in, Jim, I hope you’ll act like a leader in this company. You have great potential here, but only if you start thinking like an owner. Define your job broadly, rather than narrowly.”
Jim promised himself that in the future, he wouldn’t think like a narrow functionary, but instead approach his work as if he was an owner of the company. This new mind-set helped make his thinking much clearer and his work much more effective. He had a new prism for judging his thinking and his actions.
It sounds simple: “Think like an owner.” In fact, it is hard to do. It requires you to put yourself in the shoes of the decision-maker. You may realize that you prefer not to be in those shoes. There’s too much pressure; there are too many considerations; there are too many constituencies. With all the complexity, constant change, and myriad of issues in the modern world, it may be easier to rationalize more narrow thinking: Dammit, it’s not my job!
Yes, it is your job, if you want to be a leader. If it frustrates you, or makes you agonize, or even creates a heightened level of stress for you, then you need to get used to experiencing those feelings. The more you practice this, the better you’ll get at doing it. I would urge you to begin to believe and internalize the view that thinking like an owner is central to your effectiveness in your job. Thinking like an owner means getting to conviction. “Conviction” is meant to describe a threshold level beyond which you feel a high level of confidence about what you truly believe should be done.
Many leaders spend their lives striving to get to conviction about what they would do in a particular situation. The reality is that, much of the time, they may not have a strong point of view. They keep gathering information, agonizing, and assessing until they reach a threshold level of confidence.
On the other hand, some leaders need to be wary of getting to conviction too quickly, or having such a strong initial point of view that they fail to take into account key considerations that are crucial to making a good decision. Each of us has blind spots, may be prone to ideological points of view, or may be unaware of our own subtle biases. As a result, we each need to also take sufficient time to gather information, consider alternative arguments, agonize, and make sure we are arriving at a balanced judgment.
The point is that the process of searching for conviction can be very challenging. The contextual factors and considerations are changing all the time; competitors take significant actions; products get commoditized, and so on. In addition, different people looking at the same situation may come to different points of view about what should be done. To cope with all these factors, leaders need to perform analysis, seek advice and input from others, debate alternatives, and generally ruminate. Much of the time, this process may feel like a grind.
While you’re going through this grind, you don’t always need to know exactly what to do; you don’t always need to have the answers. However, as a leader, you do need to be constantly striving to get to a level of conviction on key issues. How do you do this? You and your team need to focus your efforts on taking the necessary steps that will help get you to a sound judgment.
With practice, you will learn to understand yourself better and increasingly learn what conviction feels like. As you search for it, you will get better at gearing your efforts to work in a way that will help you get to that feeling. Leaders don’t look for excuses for why they can’t act like an owner. Instead, they embrace the challenge of ownership and encourage their teams to do the same.
This post is adapted from the book What You Really Need to Lead: The Power of Thinking and Acting Like an Owner.
By Robert Steven Kaplan
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