Take Responsibility For Your Company’s Actions

Recently I had  a full day of meetings with chaotic juxtapositions of people.

In one meeting, the person I interacted with was awesome. He owned everything that was going on in his company – good and bad. He was clear minded. He knew what was working, what wasn’t working, and what he needed to change. And he took responsibility for it.

Immediately after, I had a non-scheduled conference call to try to get something wrapped up. It was a total waste of 15 minutes of time where the person on the other end simply refused to take responsibility for something that should have been easy for them to take responsibility for. After 15 minutes of back and forth, it was clear that the other person had no interest in taking responsibility for something I thought he should. And he couldn’t make the case for why, other than “because I don’t want to.”

I eventually gave up.

I then switched to a call with a CEO who was exploring something new. She asked a series of clear and direct questions, knowing that it was her responsibility to make a decision about what to do. It was easy to be on the receiving end of a series of challenging questions as she tried to get as much data as she could out of me as she formulated her point of view. Whatever decision she makes will be fine with me – it’ll be a thoughtful one that she owns.

After a long day, I came home to an inbox with 200 emails in it. I spend two hours grinding through them. As I was reading, responding, and archiving, I started noticing that many of the strong CEOs I work with owned whatever was going on at their company. There was simplicity in this – no blame, no excuses, no justification. They just took ownership.

While there were lots of other emails where the person owned whatever was going on, there were many situations where this wasn’t the case. This was especially true with a few entrepreneurs struggling to raise money, or asking questions about situations they had gotten themselves into, such as a poor allocation of equity to co-founders, where a co-founder had left, but there hadn’t been any vesting. While more obvious in situations where things weren’t working, this was also true in situations where there was ambiguity around what was going on.

When I step back and ponder this, the CEOs I respect the most are the ones who take responsibility for the actions of their company. Good or bad, successful or not, they don’t shirk any responsibility, blame anyone, or try to make excuses. They just own things, and if they need to be fixed, they fix them.

What kind of CEO are you?

  • hand out copies of atlas ahrugged

  • bad leaders look out the window

    good leaders look in the mirror

    • Great line.

      • paraphrased from “Good to Great” if i remember correctly

        • Adrian Meli

          Don’t remember that line from the book but it is a keeper.

  • I think this has a lot to do with ego. Some CEOs just can’t cope with not being “right” all the time.

  • Another benefit of leaders that “own” what is happening in the organization is the confidence they inspire in the team to take prudent risks. They are more comfortable because they know they won’t be hung out to dry by the boss and they will be recognized for their contribution.

    It seems to me that my most important job as a leader is to create an environment where everyone is willing to go beyond what they would naturally do alone. In my experience it is the most effective way to attract and retain good talent. That talent is far more important than any idea I have on my own.

  • ObjectMethodology.com

    I’m the kind that owns things. Even if that thing is my opinion that an emp or exec sucks!
    How can you change things if you don’t take ownership of them?!

  • This. I think this is the #1 lesson I learned through our TechStars experience.

    That said, I am often surprised by just how hard it can be to put into practice. My natural inclination is to spin things into a positive light. I constantly have to remind myself that if you don’t acknowledge bad things that happen, you can’t fix them. If you don’t communicate them to other people, they can’t help.

  • mblevin

    @bfeld:disqus Do you extend this to the CEO’s accountability internally to his team too? E.g. do the best CEOs say to the team “hey I screwed up on x/y/z”? I see a lot of CEOs who take accountability externally b/c it’s a lot easier than doing it internally.

    • Yup – it’s important both internally and externally.

      • Very much so. They know you screwed up. Owning it explicitly (and taking corrective action, at least in the future) goes a long way in building confidence. Words like “leadership, ownership and accountability” get thrown around so often in business today. But this basic component of each of those ideas is fairly uncommon.

  • PatrickKDiaz

    . While more obvious in situations where things weren’t working, this was also true in situations where there was ambiguity around what was going on. http://0rz.tw/slsJg

  • Owning a screwup (sincerely) also has the effect of defusing tension and concern among your constituents (Board, team, etc.). Not doing so just frustrates them more. It’s ironic, because at least subconsciously I think people refuse to own something negative because they want to avoid being stained by it. They usually get the opposite effect…several cases in point in your post.

  • SD

    There is sometimes a tension between accountability and empowerment – if the CEO is accountable, it can be very easy to micromanage, and pull decisions in centrally. Creating systems for decision making and expectations of accountability up and down an organization is essential. Since the CEO cannot scale otherwise.

    I remember a pretty smart guy saying this in another post….


  • This is a “Best of the Net” post – I hope it is shared far and wide.

    The number one responsibility of a CEO imho is ownership, and accountability – including via delegated authority.

    At the end of the day, there is one throat to choke and it should be the CEOs – and if they are running a good org with accountability and ownership as a value through the ranks, their throat will not be choked

    (even over bad things – since managing conflict is not a problem unless it is an avoided problem. Avoidance is a bad card always – problems often do not simply just go away, if un-addressed. They fester/get worse/explode.).

  • Dave

    My old CEO used the concept of delegation versus abdication in management. Effective management involved a lot of delegation…help someone get to the right direction or let them find it themselves, but the CEO or whoever else was still responsible. Abdication was when it was always someone else’s fault. He never abdicated, particularly with the Board where he often took full personal responsibility for something that really someone else screwed up. It was a good learning experience for me.

  • Robert Thuston

    I’m both. Sometimes I’m a thumb sucking scaredy cat that wants someone else to tell me, and eventually I get the balls to say let’s fucking do this shit, this is how it will be done.

  • This reminds me of a team-talk years back when I managed one of the many small IT teams for a finance company,

    Senior management felt a need to blame team managers for “teamist attitudes”, and actually proceeded to publicly pick out some culprits (a wonderful irony) . A retort came from the floor – “but it’s not the team you say that is being teamist – its ours – because we know better”

    At a meta level we saw the source of the blame culture – People will do as you do not as you say.

    So in answer to your question – If anyone is failing to take the blame – I guess it’s me !

  • Contrast accountability, and responsibility – they are different.
    To respond to a problem can happen from anywhere in a hierarchy – this is why responsibility is earned,
    Accountability resides at the single common point (at the bottom line of the hierarchy – the single line that must support and reflect the whole)

  • laurayecies

    Not just what kind of CEO are you…but what kind of person are you. Accountability is one of tne of the most important lessons I have focused on with my children and key in who I choose to associate with.

  • Well said. Taking accountability for what’s happening in your business makes it easier on everyone you interact with, internally and externally (and pretty much eliminates the chaos factor).

  • This gets even more interesting when you set up the whole company to give ownership to each person on the team.

    At primeloop we don’t have “a developer” and “a marketer” etc., we have the roles of ‘developer’, ‘content marketing’, ‘build/release’, ‘customer success’, ‘retreat planner’ etc. And the people on our team own a couple of those roles each. The role has a set of OKRs tied to them for each quarter, and the role owner has full responsibility for the success, failure, and buy-in from other team members toward reaching those goals.

    So, I am primarily concerned with finding the type of people who take responsibility, across the board. And, it’s my fault if I bring people onboard who can’t do that.

    I suspect that the counterbalance of this pattern you have recognized, is the type of CEO who can release responsibility to others as well?

  • I’ve dealt with far more bad CEOs who consider themselves accountable to no one and who view employees, even other C’s, as nothing more than lines on a spreadsheet. In my universe most CEOs act with the worst kind of assholery. I wish it weren’t so.