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  • Shelly Elliott

Toeing the Ownership Line


Ownership. It’s a term I had never heard of before joining Corporate America in the fall of 2012, but it’s a word that has been ever-present since. Actually, both companies that I have worked for have an ownership component of their employee performance assessments, as do many other companies. So what, exactly, is ownership and why do some, especially women, have difficulty exerting ownership without stepping over the invisible ownership line and being viewed as “bossy,” “controlling,” “aggressive,” or “witchy*.”

*Note that witchy can be substituted for another word, as well.

First, what is ownership? You can exercise ownership over anything: your work, a project, your career, your personal life, etc. My definition of ownership, in true engineering fashion, can be thought of as an equation:

Ownership= Responsibility + Commitment

Responsibility, according to Dr. Google, is “the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone.” In the real world, having to “deal with something” often means that you have to address a topic, likely through problem solving, collaboration, communication or a combination of these. An important aspect of being responsible, especially a responsible leader, is being able to delegate authority and control to those around you. As I have said before, there are very few problems in your career or even in life that you can solve on your own. Recognizing when you need to relinquish control, delegate authority, distribute the workload, and ask for help does not mean that you are being irresponsible; on the contrary, you’re fully demonstrating that you are being responsible while maintaining accountability.

The key expression there is while maintaining accountability and that is where commitment enters the equation. If you delegate part of the work for someone else and they do not come through, it’s still your neck on the line. You still have to be committed to seeing the project through and ensuring the team submits its best effort. Back in high school and college, I used to think that the days of being the person who pulled the weight for a group project would be over after graduation. Turns out, it was just the beginning. Trying to tell your boss that the presentation for the CEO is not complete because a team member did not finish their slides is not going to go over well for at least two reasons. First, the work is incomplete. Second, you’re making excuses. True leaders do not make excuses. When things do not go the way they anticipated, they accept it, learn from it, and take steps to ensure that outcome does not happen again.

So why is it so difficult to women to toe the ownership line? A lot of it has to do with preconceived notions about gender. When men demonstrate ownership by volunteering to lead a special effort, show emotion when arguing their point of view, or demonstrate initiative by taking the lead in a meeting, they are viewed as stepping up to the plate and the heroes driving action (not to be confused with action heroes). When women do this, we are often seen as “authoritative,” “dictatorial,” “domineering”, or any other host of negative connotated leadership terms. It’s neither right nor fair, but it is a reality and it not just men who do this to women; it can be women judging other women in this way, too.

How do we change it? In a business setting, it starts with the corporate culture and recognizing the inherent biases that are present among employees. Companies are getting better at fostering a corporate culture that promotes leadership diversity in every aspect, as well as team diversity. Multiple studies have shown that teams made up of people with different backgrounds, experiences, skills, and strengths perform better than teams consisting of like-minded people. Seeking out the best person for the team is better than seeking the best person for the job.

We also need to be aware of our inherent biases, and I can tell you I am guilty of this too. When I worked at Exxon, there was a female department head who had spent a lot of her career at our refinery. She had been with the company nearly thirty years and had experienced just about everything you can experience at a refinery, including good times like record production rates and the installation of new facilities, and bad times, like shutting down for and starting back up after a hurricane or investigating a safety event where someone got hurt (Believe me, ExxonMobil went to great lengths to ensure that did not happen. The safety culture and procedures around safety were top-notch.). She knew the refinery like the back of her hand, and she was outspoken, communicated very directly, and ran a very tight ship. Most people, including me initially, were intimidated by her and thought she was “controlling,” etc. As I got to know her, however, I came to realize that she was a strong leader who wasn’t going to be BS’d, but who also wanted to do what was best for the employees and the business. She asked questions, defended her point of view, and communicated directly because she didn’t want there to be any confusion or misunderstanding regarding the issue at hand because literally, some decision that were made, impacted people’s lives. I truly respected her, and it was one of the many times I recognized an inherent bias, sought out why this existed, and tried to see the person without this bias impacting my perceptions.

This instance allowed me to learn a lot not only about her, but also about myself. Now, when I think others are perceiving my action-oriented behavior, natural tendency to step into leadership roles, and questions based on curiosity in a negative way, I take a step back and explain my motivations and intentions. You may ask, "Why should you have to explain yourself?" I agree that in an ideal world, I wouldn't, but I would rather spend five to ten minutes explaining these things to build a relationship with the other person than simply go on misunderstanding each other.

Another way we need to change this inherent bias is in how our younger generation of girls is raised. I’m not a mom yet, and I’m sure I’ll make my fair share of mistakes as a parent. However, there are two different campaigns I have seen that will influence how I raise my children.

The first is a Ted Talk from Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code and author of Women Who Don’t Wait in Line. There’s nothing she said that I can say any better, so do yourself a favor and watch the Ted Talk.

The second is the #LikeAGirl campaign from Always that highlights how girls' self-images and confidences are impacted by gender stereotypes and notions about what it means to do something "like a girl." Again, just watch the video below.

What do you think? Are you encouraging the young girls in your life to do things "like a girl" in a positive way? If not, how can you start?

Encouraging women to be strong, confident future leaders starts literally at birth and continues throughout the rest of our lives. It won't just be their ownership behaviors that will be impacted; self-esteem, sense of self-worth, confidence, and mental and emotional health will be impacted, too. So, I challenge all of us girls to own being #LikeAGirl.

#ownership #bias #personaldevelopment

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© 2020 by Shelly Elliott.

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