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Just been promoted? Now stop dealing in excuses

Adam Lashinsky once provided an interesting little vignette about Steve Jobs. According to the reporter, Apple’s founding CEO used to give employees a little speech when they were promoted to Vice President.

Lashinsky called it the ‘Difference Between the Janitor and the Vice President.’

Jobs told new VPs that if the garbage in his office was not being emptied regularly for some reason, he would ask the janitor what the problem was. The janitor could reasonably respond by saying, ‘Well, the lock on the door was changed, and I couldn’t get a key.’

That would be an irritation for the CEO, but it would be an understandable excuse for why the janitor couldn’t do his job. As a janitor, he’s allowed to have excuses.

‘When you’re the janitor, reasons matter.’

But here’s the clincher: ‘Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO, reasons stop mattering,’ Jobs would add. That line is ‘crossed when you become a VP.’

Once you take on the mantle of a senior executive, in other words, you have to stop dealing in excuses. You are no longer permitted to say someone else did something wrong, or some underling let you down, or stuff happened, or, or, or. You are now responsible for any mistakes that happen. You can’t give reasons anymore. You are the reason. You can only apologise and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

How many of us deal in excuses all the time? It was Finance’s fault for delaying billing. A staff member went home with the key. The courier didn’t show up on time. The power failed. Our WiFi went down. The economy is weak. People aren’t spending.

If that’s you, please stop. All you are doing is confirming you were promoted above your level of competence. All you are doing is demonstrating you are the wrong person for the job. All you are doing is revealing you should have stayed down there in the ranks. All you are doing is shouting out: ‘I’m not a leader!’

We all hanker for promotions. We vie for them, manoeuvre for them, politick for them, work for them. We want the perks, the recognition, the nicer office, the higher pay. We want the world to know we’re a-movin’ on up. We want to drop the card with the higher title when we meet the pals at the bar.

But do you think all that comes for nothing? Once you enter the ranks of leadership, you take on proper responsibility. Whatever happens under you becomes your fault. You are empowered to anticipate things, fix things, address things. And you absolutely must demonstrate that you are up for it. Your leader doesn’t want to hear whose fault it is. In his or her eyes, it’s definitely yours.

You want the applause and recognition that comes with leadership. But can you also take the pain?

Leaders look for the root causes of problems, and they resolve them. They stay up late worrying. They take it as a personal indignity when their teams fail. They know they carry the can. They know they can’t pass the buck. They know their juniors can’t be blamed.

Does your senior management team live by this ethos? Truly? Do managers stand up and say sorry and resolve to fix any problem that occurs – or do they whine and pass the blame down the chain?

What do you do? Here’s some advice. Don’t even wait until you are a VP or a senior manager of a director. Take on this attitude right there where you are, no matter how low your station. When stuff happens, stand up and say sorry – even if it isn’t actually your fault. Apologise on behalf of the team. Take it on the chin. Stand up and say it will be fixed and it won’t happen again. And then do whatever it takes to fix it. Coax your peers to do better. Approach your supervisors with suggestions on improving the process. Offer to do what’s needed yourself, even if it isn’t in your job description.

Do that repeatedly and it will become obvious to all that you’re already a leader. Only the promotion hasn’t happened.

Or you could just sit still, point to your left when responsibility is sought; sit on your hands when volunteers are needed; pray for a promotion to come your way. Stay right there in the junior corner. It’s safe. And excuses are permitted.

(Sunday Nation, 10 March 2019)

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