By Liz Ryan I was speaking to a group of soon-to-graduate MBA students recently, and one asked me this: What's the most valuable attribute of a new corporate hire? I had to think for a moment.
"Can we leave out ethics?" I asked. That got a big laugh.
No, I said, what I meant was: Can we assume that the person is highly ethical and then choose the next most critical attribute? Yes? Well, then I'd say: Ownership.
UNPLEASANT SURPRISE. Ownership? I don't mean that the new hire has to own anything in particular -- a decent suit or a pair of shoes. I mean ownership of the job, meaning the instinct and the drive to take on its responsibilities -- completely.
The MBA students had to chew on that for a minute. But any CEO or senior leader knows what I mean. Any experienced exec has at least one story about turning to a lieutenant during a crisis and getting an unpleasant surprise. "What's your plan?" they may have asked, only to hear:
"Well, I think that's Johnson's department."
"I really don't have experience in that sort of thing."
"It's not in my budget."
"One of my team members was supposed to handle it."
"My dog ate the presentation."
You get the picture. This is when managers find out, in the most inopportune way, that they have a lieutenant with an ownership problem.
A NATURAL QUALITY. Is ownership the same as taking responsibility? Yes, except that ownership means taking responsibility to the nth degree. People who'll commit to that extent don't even think about whether they're taking a little, a moderate amount, or a lot of responsibility.
When you own your job, you simply do whatever needs to be done. And you own it, or you don't. You may be willing to share credit for successes -- let's hope so, if you manage a team -- but you don't shy away from responsibility for failure. It's just yours.
You can't train this into a person, and you can't pay a person who's not ownership-oriented enough money to change. If you try, you may see incremental improvement. But taking true, gut-level responsibility for a job is a natural quality. It's one that, more than any other, can make the difference between the success and failure of your team. Ultimately, it's more important than industry experience, brains, technical skills, you name it.
HEED WAKE-UP CALLS. When you have a team of people who own their work, the results are incredible. You know, without question, that you'll get their best efforts -- and that they'll never let you down.
As a young manager 20 years ago, I ran the order-processing operations in a greeting-card company. One midnight, I received a call: The process that created the next day's packing slips had crashed. I had to get 1,000 packing slips ready for pulling and packing the next day, or hundreds of people in our distribution center would be idle. This was about three weeks before Christmas on a frozen night in Chicago.
I put on my arctic gear and headed for work -- and found the place in chaos. Even the overnight security guard was helping to prepare orders. I called a key team member, my data-entry supervisor. "I'm sorry to wake you up, but we need you in here," I said. "We'll never be ready for the courier at 6 a.m. without more help."
She said O.K., and then hung up. But she didn't show. That morning at 8, she came to work as usual and said: "I thought about your call. I realized that if the orders weren't ready at 6, the packers would have enough work to keep busy, and we can send another courier later in the day. So I went back to sleep."
TOTAL RESPONSIBILITY. That was a tough day for me as a beginning manager. What an ownership breakdown! I had no choice but to relieve the woman of her supervisory role. She was lucky not to be fired. It offered an excellent lesson.
Years later, as a human resources leader at a technology outfit, I received a call on a Sunday morning. There was a flood in the office. I ran over to find about a dozen executives bailing out the factory.
The word spread somehow. By midafternoon, more than 100 of us were at work armed with buckets and mops. Next, we organized a phone tree to notify 500 employees that they shouldn't come to work the next day. But half came in anyway to help clean up. That's the kind of ownership you want -- total responsibility.
EVERYDAY HEROES. When you have that characteristic, you're miles ahead of the game. I'm not talking about slavish devotion to a boss or bowing and scraping -- just the opposite. You want people who take the initiative when no one's looking over their shoulders. Any employer with a brain will kill for a person who displays this kind of commitment in a job interview.
So how, as a job seeker, do you demonstrate that you're this kind of person? Tell stories. Talk about a time when the chips were down and you made the difference. These aren't heroic stories, except in the everyday sense that people who do the right thing are heroes. You simply explain how you saw the situation and how you made it right.
As an employer, you have a simple set of must-dos when it comes to ownership. Reward it when you see it. Call attention to it, and make sure it's a core value that employees understand. And when you see an ownership breakdown, deal with it directly.
BE ENGAGED. I had the unpleasant experience once of having a subordinate, a divisional manager, tell me: "We have an employee who may file a discrimination claim with the government."
"What? That's horrendous!" I said, coming out of my chair. "What happened? Have we talked to her? What are her concerns? Can we fix the problem?"
"I really don't know the details," said my unfortunate team member. "I heard this from another employee."
She really didn't know. I mean, she was busy, so she hadn't really talked to the employee or anything like that. So, you know, she was sort of, like, fired.
Ownership is the key -- I can't say enough about it. Do you have it? Does your team? If so, you could enjoy a tremendous 2005. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT