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The One Thing You Should Do to Get Ahead at Work

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Whether you’re starting a new job, looking to move up in your current job, or trying to survive layoffs, I have a valuable tip that is sure to help you achieve your goal. It’s not pretty, it’s not glamorous, but it is effective and could save your job.

What’s the tip? You need to take ownership.

It’s a very simple concept, but it presents a huge opportunity that most people miss.

So what does it entail? Taking ownership means standing up and announcing that you are responsible for executing a particular task or project. Sometimes taking ownership will just mean being accountable for a project within your job description. In that case, taking ownership isn’t terribly remarkable.

But there are other times when taking ownership means doing things outside of your job description. In fact, it means doing the stuff no one else wants to do. Think: filing, building proposals, editing, cold calling. I’m sure you know what I mean.

Taking ownership also means making an active and enthusiastic commitment. If you begrudgingly take on a task only because you have to, you’re not making much of an impression.

Why should you take ownership?

Basically, when you take ownership of a task or project, you’re telling whoever is in charge, “Don’t worry, I got this.” You’re taking something off their plate and putting it on yours. That is any busy person’s fantasy. If there’s a difficult or unpleasant task, then the person in charge probably isn’t keen on doing it personally and is also dreading the task of finding someone else to do it. It also adds one more difficult thing to his or her rapidly growing to-do list. When you stand up and say, “I’ll do it, no problem,” you’ve just killed some major anxiety. Everyone loves an anxiety killer.

Think about it. Have you ever been in a meeting or on a conference call where everyone is trying to dodge a task? Aside from the time it wastes, it’s just awkward as hell! Or have you ever seen people dart around as they try to avoid a task, only to have someone volunteer to do it? The relief in the room is palpable. It’s like freakin’ Spiderman came in and saved the day.

There’s more to taking ownership than just being a people-pleaser, though many people simply take issue with that aspect and don’t want to be seen as the office suck-up. Yes, there is a certain degree of people-pleasing when you take ownership of annoying, menial tasks. But you’re also becoming the go-to person. You’re establishing your reputation as the problem solver. You’re becoming the one your boss associates with getting things done, with control, and with solutions. You own those tasks, so the boss doesn’t have to worry about them.  In other words, taking ownership makes you a leader.

If layoffs come around, who do you think your boss will let go? The person who solved problems time and again, or the one who sat there looking at his shoes while difficult tasks needed to be done?

Now I know what you’re thinking:  “Thanks, Tim. Sounds like a great way to become the office bitch.” And you might be right. This method will certainly not lead to more free time and it’s not a glamorous way of getting ahead either. But it will help you differentiate yourself from the rest of the non-doers. You’re becoming the person your boss feels comfortable going to, and once that happens, he or she is much more likely to feel comfortable going to you with other, more meaningful tasks. Plus, if you’ve done your share of grunt work, you’ll feel more comfortable asking the boss to be included on the more desirable, meaningful projects.

This is especially true in a small business setting. I worked for a communications firm in Washington, D.C. (informational interviews work!) for a few years and saw this first hand. My boss, the owner, didn’t have time for pettiness or egos. He needed people to help out across the board – from making coffee to filing and making cold calls. If you were “above” that kind of thing, you just looked like a jerk who wouldn’t help. The office manager, as she became known after taking ownership of everything she could, was one of the most valued people in the company. She knew everything about the office, the clients, and the business in general. She made herself indispensable. Had she been petty and not confident enough in her other work (the stuff she was actually hired to do), there’s no way she would have stood out in the same fashion.

Taking ownership of menial or annoying tasks doesn’t diminish your intelligence or your worth at a company. If it does, I bet there are other reasons at play.  Taking on more tasks differentiates you from other workers and forces you to keep learning new things. Plus, the more projects you take on, the more likely it is for you to carve out a niche within the company.

Doing the tasks that no one else wants to do makes you look good, it diversifies what you do and it creates job security. Don’t let pettiness stand in the way of all that good stuff.

Tim Murphy is a member of the Brazen Life Contributor Network.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Getting discouraged

    Great article, but what do you do when you become the go to person without the payoff? After 3 1/2 years at this company and ever increasing responsibility, I’ve become that go to person. But every time I ask my boss for a title change or other non-monetary perk (like telecommuting), she shuts down completely or starts rattling off a list of reasons why she’ll “think about it”. I think she’s worried that giving me things will result in me no longer being as helpful. I’ve gone from feeling like a key person in the organization to something more like the office bitch. Any suggestions to try out before I start looking for something new? I don’t really want to start over but I also don’t want my career to be stalled here for much longer.

    • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

      Hi Discouraged,

      Ugh! I’m really sorry to hear about your predicament! OK, so you’ve been stepping up and taking responsibility, pulling more than your share. That’s awesome. First thing I tell people is to keep notes on what your duties are as they grow. Everytime you pick up a task, make a note of it somewhere. These tasks can be easy to forget, and this will help you recall it quickly when talking to your boss or when building your resume.

      It’s too bad your boss hasn’t been responsive so far. The risk with the advice in my post today is when the person in charge is short sighted and doesn’t recognize leaders. Start by assessing the manner in which you’ve asked her about perks (have you also asked for a raise?). Have you been firm, stating specifically what you want? It’s easy to ask for these things in a passive way (been there), and that makes it easy for your boss to be dismissive. Be sure you are very firm and very clear in what you want, and be ready to point out all the ways you’ve been going above and beyond. If you think she’s worried you won’t be as productive, address that with her, and then show her three specific reasons that won’t happen. If she still won’t respond, maybe ask her what you CAN do to improve your situation (in addition to everything you’ve been doing).

      If you’ve been asking in a very clear and direct way, and she still won’t offer you a raise, perk, or other feedback, tell her you understand, go about your business, and start looking for an exit. Right away. Keep your job, but start shopping. If you are truly taking ownership and putting in a ton of extra effort, and your boss won’t recognize it after all these years, that’s a very clear indicator about your future at the company.

      Keep me posted.

    • Brendajmoore

      An idea for you to consider: Review your job description and job fact sheet. Take a couple of copies of them home with you to pencil in notes- while you do a real good honest think about it all.
      1. what can be done off-site/telecommute which will still maintain the service level I currently provide ?

      2. Review your Job Fact Sheet and Job Description:
      ~ am I doing anybody elses’ jobs/tasks [even the boss’s] which aren’t included on my job fact sheet but should be?
      ~ -am I doing tasks I shouldn’t be? STOP and let those tasks go back to whom is responsible. You may be setting yourself up in the long-run by “trying to help someone out”
      * UPDATE these Documents for review and approval of changes by Mgmnt and Human Resources. [you may find a raise due and even a title change is indicated this way].

      3. WRITE a proposal to your Boss about the work from home, telecommute opportunity, raise, title change etc.
      Include: Pros and cons if any. a Trial ??
      ~what is the work you believe can be done off-site?
      ~ how you will keep in touch with your customers [internal and external],
      ~ how many days/week or month you would expect to do this,
      ~ what improvements can be expected by this or will service stay the same and this make no impact etc.etc.etc.
      *** at the same time your doing this…get your resume’ updated ASAP.
      4. Set an appt with her/him to discuss the proposal Send her a copy of the proposal prior to the meeting for her perusal and meeting preparation.
      ~ advise your Boss at the proposal meeting, you will take notes and provide her with a copy.
      ~ maintain your professionalism and be calm throughout the meeting, emotions will bury it before it gets off the ground.
      ~ document facts not feelings. Time start & end, who is present etc. [this will be a valuable tool later]
      ~ if there were objections raised and discussed, request a second meeting to provide any clarifications requested, further investigation into any aspects etc.
      * Do the same for the second meeting.

      5. If your not satisfied with the meetings is there another person up the ladder [your Boss’s Boss] with whom you can meet, to discuss your concerns? Do that! Take all your documentations with you.

      Finally… are you prepared to leave if you don’t get the final answers you want? Don’t threaten to leave unless your ready to go out the door. [you will NEVER be taken seriously again if you do]

      OF NOTE: YOU mention feeling more of something like the office bitch. Are you ?
      As a person who was a Manager in Health Care at two hospitals, and at one time with 97 persons ….I would have a very big issue with this change in your demeanor.
      It’s easy to complain…but you may need to look inside and as the saying goes… “either sh – – or get off the pot”. The above steps will help you do that.

      The best of luck to you! Nothing is worse than being unhappy in your work, and it may just be best for you to cut-your-losses and leave, if there really isn’t anything upwardly mobile to satisfy you. The world is full of adventures…go get one all your own!

      • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

        Some great advice in there, @Brendajmoore. Thank you very much for the thoughtful reply. Hopefully, @GettingDiscouraged can use some of that to better his or her position.

      • http://twitter.com/1pageproposal 1-Page Job

        Great suggestions. A good online tool for creating a great job proposal, that also has step by step help in each section is http:www.1-page.com

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t agree more. The lack of ownership-taking in many companies today is mind-boggling. How many times have we all been in meetings where great ideas get tossed out and never come to fruition because no one steps up and takes them on?

    • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

      Hey Noel! I agree – such a shame, so many wasted ideas. I’ve seen meetings where an idea gets submitted and the group goes into a panic, each person trying to NOT be the person responsible for executing. That attitude is poisonous!

      • Anonymous

        Ha ha! You described it to a T. I have watched people drop their gaze, start shuffling papers–whatever it takes to NOT get charged with a new task.

    • Scott Messinger

      Because todays management wants to empower employees, instead of actually doing their job and managing.

      If you need someone to do something, TELL THEM!

      That is the purpose of management!

  • Anonymous

    I agree. The more the do the more you are invested in what you are doing, where you are working, etc. @Getting discouraged – it sounds like your boss doesn’t respect your efforts. Depending on your organization size, is there someone else you can turn to (even in HR vs your boss)? Make sure you document all your efforts with specific examples for your next review.

    • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

      Great point, Trisha. Thanks for the extra @Getting discouraged suggestion and for the comment!

  • Jrandom42

    Owenership as you describe it only works if you can successfully deliver tangible positive results. Otherwise, it’s a career anchor, dragging you down.

  • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

    Hi Jrandom42,

    Yes, that’s definitely true, you need to deliver tangible positive results. But that’s true of just about every aspect of your job, right?

  • Anonymous

    I could not agree with this more, become indispensable and you do not have to worry about being disposed. However another aspect of ‘ownership’ is accepting responsibility for your role in a failure or missed opportunity.

    As a newly hired manager at a trucking company years ago, I remember getting a call from the absent owner around 11p.m. He yelled and threatened to fire me if one more driver had an accident. I laid in bed and thought, I can’t drive all 200 trucks, what does he expect of me? I woke up the next morning and told myself, I can’t drive every truck, but I am going to do everything in my power to make safety a priority.

    I went into the office early and made up some signs about safety, I put them at the fueling station, in the shop and in the driver lounge. I made more signs and placed them in front of my dispatchers. I instructed the dispatchers to talk about safety every time a driver called in. I took ownership of the safety record at that company and I was successful there because of it.

    It is important to avoid the temptation to say “that isn’t my job” or “what does he want from me?” What is expected is that you do what you can to achieve the results your boss expects, no excuses, just ownership.

    • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

      Great story, Daniel. Sounds like you really made the best of a really tough situation. Thanks for the example of how it’s done!

  • http://www.GiveMore.com Sam Parker

    Make good things happen for someone else. That’s it.

  • http://www.grovecitydental.com Scott Schumann DDS

    Lack of taking ‘ownership of a job’ is in many experts opinion an outward expression of an internal ‘selfish’ mindset. The only way to get people to become responsible is to help them become accountable. As a business owner (GroveCityDental) I always try to help my employees grow in terms of their skills on the job as well as their skills in life and a constant topic is the fact that they need to ‘own’ their position and and run their duties as if they own the business. The employees who do this end up with the most financial rewards as well as the intangibles of knowing they have done their best. Once again, coming back to the ‘mindset’. A ‘me’ person verses a ‘team’ person always ends up losing. The person constantly pointing the finger would be better served using that effort to fix the problem.

    • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

      Hey Scott – love the approach. Growing the “employee entrepreneur” is definitely a popular theme among business owners and managers these days. And with good reason, if you ask me. The more ownership, or accountability, or whatever we call it, the more purpose an employee has. Even if the job is not their favorite, anyone working with a sense of purpose does a better job than someone working without.

      Thanks a lot for reading and for your perspective.

      Tim

  • http://twitter.com/jenrikay Jen Enrique

    This is quite possibly the #1 piece of advice anyone should get when they start their career and for maintaining momentum throughout their career. My personal mantra for it is: “Become Indispensible.” If you make your manager/boss look good (and, honestly, make their job easier) and contribute to the bottom-line of a company, they’ll be more likely to help you out, trust you, improve your situation, and help you get where you want to go. They’ll also do everything in their power to make sure you stay.

    • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

      Right on, Jen!

      Become Indispensable – couldn’t have put it better myself :). I suspect you know this, but the longer you live by that principle, the stronger your prospects will be. Period.

  • Jrandom42

    @applymate.com, I re-read the post and there isn’t anything about delivering tangible positive results after taking ownership of something. And while it may be intuitive to think so, it doesn’t hurt to explicitly make the point as a reminder.

    • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

      Definitely a fair point, never hurts to state things directly. Thanks for reading (and re-reading) :)

  • Jrandom42

    As for being indespensible, Despair.com has a pithy quote:

    http://despair.com/worth.html

    And as an old boss said once, “If you’re indespensible, you can’t get promoted.”

  • Analyst

    Unlike some career advice articles I read, this article was both right and something that I could imply. In fact, the day before reading this article, I was in a department meeting where the manager asked

    • Analyst

      somebody to take care of setting up the department vacation schedule. There was a few seconds of silence til I stepped up to volunteer. :-)

      Any other practical tips like this?

  • Pingback: How Sports Can Get You a Job | ApplyMate Blog()

  • Scott Messinger

    Taking ownership is great, but don’t take it too far. Know your limits, and don’t take on more responsibility than you can handle. You might be digging yourself a hole and setting yourself up for failure. And your management will be happy to let you do it, because it takes responsibility out of their hands.

    At some point, others need to take ownership too. You can’t do it all.

    • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

      Hi Scott, that’s true and along the lines of what I told @GettingDiscouraged in the comments. You don’t want to let yourself get taken advantage of, and though it’s a fine line to walk, you need to be aware if you’re being mistreated. Keep working hard, but be sure you’re compensated for your hard work.

      Thanks for reading and for the comment!

      Tim

  • Scott Messinger

    You have to be careful not to become saddled with responsibilities you shouldn’t have. On companies where job responsibilities are mostly defined, it’s possible to take on too much.

    Go the extra mile, but protect yourself.

    • Overachieving48yrold

      In addition to all of my own assignments, I constantly improved processes, streamlined logjams and made a point of pleasantly, thoughtfully performing the most hated and dreaded jobs. Despite the “exceeds” ratings and positive feedback from co-workers and customers, not to mention “owning” a statistically obvious bottom-line improvement for my company, I was laid off with all other employees 50 years of age, plus or minus 2 years.

      Sometimes you get shot in the forehead regardless of excellent proven performance, astonishing skill sets and selfless “doing everything for everyone” from completing others’ assignments to help make a deadline or changing the toilet paper roll in the bathroom. I was called daily at home after the layoff for training sessions on procedures, equipment and I finally said that I wanted to be paid as a consultant for the “extras” they had grown to take for granted. This advise about owning and delivering on maximum responsibilities is intuitively obvious, but possibly irrelevant. Before you bring in the Starbucks and Bagels treat for everyone, make sure that there isn’t something pink on your office chair.

      • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

        Hey Overachieving48yrold,
        Yours was a tough one to read. I’m really sorry to hear about your situation. It just sucks to hear someone who does the right thing, only to get shown the door.

        Even though it sounds like you did everything right and still got screwed, I don’t think that disproves the “take ownership” advice. A person is still better off taking ownership than avoiding responsibility. While doing so won’t get you promoted to CEO 100% of the time, as painfully illustrated in your example, it still improves a person’s odds (on average) of surviving layoffs or downsizing, and makes the likelihood of their getting recommended for future jobs that much better. For example, you mentioned several accolades above. Much better to come out of a layoff and be able to point to accomplishments like that, versus some shirker who dodged every task. I know that’s little solace, but it does show that you are relatively better off for having done the right thing.

        As mentioned throughout the comments here, one needs to keep sharp and not become a carpet. But, on average, a person is better off taking ownership than not.

        Thanks for the comment, and good luck to you.

        Tim

  • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

    It’s funny how some employers or bosses show their true colors when facing the loss of someone they’ve taken for granted. I’ve definitely seen employers become a lot more, um, agreeable, when they know another employer is interested. That’s why, when all is said and done, I suspect a carefully planned exit will be the best course for @GettingDiscouraged, either to get leverage and his/her current job, or to leave for greener pastures.

    Thanks a lot for reading and for the comment!

  • Slbc

    I would be very careful using an exit as a way to get leverage for your current job. If you are valuable you will often be given a counter offer to stay, but you will have burned a lot of “team player” and/or credibility points with your current employer. While you might get what you want now in your existing job you won’t be able to measure how you will be labeled, and what you will be given, in the future.

    If you are to the point of quiting your current job you should really be quiting, not fishing for leverage. Quiting to get what you want does work in the long run sometimes, but more often than not it doesn’t.

  • http://twitter.com/ApplyMate ApplyMate.com

    HI Slbc,

    I agree one has to be careful using a tactic like this. In my view, it’s all in the delivery. If you use the exit as a threat, and try to extort money out of your employer, then yes, you will set those bridges ablaze.

    I don’t agree that if you are to the point of quitting your job, that you should just quit. I disagree because that assumes the person who’s debating quitting is unhappy at their job. There are lots of people who love their job, but are almost forced to leave because of inadequate compensation. If you approach your employer earnestly, and explain your situation and want to stay (assuming you want to stay), a reasonable employer will do what’s necessary to keep you on (assuming you’re valuable). Obviously all bets are off when dealing with an irrational boss, or if you haven’t made yourself valuable.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Tim