The Muselet #7: This is on you

I am very disappointed in all of you.

Just a few years ago, when Joe had a baby, the whole company would chip in. We were able to buy a great present. And now, just 17 people out of 120!? What happened to you, why don’t you care?

This is the gist of an email sent as part of a company-wide email thread attempting to collect some money to buy a present for a first-time father. This particular gem was sent by the CEO. Not just the CEO chimed in with disappointed messages, many other senior leaders of the company sent messages of a similar tone.

When this happened (quite a few years ago, and a few jobs back), I had just joined the company’s management team a few weeks earlier. As the rookie in this position, I wasn’t super confident it was my place to point out the obvious, but after some deliberation I decided to do it anyway (not as a reply-all, don’t worry, in fact it was during a meeting): 

You are the leaders of this company, it is your job to create the right company culture. If you don’t like what you’re seeing, don’t look anywhere but yourself.

This is on you.

Those that know me for some time will know Extreme Ownership is one of my hobby horses. It comes up in all sorts of contexts: something is not as it is supposed to be, so we’re looking for a scapegoat.

“I didn’t get that job, because that other person is more political.”

This person resigned, because that other company basically lured them in.”

“We lost all that production data, because Larry didn’t enable backups.”


If you’re the supposed leader of this group, this is on you. 

It's hard not to draw parallels with parenting to make this point even more clear. 

As a parent you cannot yell at your kid: “Stop yelling!”

When I phrase it like this, it sounds almost ridiculous. Yet, people do it all the time. I do it all the time. This is simple in theory, but pretty damn hard in practice.

A father of a 6 year old once complained to me that his son was addicted to violent cartoons and playing games on his phone. I had to bite my lip not to ask: so, who lets him watch those cartoons, and also: WHO GAVE HIM THAT PHONE? It's like giving drugs to someone every day and then being surprised they become an addict. 

This is on you.

Coming back to this CEO’s email we started with. The thing here is: if you care about creating a culture with a strong sense of community and generosity, that doesn't just happen by thinking happy thoughts. Do you consistently invest in creating this feeling of community, especially as the company grows? Do you structure the company to support it? Are you yourself an example of generosity?

If not, this is on you. If yes, it’s still on you. What more can you do, because it's clearly not working.

I first documented this “discovery” a few years ago:

I just moved up to the VP of Engineering position at Cloud9 IDE, and we were having a rough time with keeping the site running. Sometimes a few nights a week I would get a 2 a.m. call because the system was down and needed to be fixed. I spent many sleepless nights under high pressure, and I found it immensely frustrating. I felt victimized, and often felt others in the company didn’t feel the same responsibility I did to stick around and fix problems until completion.

At some point I sent an elaborate complaining email to everybody in the company. This was wrong, and that, and that, and I hadn’t slept in weeks, why did nobody else care?

My boss at that time was kind enough to slap me in the face with reality:

“If anybody can do anything about it, it’s you — you’re the VP of Engineering.” and there it was: “So, what are you going to do about it?”

He was so right. Both my complaints (stability problems and the attitude of people) were 100% my responsibility. If I couldn’t fix them, I was in the wrong position. What really happened here is that I faced a problem and chose to complain about it, rather than figure out a way to fix it.

I’ve since learned that there are valid reasons to vent. To let all frustration out. It's healthy. That’s fine. As long you don’t expect any change as a result.

To actually make change happen, ask yourself: what are you going to do about it?

Which, coincidentally, also happens to be the only thing we have control over, so we may as well focus our energy there.