Be aware that responsibility and irresponsibility are not either/or choices. There is a gray area between the two extremes that many highly competent executives occupy. Some people are responsible, but they take their responsibility lightly. In other words, they accept that they should be diligent and dutiful, but they don’t give it much thought or feel it’s particularly important. There is an opportunity for C students to compete in this gray area. They may have taken their responsibilities lightly in the past, not realizing that making a greater effort could pay dividends for their careers. They must recognize that if they want to get ahead, they should do more than others; that through their persistence and almost obsessive desire to do the best job they can, they will earn recognition. To them, responsibility isn’t just a word but a religion. They believe fervently in their responsibilities.

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To communicate this belief, you should take the following five steps:

1. RECOGNIZE AND GO AFTER THE LATRINE-CLEANING JOBS.

There are jobs in every company that everyone avoids because they are tedious and time-consuming. Generally a manager assigns these tasks because no one volunteers for them. When people are forced to do them, they generally do them sloppily. Break the pattern by raising your hand, taking on these grunt jobs, and doing them as well as you possibly can. Yes, they’re boring and it’s difficult to feign excitement about an inherently tedious task. At the same time, you can view the task as a means to an end. It is a kind of test: If you can do a good job with the small stuff, bosses will feel more comfortable entrusting you with bigger responsibilities. Hank Johnson, former CEO of Spiegel and the man responsible for the company’s dramatic turnaround in the 1970s, wrote an autobiography, The Corporate Dream, in which he talked about one of his first jobs, and how he was assigned to sweep the floor. He vowed to himself that he would do this menial task better than anyone who ever had the position before, convinced that if he showed himself to be a responsible floor sweeper he would be given assignments in which he could better display his expertise.

2. RECOGNIZE AND GO AFTER THE HIGH-DEGREE-OF-DIFFICULTY JOBS.

After you gain a certain amount of experience, you’re ready to volunteer for more challenging jobs. These jobs, too, are avoided by most people because they are difficult and the likelihood of failure is high. As I noted before, though, even if you fail you will have demonstrated your willingness to take responsibility for a tough job, and if you succeed you’re a hero. Don’t be intimidated by what your colleagues tell you, since some of them certainly will imply that you’d have to be nuts to take on a given assignment or that only a masochist would volunteer for project X. What they are really saying is that they lack the diligence and problem-solving skills to handle these high-degree-of-difficulty jobs effectively. Keep tackling these tough assignments and don’t be discouraged by failure. People will recognize your courage, a key trait of anyone who takes responsibility seriously.

3. BE CONSCIOUS OF YOUR IMPULSE TO BLAME, COMPLAIN, AND OFFER EXCUSES . . . AND STIFLE THIS IMPULSE.

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Taking full responsibility for your actions and those of anyone who works with and for you means no blaming, complaining, or excuse-making. This is easier said than done, of course, because a colleague’s or direct report’s mistake may cause you to miss a deadline you promised you’d meet. It’s human nature to want to tell your boss that you would have met that deadline if not for John’s mistake. If you make this excuse, though, you’re communicating that you don’t want to be responsible, and this will reflect poorly on you.

Remind yourself continuously not to give in to the “It’s not my fault” impulse. It may not be your fault in one sense, but if you took responsibility for the outcome of a task or project, you should have anticipated that John might be too busy with other tasks and was likely to make a mistake. While you might want to talk to John privately about what he did wrong, your public stance should be that it’s your fault and that you’ll accept the consequences. Even if those consequences are significant—removal from a team, a demotion— accept them graciously. While your boss or some other executive may be disappointed in you, other organization leaders will respect the way you handled yourself and will remember it the next time a key project comes along or a position opens up.

4. DON’T LET FEAR GET IN THE WAY OF TAKING RESPONSIBILITY SERIOUSLY.

I’m not going to pretend that taking responsibility seriously is easy. In some situations it can be frightening. When a lot is riding on the outcome of a project or initiative for which you’re responsible,you’re naturally going to be anxious. You may find yourself in a position where you or others will lose their jobs if you don’t meet your goal. Your boss may be counting on you to deliver and she may put a lot of pressure on you to come through for her. The relationship with a customer or a client may depend on you doing a good job. Taking on these heavy responsibilities is scary, but fear, if you let it, will cause you to act in cowardly or unethical ways.

One day shortly after I joined Eicoff, I was walking down the hallway and noticed that Nancy, a media buyer, was crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me that one of our clients, the CEO of the company, had been yelling at her for a minor error. As Nancy explained what happened, it became clear that the client was being a bully. I didn’t even consider talking to Alvin about the incident and having him deal with the client, whom he knew well. Though I didn’t relish the confrontation with this CEO, who could be very intimidating, I felt it was my responsibility as a senior executive to deal with it directly. I called him and said, “You can’t treat our people this way.”

He responded, “I’ll treat them any way I want.”

“If you continue to treat them this way, you’ll be looking for another agency.”

Fortunately, this CEO was very savvy and recognized the value the agency provided his company. Still, we could have lost the account, and it would have been a serious loss at that time. I would have had the dubious distinction of having lost a client before bringing one into the agency. This was a scary thought, but my greater responsibility was to Nancy, and so I did what I had to do. It’s worth noting that the agency still has this client.

About twelve years later, after having just been appointed CEO, I found myself in a similar situation. I was holding my second staff meeting with the agency’s officers, and during the meeting one of our executives made a mildly negative remark about another executive who was not in attendance. A third executive, whom I’ll refer to as Gordon, threw a fit. He shouted, “I won’t stand for this [the negative comment about the absent executive]! I won’t be a part of this organization!” Gordon, you must understand, was very smart. His outburst was calculated to challenge my authority. Not only was he older than me and resentful that Alvin had named me CEO, but his accounts generated a significant percentage of Eicoff’s total revenue.

As Gordon started to walk out of the room and approached the door, I said, “Gordon, if you walk out of the agency tonight, you don’t work here anymore.”

My heart was pounding so loudly I thought everyone in the room could hear it. As Gordon continued walking through the door and out of sight, I could not believe what I had just done. Gordon could take millions of dollars in revenue away from the agency. In my first few months as CEO, I would have managed to lose an enormous amount of billings.

I was relieved, then, when Gordon reentered the conference room a few seconds later and said, “Oh, I left my glasses.” Rather than pick up his glasses and depart again, he sat down and remained with the agency.

As CEO, I was responsible for the agency’s culture. I wanted to establish an environment free from the grandstanding and game playing that Gordon favored. Though I was afraid of losing all the business he controlled, I knew my responsibility for the culture superseded this fear. As scary as it was, this incident was a turning point in my career. In that moment, I established my authority and made it clear that I would not tolerate such behavior. I gained respect from everyone in that room because I took my responsibility as CEO seriously.

5. EXPAND YOUR AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY FROM WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO TO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE.

This is another important distinction. Everyone has assigned areas of responsibility. Your job defines the tasks you need to accomplish and the limits of your authority. While it makes no sense to ignore these boundaries routinely—to do so would result in chaos—opportunities arise when you need to step over them and act in the organization’s best interest. Every employee is responsible for helping the company achieve key business goals, and if you have an idea that will help the company meet a business objective, you should consider acting on it.

find your greatness

For instance, Heather Lang is an Eicoff media supervisor on the Liberty Medical account. One of Liberty Medical’s products involves a service for people with diabetes, and we were in the process of looking for a celebrity spokesperson as part of a change in strategy. The commercial we had previously created wasn’t beating the control, and trying to make it work was frustrating. Our creative people were searching for a celebrity with diabetes to serve as spokesperson, but unfortunately they weren’t finding anyone who fit our requirements in terms of image, age, and other factors.

Even though it was clearly a creative rather than a media responsibility, Heather saw that the creative department wasn’t having much luck, so she did her own research. After a great deal of effort she discovered that Wilford Brimley was a diabetic. His avuncular style, age, and believability made him the perfect spokesperson, and he has helped Liberty Medical grow tremendously.