responsible business women

There are people in every organization who are known for taking responsibility seriously. They are go-to people. As I walk down the corridors of my ad agency, I absolutely know who I can go to when I need a job done without complaints or excuses. They are the individuals who will volunteer for tasks no one else wants to do and will step up and take the blame if something doesn’t work out. They are also the people who I am absolutely certain will give an assignment their best shot, no matter what it involves or even if they’re not particularly excited about it.

People who are known for taking responsibility seriously aren’t always the best and the brightest, but they are the ones every boss wants on her team. Responsible people are much more likely to receive promotions and attract and keep customers than people with technical or other organizational skills. There is no substitute for the person who is completely reliable and dogged in the pursuit of her goals.

Many people pay lip service to being responsible, but they don’t take their responsibilities seriously. You’ve probably heard a professional coach or athlete say that he takes complete responsibility for a loss, but you never believe for a minute that he’s going to lose a minute’s worth of sleep—or a dollar’s worth of income— over the loss.

So what does taking responsibility mean in real-world terms? Let’s look at what goes into being responsible and how to bring it into the workplace. To help you achieve this goal, I’ve included the five following tips.


Mike Krasny gave me a great definition of responsibility when he talked about an incident early in his life in which he felt he had been irresponsible. When he was fourteen, he worked at a fast-food restaurant with four other kids. The owner chose him to lock the door when they closed, and Mike took a great deal of pride in this task. One night one of his coworkers told him that he would lock up. While Mike’s impulse was to check the door, another kid told him not to worry about it, he had done it, and so Mike didn’t double-check. The next morning the owner of the restaurant bawled him out because the door had been locked improperly. Mike felt terrible. He explained, “I took the responsibility seriously, and it bothered me that I let him down. In fact, it still bothers me to this day.”

No doubt CDW’s incredible success is largely the result of Mike taking responsibility for tasks few other CEOs would handle. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual to find Mike loading computers onto delivery trucks or repairing broken machines. His innate sense of responsibility makes him want to take on whatever task needs doing. He doesn’t want to let anyone else down.


Craig Duchossois coined this term in relation to responsibility. As the CEO of one of Chicago’s largest private companies, Craig has more than six thousand employees located all over the world. He acknowledges that it’s inevitable that some of them will make mistakes. He also understands that it is human nature for people to “run for cover when things get hot.” While Craig doesn’t condone mistakes, he also doesn’t feel that only the person who made the error should take the blame. He says that “a sign of a true leader is his understanding that he must take responsibility for the actions of subordinates.” This means stepping up and enduring the criticism of bosses, customers, the media, or whoever is furious with a negative outcome. As Craig says, “We’ve all seen people who are insecure with themselves and looking for others to blame. To me that is anathema. It does no good for me to say I wasn’t in China, I wasn’t in Mexico, so I’m not responsible for what happened. I take the heat and stand behind my troops.”

responsible business team

Craig is one of the most responsible leaders I know, as he is willing to share responsibility for mistakes made by subordinates in ways few CEOs are willing to do. Craig has a fierce belief in supporting his people, and he has been rewarded with extremely loyal, hardworking employees.

You can also receive rewards by taking the heat when things go wrong. I’m not saying that you should take the blame when you had nothing to do with a screwup or that you should constantly say “mea culpa.” Every so often, however, you’re going to be involved in a project that goes awry, and you need to be willing to do some soul-searching and determine whether you contributed to the problem. If so, your willingness to accept responsibility will separate you from the rest of the project members. When you alone acknowledge how you contributed to a failure—and when you do so intelligently and perceptively—your ability to step forward and take some of the blame will be remembered in a positive way.


You can take responsibility out of a sense of obligation, or you can do so on principle. In the former, you can tell your boss that you’ll take a difficult assignment because you know that she expects you to tackle it and it would be difficult for you to refuse.

On the other hand, when you take responsibility on principle, it’s done out of a sense of what’s right. When you take responsibility based on your beliefs or principles, you often run the risk of negative consequences. For instance, many people in your organization might dislike the company’s environmental policies, so you take the responsibility of stepping up and telling a top executive that you and others feel the company should do more to help clean up the environment. This may not endear you to management and may even cause some unenlightened executives to view you as a troublemaker. There will always be people who feel threatened by those who act on principle rather than out of obligation. But others will be impressed.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a CEO has to do with taking responsibility. I recall with great clarity—and still with a measure of shock—the day I learned we had inadvertently overspent a major client’s yearly budget by a six-figure sum. This was a double whammy: Not only would we lose revenue, which would affect our bonuses, but our client would probably fire us when we told them about the mistake. I should add that accidental overexpenditures happen every so often in the ad agency business, and in some instances agencies can “hide” the additional expenditures and the client is none the wiser.

shaking hands

Hiding this or any overexpenditure is never an option for me because it is just plain wrong. As much as I hated to make the call to the client, I took responsibility for the mistake. I still remember the feeling of dread as I held the phone to my ear and waited to hear our client contact’s voice. I had to swallow my pride, admit that we failed them in the worst possible way, and vow that it would never happen again. Even though this was the right thing to do, it still felt terrible. Acting according to principle is not always easy. I knew, though, that I had to do the right thing because I believe in an honest agency-client relationship. I also needed to set a good example to my own people. If we had papered over the mistake, I would have sent a message to everyone at Eicoff that we don’t really care about clients; that when push comes to shove we take the easy way out. If other Eicoff executives faced a similar situation, they, too, might have shirked responsibility based on my example.


You can be intimidated by these jobs; they remind them of the extra-credit assignments in school that they used to shun. Unlike school, however, these work assignments have a large upside and usually no downside. When you volunteer for a distasteful or difficult job, even if you fail no one holds it against you. Everyone knows it was a job no one else wanted, so you still receive credit for stepping up and volunteering. If, however, you volunteer for a challenging assignment and generate a positive outcome, you become a hero. You not only took responsibility for volunteering, you turned lemons into lemonade.

As you probably know, volunteering opportunities arise almost daily. In any company in any job, tasks that no one wants to do will emerge. It may be that these tasks require a significant time commitment, have a slim chance of success, or are simply boring. Whatever the reason, everyone else avoids them.

You shouldn’t. Volunteer consistently for these types of tasks and your boss will take notice. You’ll develop a reputation for being proactive and committed, and this reputation will serve you well at promotion and bonus times.


In school you may have relied on excuses ranging from “I was sick the day we covered that” to “The dog ate my homework” when you failed to turn in a paper or did poorly on a test. Taking responsibility means avoiding excuses whenever possible. Your customer doesn’t care that his shipment was late because the truck broke down; your boss isn’t interested in hearing how you missed the deadline because one of your team members didn’t pull his weight. Responsible people swallow hard and stop themselves from rationalizing failure, and they do so consistently.

happy businessman

When I first joined Eicoff, my primary task was to generate new business for the agency. During that first year it was a struggle. I was only twenty-seven, the agency was not as well known as other agencies, people didn’t return my calls, and the economy wasn’t great. Al would stop by my office routinely and ask, “Get any new business today?” I hated to tell him no. I hated the disappointed, impatient look I received. I had plenty of excuses for why I was not getting any new business, but I resisted using them. Instead I would tell Al, “I’m working on it,” and if I had talked to a prospective client that seemed interested, I would add, “I’m getting close.” But I never misled him or painted a falsely rosy picture. He trusted me with the agency’s future, and telling him that things were going great and I was going to land a number of big clients soon would have been a betrayal of that trust. Even though I believed I would land those clients, I didn’t have any concrete evidence to offer, so I didn’t tell him what I’m sure he wanted to hear.

Remind yourself that people who use excuses are essentially admitting that external forces are stronger than their internal will. They are saying, “I failed because of X, Y, and Z.” Unconsciously they are looking for reasons to fail. Instead, look for ways to succeed, for fulfilling whatever responsibility you’ve taken on. As soon as you start spending too much time thinking about how you can explain or excuse your failure to your boss, you’ve lost.

Remind yourself, too, that some people take responsibility only with caveats and conditions. In other words, they say, “I’ll do it, but if it doesn’t work out, it will be X’s fault.” Or they will take on a time-consuming project but insist that if they do it effectively they should receive something in return (such as a raise, a bonus, a better office, better assignments). Caveats and conditions dilute your reputation for responsibility. Take on responsibility with no strings attached.