Taking Ownership and Empowering Your Team

Mike Wu

Head of Engineering at Seesaw Learning



"Taking responsibility is core to being an effective leader. Part of taking that responsibility as a manager means taking the heat when things go bad. It is my responsibility to recognize failure, take ownership, and help provide a path forward. More often than we'd like to admit, we find the fault in the situation and look backward, but taking responsibility is forward-looking."

Actions taken

Taking Ownership: It's MY Fault

  • Today, I support multiple teams so it is very rare for me to be checking code that is deployed into production. When a bug or downtime occurs, the easy way out is to look at who caused the issue and hold them responsible, but the correct way is to assume it is almost positively MY FAULT. Here are some questions that I have learned to ask myself to realize if it was indeed my fault:
  • Did I provide the right guidance?
  • Did I set expectations and goals properly?
  • Did I communicate effectively what was being asked?
  • Did I provide the right amount of training?
  • Is the individual the right person for the role?
  • Did I review the plans and procedures thoroughly?

"Always Moving Forward"

  • First, it requires that I check my ego, stop seeking blame, and work on a path to prevent a repeat incident. Here are 3 things that I've worked on to help myself and my teams learn from our mistakes and move forward.
    • Root Cause Analysis
  • While we aim for our service to be highly available, downtime is inevitable. Our teams first priority is to recover the services impacted and bring things to a stable state. After we believe things have recovered, we hold a root cause analysis meeting with all those that were involved in creating the issue and those who helped with fixing things. - Team Over Individual
  • I have to let go of ego, emotions, and work friendships so that performance concerns can be addressed without being affected by judgement.
  • I aim for a high functioning team rather than one of high caliber individuals that can't function together.
    • Disagree and Commit
  • I possess the ability to disagree and commit when decisions need to be made.
  • Our team has to plan ahead, debate, seek conflict in a respectful way, and commit to a decision together. This commitment includes helping direct teams understand the decisions and outcomes being made.
  • I also practice this with the rest of the company's leadership team, making sure that I voice my concerns and objections with my peers and come out of decisions fully committed to the direction.

Lessons learned

  • "When one of my teams or team members fails to execute, all eyes should be on me."
  • "If I can't answer each of my preliminary set of questions with a definitive yes, then the blame is on me, for whatever failure my team incurs."
  • "The goal of root cause analysis meetings are not to point fingers or to find a scapegoat. They are meant to determine the facts of what caused the downtime, what we did to recover, and most importantly determine what actions we can take to prevent a repeat incident."
  • "I've learned that a team's ability to execute and perform at a high level is only as good as its weakest link. If an individual on the team underperforms then it is imperative that this is addressed. The team is more important than any one individual."
  • "Not dealing with performance swiftly can put the health of your whole team in jeopardy. I, unfortunately, have learned this the hard way, witnessing first hand where I have not addressed performance concerns swiftly enough and lost good engineers as a result. As a manager of managers, the consequences are even more severe where you can lose whole teams."
  • "In my opinion, disagreements amongst your team at any level are almost always worse than making a bad decision. You can learn from being wrong, but you can't learn anything if you are frozen from action because no one can agree. However, this does not mean that we should all fall in line and blindly follow whatever our leaders say. In fact, disagreement is important, but it needs to be done at the right time."
  • "This simple principle of focused disagreement is something that has helped our teams focus, execute, learn and see success and I used it at all levels."
  • "It takes courage and humility to be an effective leader, something I have to remind myself and practice every day."

Source: Taking Ownership and Empowering Your Team

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Mike Wu

Head of Engineering at Seesaw Learning

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingPerformance ReviewsFeedback Techniques

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