The focus on attention to detail is one of the most critical portions of self-ownership. Everyone can walk by trash, but when the leader does it, it’s sending a message. The focus on attention to detail, especially in contracts, is best illustrated by the famous rock group, Van Halen.
Rock stars are able to put seemingly insane requests into what they need from the venues they perform at, and Van Halen was no different. After all, they’re the reason venues can charge hundreds of dollars per seat, they can choose to be picky.
They had a giant contract for whenever they’d play at a venue, which they were known for having a very specific and odd request.
They demanded that there was a bowl of M&M’s (the chocolate candy) with ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN M&M’s in the bowl. Their contract actually had it in all capital letters.
For years, venue managers mocked the request, thinking it was just another case of rock stars being demanding. Van Halen’s road team had a different point of view.
Van Halen was using the largest lighting equipment that any touring group had ever used. They were so heavy, and required such support, that the road crew knew there could be deadly consequences if a light that weighed 300 pounds fell on the audience. When the road crew would get to a new venue, they could either start the day-long process of having a dozen men going through every single portion of the stage to confirm that the venue had prepared properly, or they could have one intern go check the bowl of M&M’s.
Their insight was that if someone went through the trouble of picking the brown M&M’s out of the bowl, the owners of the venue definitely went through the prep work required to have a safe show. The road crew would do a shortened version of their prep and know the risks were handled.
But if someone didn’t pick out all of the brown M&M’s in the bowl, then they definitely missed something else in the contract, and that something else could get people hurt or killed. If there was a brown M&M in the bowl, they went through every single item on the checklist because they knew that the owners of the venue hadn’t taken the ownership of the event as seriously as they should have.
When the venue owner’s failed to own the task, the road crew took that responsibility over, because it might have been the venue’s fault, but the road crew would be the ones responsible if someone was hurt.
The amount of self-ownership demonstrated by the road crew of Van Halen was impressive, which is why it’s still talked about today. The lessons from a rock band in the 80’s can still be implemented today, and you can use a similar mindset to the same effect today.
When I consult with a company, one thing I always need to do is to bring attention to the company and the reality of their situation. The reality is most problems are downstream from a total lack of self-ownership.
Within the company, each level of management down to individual contributors are partially or totally lacking in self-ownership. There’s usually a few frustrated, exhausted people who are trying to overcompensate for the failure of the rest of the team.
To help bring this reality check into effect, I like to have a difficult conversation. I’ll be in a meeting with a dozen or more people across the whole company and after understanding the general landscape of where the company is, and outlining where the company should be I’ll say:
“These are my expectations, and I know my bar is high. But how low does my bar need to be set to meet your expectations?”
It’s always total silence after I ask.
Everyone in the room is at first stunned because they can’t believe I actually said something like that. Next, they have to do the mental math on how much lower their standards of the processes, people and outcomes they’re supposed to be the person in charge of owning them.
After a long enough pause to make sure it’s finally sunk in to these people that they’ve been the ones who have let the standards fall far enough that I have to come in, I follow up with the next quote.
“If you want friends, buy a puppy. We’re here to run a business and you brought me in to do a job because it’s not getting done right now. If you want to exceed my expectations, I’m on board. But first we’re going to get to my level.”
To quote The Departed: “I’m the guy who does his job, you must be the other guy.”
This intense concentration on seriously owning everything you do has made me well known in my field as the go-to man for turning businesses around. Self-ownership is the foundation. If you’re not willing to totally commit to owning the process, it doesn’t matter how smart you are or how well you know the business because something will always fall through the cracks.