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Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by someone who exceeded your expectations? Someone who put careful thought into their interaction with you and simply made you feel special? Wonderful feeling, wasn’t it? My wife Mary and I had that experience recently, and it reminded me of an important, game-changing leadership principle.
Trekking Through Italy
Recently, we returned from two glorious weeks in Italy. It was a delightful experience seeing so many places that I had read and dreamed about since my early teens. We had been in most of the other countries of Europe but did not know exactly what to expect in this historical country that we have read about for a lifetime.
I’m happy to report that Italy exceeded our expectations in every way. Of course, Rome, Florence, and Venice are breathtaking art and historical sites, and there is so much to delight the senses. We toured the Vatican, the stunning Sistine Chapel, the easily recognizable Coliseum, and the Roman Forum (the musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” came to mind!). Our tour guides did a great job sharing the stories behind the stories.
Leaving Rome was hard because we wanted to stay longer, but a quick 150 MPH train ride took us to Florence in an hour and a half. Florence is much smaller, more compact and you can walk about everywhere. And of course, you must see Michelangelo’s seventeen-foot-tall sculpture of David.
Next another fast train to our unforgettable visit to Venice. There are no cars or delivery trucks—only canals and small boats getting it done. As a history major in college, I reflected on leadership examples from 200 B.C. to the first century, the long span during the Roman Empire, and even the Dark Ages and the Renaissance period.
People Exceeding Expectations
“While the famous sites of Italy were awe-inspiring, it was the people who really caught our attention by exceeding our expectations.” [Tweet This]
They were friendly, helpful, and even patient—except in driving. Since I’m a fighter pilot and generally drive aggressively, that part was fine with me too.
After Venice, we headed north to visit Aviano Air Base for three days of speaking and a leadership forum for their senior leaders. It’s a beautiful base on the coastal plains just ten miles south of the Alps and snowcapped mountains towering in the distance.
At the air base, we met the folks behind the scenes who had been working with our team for several months to coordinate our visit. Here again it was the diligence and commitment of the team that caught our attention. It was clear that they had ownership of their job and they made the effort to exceed our expectations.
Looking to Get Ahead in Your Career?
During my time as a leader in the Air Force and now working with young people in civilian life, I often get the question, “what can I do to get promoted?”
The morning before the senior leadership forum at Aviano, I was asked a similar question during my breakfast with a dozen young airmen. My answer is always the same – “Take full responsibility for your job and think and act like an owner.”
“When you take ownership in any endeavor, you will exceed expectations and be an influential leader.” [Tweet This]
Doing the minimum to fulfill your duties is the first step and is essential, but it’s not enough. When you take ownership, you put your heart and energy into it to make your performance the best it can be.
Three Steps to Taking Ownership
What does it look like to take ownership? How do you do it? Here are three simple steps that will enable you to take ownership and exceed expectations –
1. Clarify expectations. Seek clarity on what is expected. What’s the desired outcome for the task or assignment? You need to make sure that what you are thinking is expected, matches what your boss is expecting. Your first job is to make them happy
2. Consider the bigger picture on what will be required to make it work beyond the minimum requirements.
- How can I serve in the best way? How can I make it smooth for my boss, customers, clients, and teammates?
- Will this impact others or other organizations? Should I coordinate with them to make sure they are on board?
- What problems or issues might come up that we had not thought about?
- Are there any unintended consequences that might arise?
- Be intentional to cover every angle to make sure it goes well.
Our hosts at the VRBO apartments where we stayed and at the air base had thought of every detail and it made a difference.
3. Commit your heart to the task of exceeding expectations. Go above and beyond to make sure things are done the right way. Most often, it’s fulfilled as having a positive, servant-oriented attitude. This was what so many Italian locals and our military hosts from Aviano did for us and it made a difference. We felt like we were treated special and that made us feel special toward them.
Confirm your Professional Standards
There is no guarantee that taking ownership and exceeding expectations will guarantee your advancement, but it does position you in the best possible way. You’ve established your standard of excellence and you have given your boss the ammunition he or she will need to lobby for your promotion. And, you have laid the personal foundation for being a person of excellence—someone who cares about their work and is “all in” and fully engaged.
What’s the outcome? It garners the attention of others, you’re admired, and you’re not easily forgotten. That’s the way we feel about our hosts, Italian and American, that we encountered on our trip.
Pause and reflect on your leadership and work behaviors—are you taking ownership and striving to exceed expectations as an honorable leader? Have you taken ownership to serve others in all directions—those above you, your direct reports, your peers, and your outside customers? If yes, what has been the payoff? If not, what’s holding you back?
Take Lee on your Travels this Summer
In the Leading with Honor audio book, Lee personally narrates this unabridged version of his award-winning book. Listen to him share his stories from the Vietnam POW camps as the leadership principles that he learned there for 5 1/2 years.
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