The liberating power of accepting responsibility

For this post, I am reflecting on another lesson learned long, long ago, when I was just starting out in high tech. The company was riding a wave and growing fast, and I rode the same wave. I went from "marcom writer" to head of PR within a couple years.

Heading up PR was a big job. We went public and attracted a lot of attention from Canadian and US media and analysts. We were one of the first Canadian companies to go public on the hot Nasdaq market (in the early 90s!), and we had PR firms in the US and in Europe. I was learning as I went how to support all those efforts—what we could and couldn't announce as a public company, and how to engage with reporters in a way that worked for them and for us. I struggled to satisfy a marketing and sales imperative for positive news while not getting the company on the wrong side of the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

I gobbled up all the advice I could get—from journalists, from other PR practitioners, from our US-based agency, from our lawyers and external counsel, from our more experienced execs. 

And still, I made mistakes. After one such error, pretty early on in my role heading up PR, I recall being called on the carpet.

I no longer remember the specific issue. It might have been a failure to post our earnings news simultaneously in the US and Canada. (Pre-internet, this was an important bug we spent several quarters working out with the Canadian and US newswires, and they ultimately had to change their processes to accommodate our requirements.)  Or it might have been something else—anything from making a typo in a press release, or missing an important analyst on the distribution of the news, to failing to adequately prep one of the executives for a tough interview.  I made all those mistakes and more at one time or another.

The details don't matter. What does is what happened next. There I was, in the 'hot seat," discussing the fallout with my CEO, my own VP and the corporate secretary, possibly others. Having come from a workplace where there was no "ownership," I suspect I was using passive language to describe the source of the problem (e.g., "an error was made..."). My CEO asked: "who's responsible?" Who made the mistake?

I was stunned into silence at first, feeling all eyes on me.  I was probably waiting for someone else to rush in and help me with an excuse. Maybe I was thinking of mitigating factors, like the pressures of the work or some technical glitch I could blame. In the end, I simply said "oh, that would be me." 

He followed with: "Okay, great. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to fix it?" Ultimately, he went even further and made it clear that I could call on him and everyone in the room to help with shaping and executing the plan of action I proposed.

It was an incredibly empowering moment. Rather than being castigated, I was invited to think about solutions, and how the company could avoid similar errors in the future. My input in defining the way forward was what mattered most.

That CEO was a unique and awesome leader in so many ways, and he shaped a unique culture, at least in those early days, where making mistakes wasn't fatal and taking responsibility was valued. I really felt he had my back, and that he asked the same of everyone else in the room.

It was a defining moment in my career. It set the tone for everything that followed.

Thank you Eric!


  1. Gillian - I love this!! Thanks for posting :)xoxoxo

  2. Thanks Beth! That means a lot.

  3. I can picture Eric's expression as you describe your story :-) I am also a big fan of Eric, thanks for sharing your story.

  4. What a wow moment! Thanks for sharing, Gillian!


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