We Are All Just Temporary Stewards

My blogging volume is off a bit due to client engagements and teaching activities (a good problem), but I had to take a timeout this afternoon and share some thoughts from a recent discussion.  A very thoughtful manager summed up his perspective on his role in the organization as that of a Temporary Steward. 

With his permission, and I am paraphrasing: “It’s not our business, it’s not our company, but we have a responsibility to those that will inevitably take over from us to leave the business in the best possible condition.”  Thoughtful comments and an interesting way to look at things.

While I suppose you could interpret the Temporary Steward label as a means of rationalizing subpar performance or lack of engagement, for this manager, it was just the opposite.  It was clear from our discussion, that he cares very deeply about the organization’s success, about its future state given the changing world that we live in, and importantly, about the people that work in the organization. 

From my own perspective, I like the concept of thinking about our tenure as finite.  It creates a sense of urgency and it helps us focus on priorities.  I’ve observed too many corporate managers that lost track of the fact that they are not guaranteed a job or even that their company will be there next week.  Once you start acting like you own the bricks and mortar and the chair and desk that you sit at and even the people that work for you, your judgment clouds, your motivation weakens and your intentions become suspect. 

The Tenets of the Temporary Steward
  • I’m responsible for contributing more everyday than I take out of the organization.
  • I’m accountable to future leaders, managers and employees to do my best to ensure that there is an organization in place for them to contribute to, earn from and to grow.
  • I recognize that I am here on the good graces of customers and stakeholders, and I will seek to create value for them every day.
  • If I manage people, I’m responsible for doing the heavy lifting and difficult work of providing constant feedback, supporting individual development and eliminating those that can’t perform or that don’t match our values.
  • I’m responsible for watching what is going on in the world around us and for helping pick a path to march down.  I’m also responsible for recognizing when we’ve chosen the wrong path and helping us change course.
  • I won’t take myself so seriously that it causes me to strike out in anger, play politics or spend unproductive time complaining. 
  • I’ll work hard to recognize when it is my time for my stewardship to end, and I’ll look back on the successes and failures as learning experiences.  I’ll leave the regrets for someone else, because as a Temporary Steward, I’ll know that I left everything that I had on the playing field.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Don’t take yourself so seriously that you start believing that you transcend the organization.  Start focusing on what you can do to create value today that will ensure that there is a future for your organization.  And remember that  you will not pass this way or live this day again.  Leave things better than you found them.

Comments

  1. Art,

    I enjoy your blog and generally love your insights. It is with this backdrop that I would like to offer another perspective and I wonder what you think about it.

    A brief bit of history is important. The modern corporation came into being in Britain in the early seventeenth century, when some very intelligent and presumably humble nobleman noticed that there’s no correlation between intelligence and wealth. In fact, there may even be an inverse correlation, but I’ll resist the urge to rant about Paris Hilton and spare you my other Hilton-esque urges…

    What these noblemen realized was that if they gave up a portion of their capital and entrusted it to an organized group of intelligent, motivated and hungry workers selected from the masses, they could make themselves much wealthier. The modern corporation was born.

    There are many agency problems that come along with this arrangement. Darn those intelligent, motivated and hungry masses for wanting to help themselves more than they wanted to enrich the already wealthy, but those issues aside, capitalism has improved the living standards of the masses as it enriched the wealthy.

    Your Tenants of Temporary Stewardship would bring a tear to the eye of any bourgeois capitalist. Thinking of the the future generations as motivation is nice, but it’s not really part of the corporate bargain.

  2. Andrew, thanks for your perspective. It’s not often I get a great laugh from the comments, but your “tear to the eye” line is great. Touche. Ironic that I am re-reading Atlas Shrugged for the 10th time in my life. I’ll pay attention this time! In the mean time, I did enjoy the perspective of the Not for Profit manager (forgot to mention that part) that inspired the post. Thanks again for chiming in. -Art

  3. Wow – a well written posting and a great follow-up comment to boot. Art, I liked your thoughts on the fleeting nature of our positions and the simple fact that tomorrow is a gamble that may not pay off. However, I think that you missed one key point: if we are only temporary stewards then instead of feeling powerless (I’m only here for a short time), perhaps this can instead be used as a source of power (I’ve only got one chance, let’s give it a try).

    All too often I think that we find ourselves trying to decide if we want to mange people or products. Ultimately, the answer has to be both. If we really want to leave things in a better state than we found them (ultimate goal), then we’ve got to move not only quickly but we have to find a way to motivate the other temporary stewards to move with us, not against us.

    - Dr. Jim Anderson
    Blue Elephant Consulting
    http://itproductmanagement.blogspot.com/

  4. Wow – a well written posting and a great follow-up comment to boot. Art, I liked your thoughts on the fleeting nature of our positions and the simple fact that tomorrow is a gamble that may not pay off. However, I think that you missed one key point: if we are only temporary stewards then instead of feeling powerless (I’m only here for a short time), perhaps this can instead be used as a source of power (I’ve only got one chance, let’s give it a try).

    All too often I think that we find ourselves trying to decide if we want to mange people or products. Ultimately, the answer has to be both. If we really want to leave things in a better state than we found them (ultimate goal), then we’ve got to move not only quickly but we have to find a way to motivate the other temporary stewards to move with us, not against us.

    - Dr. Jim Anderson
    Blue Elephant Consulting
    http://itproductmanagement.blogspot.com/

  5. Dr. Jim, thanks for jumping in as well. You are right. Interestingly, your theme fits right in with the advance copy of John Kotter’s new book that I am reading right now: A Sense of Urgency. Kotter makes the case that one of the leader’s key roles is to do exactly what you describe…get the masses to move quickly based on a genuine sense of urgency. I’ll write a review on the book in a few days. Thanks again for your value-add. -Art

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