Passenger or Plank Owner

In the days when boats were made with a wooden deck and shipmates often helped build the ship they sailed on, the shipmate received a piece of the deck when the ship was decommissioned. They were known as a plank owner and were typically very proud of their tenure on the ship they brought to life. The term is still used today, but it has changed slightly so that if you are part of the crew for the first commissioning or recommissioning of a ship, you are a plank owner.

As you progress through your career, you have a choice of being a passenger or plank owner. It doesn’t matter whether you work for one company your entire career or have shorter cycles with multiple employers. You can take the attitude of being a ship passenger when you join a company and focus on your job and do little work or research outside of your job. Or, you can take the attitude of being a plank owner by investing yourself and learning about the company, its culture, how it works, and how you can make it better. You’ll find that you enjoy the second approach more, you will be more successful during review time, and your personal education and satisfaction will be higher. So how do you get started?

  • Do learn the business – As a younger employee I took the attitude that I was hired for my expertise and would focus on that expertise. I decided that the managers were hired to run the business and I didn’t want to do their job. Wrong approach. You’ll enjoy the place you work much more if you take interest in the business and how it works. Make friends with business managers and ask questions. If the company is a public company, read the information on the Investor’s page on the company website. Attend the All-Hands meetings and pay attention.
  • Do act like the CEO – Do the mental exercise of figuring out what you would do if you were the owner or CEO of the company. Research the industry you are in and the competition to better form your opinion. Recent research shows that most companies feel that 25-30 percent of their revenue will come through innovation and new invention. Form an idea, write a brief description and send it to someone in the leadership team. You won’t get fired, and if you get anything less than an email back from that leader thanking you for the idea, consider going to a different company.
  • Do invest in reading business books – I am now and will always be a geek. But guess what? I still must read (and really enjoy) books on business strategy and leadership. Most of my peers have come to the same conclusion I did – you have to balance you time between reading about your area of expertise and reading about business and leadership. If you are the best at what you do, you will grow. If you know business and strategy and are good at what you do, you will grow your career exponentially. A good first step is to learn about whole systems. Briefly, the notion of whole systems is having a view of the entire ecosystem that makes up the company environment. Consider reading the introductory chapter of The Fifth Discipline that describes a beer company to get an idea of what whole systems is. If you enjoy the topic, read more – it is not wasted time and effort.
  • Do strive to make others great – Everyone has some area of expertise. Rather than guarding your knowledge and working against others, try to be sociable and share your expertise. By being accommodating and sharing with others, you co-workers will be more interested in spending time with you and sharing their knowledge. If you win and others in your company lose, then the company loses. That will eventually mean you lose.
  • Grow your empathy muscle – There are few things more frustrating than thinking you are not being heard or that your opinion doesn’t count. Guess what? The people you interact with are the same way. If you always listen and respond from your perspective and don’t consider theirs, they will respond the same way. When that happens both of you will get irritated. A good first step is to actively listen to the other person by letting them speak and repeating back what they said. That shows them you heard what they said and also verifies that you heard what they intended to say.        

Investing yourself and taking pride in whatever you do will stimulate you and make any task you have to do more enjoyable. Try applying some of these ideas in your workplace and see if you don’t become happier and more successful. Also, consider spending time volunteering. You’ll find it is like a high-intensity workout for you empathy muscle.      


Andy Ruth 
SEI Mentor
Apprenticeship Program