The Page About Not Knowing What to Do, Taking Ownership, and Earning Trust

Episode 74

How do you build trust with people, especially in the business or corporate world?

I used to think that one of the best ways to do it is to always have an action plan ready, especially for when things go wrong – because this is how you show that you take responsibility, and responsibility is what earns trust and respect. Right?

But what if you don’t have a plan? What if you are put on a spot and don’t have all the answers? What do you do then?

Well, I might have found an answer to this question.

In this episode, I share the story of a crisis at work when I actually had no plan and no idea how to solve the problem, but I still stepped forward and was absolutely open and honest about it.

Tune in on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or continue reading.

I’ve been in the corporate world for almost 18 years (yeah I am that old haha). Out of these 18 years, I have held a leadership role for 17 and a half years. So I have learned quite a bit about managing teams as well as navigating relationships with the clients.

Probably the most common question I get asked by aspiring leaders is “How to build confidence as a manager and as a leader?” And I am pretty sure that the second most common question is “How do you build trust – with your peers, your team members, your own manager, and your clients?”

And there is a rule that I have tried to follow myself throughout my whole career and that I have always taught my team members:

If something goes sideways within your area of responsibility, don’t just report the problem to your boss or to your client, hoping that they will suggest ways to solve it. Instead, once you report the problem, be prepared to also talk about your plan of action to correct it.

I used to believe that this is the primary (if not the only) way to show other people that you take ownership. And it is that sense of ownership that earns you trust internally with your boss, and externally with your clients.

And then this project happened.

We had worked with this client for several years already, they were (and still are) my biggest client. We always have a bunch of active projects with them, but this one was special in a way that it had a fixed budget and fixed timeline, and my team owned it fully, end to end.

We started this project in the summer of 2022. Our roadmap suggested it would take 5 months so we were targeting the week before Thanksgiving for our launch.

As an account manager, my job was to oversee the overall engagement with this client, including this project and all others. But I wasn’t involved in the day-to-day operations – instead, I had a dedicated team that was established specifically for this project, including the full time project manager.

Every week, we would have internal checkpoints as well as status updates with the client. According to the reports that our project manager was providing, we were on track.

The first adjustment to the timeline happened at the end of September – some changes were made to the scope that resulted in us adding 3 weeks to the timeline. We communicated it to the client, and it was all good.

In October, we had to add another 3 weeks to the timeline – for the same reason – a change in scope. The plan now was to go live right after New Year.

When December came, surprise surprise, more changes were uncovered, and the timeline got shifted again – this time we pushed our launch date to the end of January.

Up until that point, the client was very understanding and quite patient, we were constantly staying in touch with them and they were fully aware of all the changes.

In the middle of January, things got funny.

We were very close to the launch, so at that point we were meeting internally almost every day to keep each other posted on the latest updates. And every week our project manager would report that “we are almost there, just need to fix one remaining issue”.

But for some reason, that “one remaining issue” kept transforming into some other “one remaining issue” every time. Every week we would report to the client that we were planning to launch “next week”.

Another 3 or 4 weeks passed that way.

You might be thinking, “Olena, how did you not realize that it was going all wrong by then, with all these delays?”

And let me tell you – I keep asking myself this question to this date.

But have you heard a story about a frog that was thrown in a pot full of cold water sitting on a cooktop and then the burner was turned on? You’d think that at some point the frog would realize that the water was getting too hot and would hop out. But it got boiled – because the water temperature was rising slowly and it was hard to figure out when exactly it got too hot.

This is exactly what was happening with us. We were like that frog, slowly boiling ourselves in this “one more little issue left” cycle.

But at some point, someone had to wake up.

At the end of February, I was already losing patience – I am surprised our client hadn’t lost patience by that time already!

It was Tuesday morning, and during our internal sync I got an update from the team that “one small issue is left that will be solved by Thursday”.

“So, we are confident that on Thursday we will be ready to launch?”


“Okay cool, let’s connect tomorrow afternoon to make sure we are still on track.”

We get back together on Wednesday afternoon, and I ask for an update.

“Yes, we have solved that issue, but something else came up.”

“What else? Again?? But yesterday we were confident that that was the last remaining issue”

“Yeah we are not sure, we are looking into it now.”

That was the tipping point for me (or the boiling point).

I finally woke up.

There is no chance in hell we are going to be ready tomorrow, or next week. This is an indefinite cycle. The problem must be way deeper. We have to look deeper. We have to take a pause and perform an audit of the whole solution.

And I HAVE to inform the client about it.

Oh, this is NOT going to be a pleasant conversation.

I don’t have a plan on how to fix it – honestly, I have no idea right now how to fix it. I don’t even know how deep or wide the problem is! So I cannot give them any estimates.

All I know is right now we need to come up with a plan on how to come up with a plan, and just that is likely going to take weeks!

But I cannot NOT tell the client anything.

It was Thursday afternoon when I requested an urgent meeting with the client – the main project stakeholder on their side. I know he is a smart and sharp man and he doesn’t stand any bullshit, so I will just have to be fully honest with him – that’s all I got at this point.

We get on the phone. It’s me, the stakeholder from the client side, and one of the senior leaders from my company who oversee the particular expertise that this project is related to.

I start explaining the situation. I provide a quick recap of the last few weeks as well as summarize our current state. I say that we are currently mobilizing additional resources and will be working on the plan and will keep them posted on our progress.

The client listens to my speech without interrupting, he lets me finish and then asks,

“Okay, so who exactly on your side is going to be accountable for making it right? Who can I communicate with going forward regarding this issue?”

“Well, so there’s this project manager on the team, she will remain the primary day-to-day contact, but of course, we will all be supporting her in the background.” – I point to myself and my colleague who is on the phone with me.

“Hold on. I don’t need a bunch of people, I need one person. So, you are telling me that this project manager who hasn’t been able to get it fixed so far is still going to remain the main person in charge? Olena, all bullshit aside, are you saying you are confident that they will be able to do it?”

And as he is saying this, my thoughts start spinning:

“Oh shit, I was not prepared for this question. What do I say? The clock is ticking, and every millisecond is making this pause more and more uncomfortable. I have to come up with some smart answer right now!”

I made my decision.

“I will be that person. From now on, I am going to be personally accountable for the success of this project. You can communicate with me. And I will work with all the respective parties on our end to make it right, including this project manager and the rest of the team.”

“Thank you, I appreciate it. When will I hear back from you?”

“I am getting together with the team tomorrow and we will start working on the plan. I will be providing updates daily.”

“Good, talk to you tomorrow then.”

We all hung up the phone.

It was past 7 already, dinner time, I was sitting in my home office and I knew that my husband had already cooked dinner. But I needed to sit there for a second, catch my breath, process what had just happened, and put my thoughts in order.

“Alright, it’s a pretty crappy situation here Olena. Now you gotta figure out what the hell you are gonna do about it – you committed yourself and there is no return.”

Listen to the full story on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Until next time,

Olena xx

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