Fix Accountability, Change the Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

You seem to think that when the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, it’s a game-changer. You seem to think this one idea has a significant impact on morale.

Mindset drives behavior. This is a central premise to culture. What we believe, the way we see the world, drives behavior.

When a manager believes the team is accountable for their own output, it creates a punitive, blaming mindset on the part of the manager. I often hear the refrain from one manager to another, “Well, did you hold them accountable?”

And I have to ask, “Accountable for what? And just what managerial behavior is involved in holding them accountable?”

Is it a matter of reprimand, jumping up and down and screaming? Is it a matter of volume, frequency? If I told you once, I told you a thousand times. At that point, I am convinced that I am talking to a manager who has no children.

Managers who engage in this behavior have a direct negative impact on team morale. Response is predictably fight, flight, freeze or appease.

But, when the manager is accountable for the output of the team, everything changes. A manager accountable for the output of the team will –

  • Take extreme care in the selection of who? is assigned to the project.
  • Will take extreme care in the training of team members assigned to the project.
  • Will take extreme care in the work instructions for the project.
  • Will take care to monitor the progress of work on the project.
  • Will take care in the coaching of team members who may struggle in connection with the project.

Why? Because the manager is accountable for the output of the team. The attitude, the mindset, moves the manager from blaming behavior to caring behavior. If this becomes the mindset of all the managers, the entire organization’s culture changes. We don’t need sensitivity training, or communication seminars. We just need to fix accountability.

Circumstances Out of Our Control

“What changed?” I asked.

“You had a talk with my manager. You told my manager that he is accountable for my output,” Dennis replied.

“So, what changed?”

“Before, if things didn’t go well, we would always get yelled at. I mean, not yelled at, but we would certainly get the drift that my manager was irritated. We come to work and try very hard to do our best, but sometimes, things just don’t go the way they are supposed to. Maybe a supplier would deliver late and we would have to double-time it to beat the deadline. When we try to work faster, sometimes we don’t get a chance to check all the tolerances. So, sometimes we would come up short and not all the finished work would pass QC. And, then we would get yelled at.”


“And, it just didn’t seem fair. We weren’t late, the supplier was late. That made us late. Do you know what it feels like to have your feet held to the fire for someone else’s screw up? And, it’s not like we have any control over the supplier. We didn’t place the order. But, we still get blamed.” Dennis stopped his story.

“So, what changed?”

“You talked to my manager. You told him that he was accountable for my output. It was like magic. You know the order to the supplier? Turned out, he didn’t place the order until after hours yesterday. That’s why it was late this morning.”

“What did your manager say?”

“He apologized. He said, from now on, he was going to be accountable for the output of the team. He said he needed each of us to do our best, but no more yelling on his part.”

“So, what is different?”

“It’s like a breath of fresh air. Instead of looking to us to find fault or blame, he looks to see where he can help support us. He is a very different person.”

Team Member Contract for Accountability

From the Ask Tom mailbag – related to the post on Reprimands and Individual Accountability vs Accountability for Output.

Accountability for output travels down levels of work, with each manager accountable for the output of their team. Individual accountability travels up levels of work, with each individual accountable for bringing their full commitment and discretionary judgement to do their best.

The emphasis on the last comment was on Output, which is typically an end measure. Where is the emphasis on Input? The Input of each member of the team (the level of tasks and work) directly correlates to the Output measurement. What about having each be accountable to not only measure their daily input of work but also use those metrics to improve upon their own performance? That will impact everyone’s Output.

There is appropriate discretionary judgement at every level of work. Meaning, there is appropriate problem solving and decision making at every level of work. Most decisions relate to pace and quality. The work product related to pace and quality turns out to be output.

Let’s blow apart full commitment and discretionary judgement related to Elliott’s contract.

  1. The team member is accountable (individual accountability) to come to work everyday, with their full commitment, using their discretionary judgement, to do their best.
  2. If the team member’s output is behind schedule (pace), they should inform their manager ASAP.
  3. If the team member’s output is ahead of schedule (pace), they should inform their manager ASAP.
  4. If the team member’s output is below the quality standard (quality), they should inform their manager ASAP.
  5. If the team member’s output is above the quality standard (quality), they should inform their manager ASAP.
  6. If the team member is unable to do their best (that day), they should inform their manager ASAP.

Nick Forrest calls this feedback loop, “best advice.” Each team member is obligated to give their manager “best advice” related to their output.

With “best advice,” the manager is in a position, and has the authority to make adjustments to schedule, bring in more hands, authorize overtime, call the customer and delay the output, stop production to re-tool, add an inspection process, scrap out-of-spec production. The reason the manager is accountable for the output of the team is, the manager controls all the resources. The manager understands a larger context of the work, and has oversight. That comes with accountability for output.

Individual Accountability and Accountability for Output

From the Ask Tom mailbag – related to the post on Reprimands

I am unclear how a CEO can run a company without an alignment of accountabilities. Your description that the manager is accountable for the output of the team just gives the people below the manager a pass. This changes nothing. It just moves the dynamics up to between manager and superior. It’s a fractel of the same pattern grounded in a paternalistic paradigm. “Hey I’m not accountable, the team, as an entity, isn’t accountable – the manager is.” In a company of grown ups we hold ourselves accountable. Where does this accountability come from? Accountable to whom?

Indeed, how does a CEO run a company without an alignment of accountabilities? At Stratum V, the CEO holds the S-IV executive team accountable for the output of the S-III managerial team. In turn, the S-III managerial team is accountable for the output of the S-II supervisory team. In turn, the S-II supervisory team is accountable for the output of the S-I technician team. This is accountability related to output.

Here is the shift.

The S-I technician team is individually accountable, for themselves, according this contract. The S-I technician is individually accountable to show up for work each and every day, with their full commitment to do their best. That’s it.

This individual accountability then travels all the way back up to the CEO, each person, at every level of work, individually accountable to do their best. This is the alignment of accountabilities, individual accountability to do their best, with the accountability for output resting with the manager at each level of work.

Replace the Reprimand With This Question

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Our culture is the worst. It is based on fear. Everyone walks around here on eggshells, tip-toeing around the CEO. We try our best, but there is always something wrong. We can take the truth about the screw-up, but the load that comes with it makes the person feel small and worthless. Even if I am not the target, I stand by and watch a co-worker on the receiving end of a scathing reprimand. It just makes me feel bad.

All crumbs lead to the top. Always. You have an accountability problem that shows up as a culture problem.

Many managers tell me they have to hold their people accountable. If an output goal is missed, the manager feels the need to bring it to the team members attention through a reprimand, warning or a scolding write-up in the employee file. (Oh no!) If the manager can muster an emotional, red-faced dressing-down, all the better. The manager must have truly held the team member accountable.

Understand, in all this froth, nothing changed. The output didn’t change. The behaviors that created the output didn’t change. Oh, wait. Something did change. The manager feels powerful and effective. But the only effect is that the team member feels bad.

People don’t perform better when they feel bad. Their breathing becomes shallow. Fear drives them into four unproductive responses –

  • Fight (the boss is an asshole)
  • Flight (I will hide, I will hide my work, my contribution will no longer be detectable)
  • Freeze (Paralysis that freezes all decision making, including appropriate decision making)
  • Appease (Sycophant behavior that never questions anything, the perfect “yes man”)

Accountability for output is misplaced. If an output goal is missed, it is not the team member I hold accountable. It is the manager. I hold the team member accountable for this one thing. I hold the team member accountable to come to work each and every day, with their full discretionary attention to do their best. That’s it.

It is the manager I hold accountable for their output. It is the manager who controls all the resources. It is the manager who selected the team member for the task. It is the manager who trained the team member in the necessary skills. It is the manager who provided the tools and equipment necessary for the task. It is the manager who controlled the working environment, the start time, the end time, the quality of raw materials. It is the manager I hold accountable for the output of the team member.

And, most often, it is the CEO I hold accountable, for the CEO is accountable for the output of the entire organization.

A reprimand is counter-productive to output. Output is made up of a number of variables –

  • Who?
  • Skill-level?
  • Tools?
  • Equipment?
  • Working environment?
  • Target completion time?
  • Quality of raw materials?

Replace the reprimand with this question. What could we do differently to get the output we want? This is the only question that impacts output.

And, now, I am talking directly to the CEO. Your people can take the truth, not the load. Replace the reprimand with a question.

What Has Changed Around You?

Andrew was still upset. The contract was lost and there was nothing he could do about it. He had lost his appeal with the purchasing agent, the procurement manager and the director of operations.

“We did everything by the book,” he said. “This is the way we have earned all of our major contracts. Our reputation is stellar. I can’t believe this is happening.”

“You got sucker-punched,” I observed.

“What?” Andrew replied.

“Sucker-punched,” I repeated. “We often think that our future success lies in the fact that we had one small string of successes in the past. We think that the curve in front of us continues upward without hesitation. We do not realize that, as we continue to do things the way we have always done, the world subtly changes. The nuances of the deal creep up, new players enter the game without detection, and suddenly we are on our ass.” Andrew’s face showed no emotion on the outside, but his eyes betrayed a growing realization.

“There is good news, though,” I continued. “This is not a game. This is life. In a game, there are few second chances. The final period has an ending, even overtime is sudden death.

“In life, in business, there are lots of second chances and the final period can be extended. But only if you stop thinking about your past success and start thinking about what has changed around you.”

Cash Ain’t Cash Unless It’s Cash

“Where’s the money?” I asked.

Luis squinted. “What do you mean, where’s the money?”

“Look, you asked me to help you straighten out this mess. Where’s the money?” I repeated.

“We have a cash-flow problem, there isn’t any money,” Luis replied.

“Yes, there is a cash-flow problem, there is always a cash-flow problem. Luis, the first resource a manager has to manage is cash. But before you can manage it, you have to find out where it is. Sometimes you think you know where it should be, but if that’s not where it is, you can’t manage it.

Sometimes your cash is tied up in a machine. Sometimes your cash is tied up in unbilled work-in-process. Sometimes your cash is tied up in Accounts Receivable. Once you find out where your cash is, only then can you manage it. So, where’s the money?”

A raw nerve was struck. Luis shuffled some papers on his desk. “It’s here,” he said, pointing to the third column in his A/R aging report. “It’s over 60.”

“Well, now we know where it is, we can manage it.”
Registration for our online program Hiring Talent – 2016 is CLOSED out. No worries. We will offer another class the first part of March.
Today’s post was inspired by a quote from the late Red Scott, “Cash ain’t cash unless it’s cash.”

How to Deal with Malicious Behavior

From the Ask Tom mailbag:


I am a young store manager of two and a half years with no previous managerial experience. Through this time, I have problem employees doing things behind my back, against the rules. I never have enough information to reveal the responsible person or the only information I get is confidential. Mostly, I do not have the time to be involved all day with rule breaking when I am not in the store. What can I do differently to improve this situation?


It is difficult to understand the nature of the rule breaking, and I see three causes.

  • Malicious, destructive rule breaking, when your back is turned.
  • Lazy, non-compliant rule breaking, when the boss is not around.
  • Fun rule breaking, light hearted, poking fun at authority, when the boss is not around.

For your part, it probably doesn’t matter. If your boss was aware of the hijinks behavior, it would reflect poorly on you as the manager. This is tricky, and the solution is likely counter-intuitive. Your efforts could easily backfire and make the situation worse.

The team members know the rules. People don’t break the rules without knowing the rules. So, this is not a training issue. This is a mindset issue, which is a bigger problem.

Changing a mindset rarely comes from the outside. A Manager cannot dictate that a person change a mindset. Those of you with children can attest. It simply does not work.

The solution will require a multiple set of meetings. I would recommend twice a week, 10 minutes per meeting. So, pick a Monday and Thursday, or Tuesday and Friday, first thing in the morning. As the Leader, simply ask these questions and flipchart the responses from your team. Keep your thoughts to yourself. Post the flipcharts in the break room and leave them there.

  • Meeting 1: How are we doing, working together as a team?
  • Meeting 2: What impact do we, as a team, have on the customer?
  • Meeting 3: In what way can we, as a team, have a more positive impact on the customer?
  • Meeting 4: What impact does our individual behavior have on the behavior of our other team members?
  • Meeting 5: In what way can we, as a team, have a positive impact, helping each other create a more positive customer experience?

The purpose of these meetings is to:

  • Get the team talking about behavior, not the manager talking about behavior.
  • Re-focus the energy of the team from misbehavior to customer focus.
  • Get the team to create its own accountability for behavior, even when the Manager is not around.

Registration is wrapping up for our online program Hiring Talent – 2016. To find out more, follow this link to sign up.

Breakdown in Communication is Only the Symptom

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

You talk about how most problems are structural problems. I don’t get it. Our company has a communication problem. Because people don’t talk to each other, at the right time, balls get dropped. If we could just communicate better, things would go smoother.

You think you have a communication problem. And, you can have all the communication seminars you want, you will still have breakdowns in communication and balls will still get dropped.

You have a communication symptom of a structural problem. Structure is the defined accountability and authority in working relationships. You have a communication symptom because the working relationship between two people was never clearly defined.

As the manager, you know specific information should be communicated at a specific time, and you assume the two teammates will figure out what (needs to be communicated) and when. So, when that doesn’t happen, you think you have a communication problem. That is only the symptom.

The communication never happened, or didn’t happen at the right time, because, as the manager, you never required the information be passed on at a specific time. As the manager, you never defined the accountability in the working relationship, so the two teammates were left to twist in the wind.

You have a structural problem (defined accountability), with a communication symptom. Define the specific accountability and the communication symptom fixes itself.
Registration for our online program Hiring Talent – 2016 is now open. We had a solid signup day yesterday, so only five slots left. Follow this link for more information.

Hiring Talent – 2016 Registration Open

Registration is now open for our online program Hiring Talent – 2016. Program calendar below. As this economy ramps up, your next hires are critical. This is not a time to be casual about the hiring process. Mistakes are too expensive and margins are too thin.

This is the only program that combines an understanding of Levels of Work with Behavioral Interviewing. The research on Levels of Work is powerful science. The discipline of behavioral interviewing is the methodology for its application. This is the only program that puts these two ideas together in a practical framework for managers faced with Hiring Talent.

Purpose of this program – to train managers and HR specialists in the discipline of conducting more effective interviews in the context of a managed recruiting process.

Candidate Interview

How long is the program? We have streamlined the program so that it can be completed in 3-6 weeks. The self-paced feature allows participants to work fast or slow, depending on their personal schedule.

How do people participate in the program? This is an online program conducted by Tom Foster. Participants will be responsible for online assignments and participate in online facilitated discussion groups with other participants. This online platform is highly interactive. Participants will interact with Tom Foster and other participants as they work through the program.

Who should participate? This program is designed for Stratum III and Stratum IV managers and HR managers who play active roles in the recruiting process for their organizations.

What is the cost? The program investment is $499 per participant. Vistage members receive a $100 discount, just indicate VISTAGE in the registration.

When is the program scheduled? Registration is now open. The program is scheduled to kick-off with orientation Jan 25, 2016.

How much time is required to participate in this program? Participants should reserve approximately 2 hours per week. This program is designed so participants can complete their assignments on their own schedule anytime during each week’s assignment period.

Register now. No payment due at this time. We will send you a payment link later this week.

Jan 15, 2016

  • Registration Opens

Jan 25, 2016

  • Orientation

Week One – Role Descriptions – It’s All About the Work

  • What we are up against
  • Specific challenges in the process
  • Problems in the process
  • Defining the overall process
  • Introduction to the Role Description
  • Organizing the Role Description
  • Defining Tasks
  • Defining Goals
  • Identifying the Level of Work

Week Two

  • Publish and discuss Role Descriptions

Week Three – Interviewing for Future Behavior

  • Creating effective interview questions
  • General characteristics of effective questions
  • How to develop effective questions
  • How to interview for attitudes and non-behavioral elements
  • How to interview for Time Span
  • Assignment – Create a bank of interview questions for the specific role description

Week Four

  • Publish and discuss bank of interview questions

Week Five – Conducting the Interview

  • Organizing the interview process
  • Taking Notes during the process
  • Telephone Screening
  • Conducting the telephone interview
  • Conducting the face-to-face interview
  • Working with an interview team
  • Compiling the interview data into a Decision Matrix
  • Background Checks, Reference Checks
  • Behavioral Assessments
  • Drug Testing
  • Assignment – Conduct a face-to-face interview

Week Six

  • Publish and discuss results of interview process

Registration is now open for this program. No payment is due at this time.