Category Archives: Accountability

What is Competence?

Andrew was beside himself. “How could this happen?” he exclaimed. “We had that bid locked down. That was our contract. We literally worked for 16 months to position ourselves. We built the infrastructure. We built the relationships with the customer at all the levels. Then one guy gets promoted and we get a form letter saying that our contract has been terminated, thirty days notice.”

“What do you think is the problem?” I asked.

“I don’t know, sometimes I think my whole team is incompetent. To let this slip through, when we worked so hard for it.”

“Do you really think your team is incompetent?” I followed up.

Andrew shook his head from side to side. “No. Heaven’s no. What am I thinking? To every person on the team, I wouldn’t trade a single one. They are all A players. I just don’t know what happened.”

“Sometimes, when we think about competence,” I replied, “we think it is our ability to control the parts of the world that cannot be controlled. Events of the world will occur in spite of us. So, what is competence?”

Andrew was listening, but not sure if he liked what he heard. I continued.

“The Boy Scout motto is Be Prepared. Competence is not the ability to control the uncontrollable. Competence is the ability to control ourselves in the face of uncertainty. Be prepared. Be prepared for uncertainty. It is a matter of mental fitness.” -Tom

Short of a Temper Tantrum

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was recently promoted to a manager role. Our company is really big on accountability. My first big challenge is holding other people accountable. I seem to stand by in a dream land watching a team member underperform or make a mistake. I point out the mistake, but that doesn’t seem to solve the problem. The mistake is made again. And, now my manager is telling me that I don’t hold my team accountable. Short of throwing a temper tantrum, what am I supposed to do?

Response:
Most companies get accountability backwards. A technician on your team makes a mistake, and your manager expects you to hold that technician accountable. It is YOU, the manager, that I hold accountable, for the output of your technician. You picked the technician for that assignment. You provided the training. You inspected the quality of the training. You provided the tools. You created the work environment. You provided the coaching. You provided the materials. As the manager to your team, you control all the variables around that technician. It is you I hold accountable for the output of the technician.

So, if the technician makes a mistake, what are the variables that you control? What changes will you make? How will you manage the risk in this task assignment? The source of all accountability is self-accountability. What are YOU going to do? -Tom

How Long Has This Been Going On?

Miriam looked wide eyed as she explained what happened. “I know I should have confronted the behavior straight away, but I didn’t. And now, she thinks it’s okay to be snotty and nasty to people when she doesn’t get her way.”

“How long has this been going on?” I asked. Miriam stopped. She didn’t want to tell me.

“Well, it pretty much started the first month she was here.” Silence. “Okay, about a year and a half.”

“And you haven’t spoken to her about her behavior?”

“At first I thought she was just having a bad day, then it turned into a bad week, then a bad month. By then, nobody wanted to go near her for fear she would rip their head off.”

“That bad?”

Miriam pursed her lips, looking sideways. “Well, not that bad, but she is just plain mean to people around her.”

“And what does your team think about the way you have handled it?”

“Oh, they must think I am very frustrated with her,” Miriam explained. “They know I am just afraid to say anything, even though I am the manager.”

“I don’t think so.” I lowered my eyes to look directly at Miriam. “After a while, you begin to stand for what you tolerate.”

How to Sustain Accountability

Phillip assembled his sales team. They promised to meet to look over their schedules for the following week. Two had substantial clutter on a spreadsheet looking paper. Others had something tucked away inside a folder, a corner peeking out, but nothing available for casual inspection.

“Phillip tells me, you all decided to make some changes with the way the sales team goes to market,” I started. “I am very interested to hear about your plans.”

There was shuffling of bodies around in chairs, everyone trying to get comfortable with this new accountability.

“I see some schedules for next week,” I continued. “Let’s get the cards out on the table.” Everyone looked to their left and then to their right, some schedules appeared, then more, then all. Some were full of chicken scratch, some were sparse.

I asked Phillip to explain, again, the purpose of the meeting, the purpose of the schedules, the purpose of this change of habit. We went around the circle, each explaining their schedule.

“Here is the secret to accountability,” I said. “And, if you don’t do this, the likelihood for success is slim.

“Many people think that accountability is noble and that nobility will sustain it. Others think that if they don’t take accountability seriously, they will feel guilty and the guilt will sustain accountability. Neither of those thoughts work.

“The only thing that sustains accountability is to gather those people around you who will not let you off the hook, who will hold you accountable for what you promise to each other. It is the team that will sustain you through those times when you want to quit, or when you feel lazy.

“So, look around the table, my friends. This is the team that will help you to the next level. You just have to give them permission to hold you accountable.” -Tom

When to Promote

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have a technician in an S-I role, but he shows promise to be a supervisor. Shows promise, he’s not there yet. If I promote him, he will fail. Yet, he is clamoring to be promoted. If I promote him and he fails, he will likely quit OR I will have to fire him. What to do?

Response:
Your instincts are solid. I divide each stratum level of work into three parts (Lo-Med-Hi). For example, Lo-S-II would be an emerging supervisor, may not have earned the title of supervisor yet, but is still in the learning and testing phase.

Med S-II is someone with the competence to be effective in the supervisor role, certainly has the role title.

Hi-S-II is someone, extremely competent and a candidate for consideration at Lo-S-III (emerging manager).

So, Hi-S-I would be your best technician, could be called at “team lead.” If the S-II supervisor is out for the day, this guy is in charge. He will struggle in most areas as a supervisor, but given time (couple of years) he may grow and become more effective at Lo-S-II accountabilities.

Let’s take safety as a key result area (KRA), for example.
S-III designs a safety system.
S-II selects elements of the safety system to focus on each day, coached by S-III manager who designed the safety system.
Hi-S-I may deliver a 3-min safety talk to the team, on a topic selected and coached by the S-II supervisor from the S-III safety system. Hi-S-I would be the role model for the rest of the team to make sure they all go home with fingers and toes.

As time goes by, Lo-S-II projects are assigned to the Hi-S-I team member. This will give the Hi-S-I team member low-risk experience making S-II decisions and solving S-II problems. At some point, everyone will realize the Hi-S-I team member is effectively completing task assignments at S-II. That’s when the promotion happens, not a minute sooner. -Tom Foster

This Business of Judgement

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
From Monday’s post A More Accurate Judgement of Capability, the question came – So how does one get into the judgement business?

Response:
Become a manager. Don’t give me politically correct rhetoric that we shouldn’t judge. Management is all about judgement. Work is making decisions and solving problems. Making decisions is all about judgement. Elliott called it discretionary judgement.

The Time Span of Discretion is the length of time (target completion time of a task) that a person has, in which to make judgements that move the task to completion (the goal). We make judgements about –

  • What is the goal?
  • What has to be done now?
  • What has to be done next?
  • Who, on the team, would be the most effective at completing this task or that task?
  • How effective was the team member, completing this task or that task?

Management is about making decisions. For better or worse, good judgement, poor judgement. -Tom Foster

A More Accurate Judgement of Capability

I do not judge a person’s capability. I am not that smart. I have no authority to try to climb inside the head of a teammate, a colleague or a spouse (careful!). While I took a course of study and a minor in psychology, I have no degree, am not certified nor licensed by the state to practice psychotherapy or psychoanalysis.

People are complicated, tough to figure out. So, stop.

But work, work I understand. I understand the decisions that have to be made and problems that have to be solved. As managers, we are all expert at the work. Don’t play amateur psychologist, play to your strengths, as a manager.

I do not judge a person’s capability. I do, however, judge effectiveness, effectiveness in a role that I have selected them to play. Either the person is effective, or not. That, I can judge.

So, get out of the people judgement business and get into the role judgement business. -Tom Foster

Whose Policy Book Is It?

“I have been working on this policy book, documenting our methods and processes so we can use them in our training programs,” Javier explained.

“Outstanding,” I replied. “So what gives?”

“We finished the book three months ago, but I can’t get the team to take it seriously. We have a meeting, everyone agrees and follows the process for the better part of a morning. But, as soon as there is the slightest hiccup, they go back to the old way and trash talk the policy book. Then I have another meeting where I sound like the critical parent.”

“Maybe you are the critical parent,” I nodded.

“Maybe so, but someone has to be the adult in the room,” Javier pushed back.

“Says who?” I asked.

“Well, I’m the manager, so I guess – says me.”

“You just told me the team doesn’t listen to you.”

“They don’t!” Javier pushed back.

“So, when the team abandons the policy book and goes back to their own experience, who do they rely on for guidance?”

“Well, they are hiding from me, so, they rely on each other and their own judgement.”

“Tell me, Javier, who wrote the policy book?”

“I did. I stayed late every night for a month. I am pretty proud of the thinking behind it. Some of my best work.”

“But none of your team’s experience, none of your team’s judgement is in the book. So, where do you think the problem is?” -Tom

The Myth of Results Based Performance

From the Ask Tom mailbag –
In reference to Judging Effectiveness

Question:
Lets assume in a given role, the Key Result Areas (KRAs) have been defined. The person is producing the target results in these areas, then, I would say they are capable … what am i missing?

Response:
If I ask a hundred managers if they believe in results-based-performance, they would all raise their hands. They would be wrong. Results are only part of the story.

Effectiveness is NOT a “matter of counting outputs, super credits for super outputs, or penalties for lateness or sub-standard quality.” (Elliott Jaques)

If a salesperson has a target sales quota of 100 units, and brings home an order for 110 units, do we say that salesperson was 110 percent effective? Could it have been that the company has a stellar reputation in the market, on-time delivery through logistics, impeccable customer service (resolved a service problem for that same customer two weeks ago)? Could it be the design of a rebate that put the account into a new discount tier?

Effectiveness is not a matter of counting outputs. Effectiveness is a managerial judgement that takes into account all of the circumstances around the team member’s behavior. Blinders looking only at measured output may lead the manager astray. Output is a clue, but only a clue. The only measure of performance is performance. (Lee Thayer)

Judging Effectiveness

Question:
You often talk about effectiveness. In our company, we measure results. How do you measure effectiveness?

Response:
Effectiveness is a matter of judgment. Effectiveness is a matter of managerial judgment. How well does the team member perform in the achievement of the desired goal? Given all the ins and outs, the difficulties faced, the unanticipated, unplanned monkey wrenches that get in the way, how well does the team member perform?

This is a matter of managerial judgment.

Two assumptions:
1. Any task (or role) requires a certain capability.
2. The person assigned to the task or role has the appropriate capability.

The judgment is whether the person is committing full capability to the task (or role).

This is NOT a “matter of counting outputs, super credits for super outputs, or penalties for lateness or sub-standard quality.” * This is about bringing full capability to the completion of the task.

It is the job of the manager to observe and account for all the surrounding circumstances and make this most important judgment. And it is precisely this judgment that most managers avoid.

*Elliott Jaques, Requisite Organization, 1989.