Category Archives: Accountability

The Realization of a Manager

“But, what if one of my team members doesn’t show up?” Sheri defended. “How can I be held accountable for that?”

“You are not accountable for the team member not showing up,” I replied. “But you are accountable for the output of the team who is now short one team member. I hold you accountable for having back up, cross trained team members to pick up the slack. I hold you accountable for knowing your team well enough to anticipate who is not going to show up, and having an alternate plan in that event.”

Sheri was quiet. While she was backpedaling, she knew she was still on the hook.

“Being accountable for the output of the team changes everything,” I continued. “Once you realize that accountability, your behavior changes.

  • You have to know your team members
  • You have to provide clear expectations within the team’s capability to deliver
  • You have to prepare your team to handle the inevitable problems that will come up
  • Your team has to practice to become fluent in handling those problems
  • You have to provide context for the work that your team will be a part of
  • You have to inspect the output to make sure it meets quality standards within time limits

This is all about people, this is all about your team. And, as the manager, you are accountable for their output.”
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The Team Will Never Be Much Better Than the Leader

“So, I have the team I deserve,” Sheri nodded.

“Yes,” I agreed. “And understand the team you have, will never be much better than you. If you want the team to get better, who has to get better first?”

Sheri was still nodding in agreement, but while her head was moving, her brain was pushing back. She still wanted to lay the blame on her team. “Okay, the team did not do what they were supposed to do, but you seem to say that it is my fault.”

“Fault, schmaltz,” I chuckled. “I don’t care whose fault it is. But, I do hold you accountable for the output of the team. All crumbs, always, lead to the manager. As the manager, you control all the resources for the team. You control the work instructions, you pick the team, you pick the number of people on the team. You pick the roles for people to play, you design the workflow. I hold the team member accountable for showing up and doing their best, but I hold the manager accountable for the output.”
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Is This the Team You Built? (It is.)

“But, I deserve better,” Sheri protested. “I work so hard, as a manager, I deserve higher performance from my team.”

“You probably do deserve better,” I replied. “Where does that higher performance start? Does it start with you?”

“What do you mean?” Sheri pushed back.

“Your team sounds just like you do. They work so hard, for mediocre results. They deserve better for their efforts.”

Sheri got quiet.

“If I want to know the kind of organization I deserve, I should look at the one I have. Some of this team, I inherited, some of this team I built. But, it’s my team. It’s the team I deserve.”
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Intentions and Behavior

“I don’t understand,” Sheri shook her head. “The team said they were committed to this project. They understood everything I presented at the meeting. They didn’t have any questions. I did not sense any push-back.”

“And what happened?” I asked.

“Nothing. We discussed changes they were going to make in the work process. We talked about organizing things differently. But nothing happened,” she reported.

“So, what did you learn, as a manager of this team?”

Sheri paused for a short time. Processing. “If someone says they want to get better at something, understand that their words are only intentions. Watch how they practice. Listen to the words that people say, but watch what they do. It’s the behavior that makes the difference.”
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You Designed the System

“I have so many things going on, seven projects in the air, but the worst part is, people just seem to interrupt me, all the time,” Rosalee explained. “They don’t realize how hard it is to get anything done, when every ten minutes, I have to drop everything to answer a question.”

“Who is they?” I asked.

“Well, it’s my own team members, and it’s my manager, and my manager’s manager.”

“Sounds like you are pretty important around here,” I observed.

“I do have a lot of experience, and my projects are very complicated. Lots of moving parts and shifting deadlines,” she replied.

“So, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I tried shutting my door, so they text me. I tried hiding in another office, they found me. I tried coming in to work early and staying late, but that turned into 14 hour days,” Rosalee shook her head.

“Why do you think everyone depends on you, so much?” I prompted.

“They are smart people, but sometimes I think they are lazy. They don’t have to make a decision using their own judgement when they can just ask me.”

“And if you refuse to help?”

“I can’t do that. Decisions wouldn’t get made and production would slow down,” she protested.

“So, the system that interrupts you, is a system that you designed?”

How Many People Can One Person Manage?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
How many people can a person effectively manage?

Response:
This is a great question.  As I travel around North America, I talk to hundreds of managers each year, there is always this question, stated in different ways.

  • How many people can one person effectively manage?
  • What is the appropriate span of control?
  • When does a manager get spread too thin?

To answer this question, we need to reframe the assumption.  It is not a matter of management or control, it is a matter of accountability.  Here is my reframed question -

  • How many people can one manager be accountable for?

This shifts our understanding of the role and helps us answer the question.  The magic maximum number is “about” 70.  But it depends.  It depends on the variability of the work.  If the work is very repetitive and work instructions seldom change, one manager can be accountable for a fairly large group.  If however, if the work changes from day to day, hour to hour, where work instructions must be adapted constantly from a set of guidelines, that number may drop to four.

Let’s take a military example.  One drill sergeant, in basic training, where work instructions are repetitive, may be accountable for the work output of a high number of raw recruits.  On the other hand, in a Navy Seal team, with specialized missions requiring high levels of judgment which may change minute to minute, one team leader may only be effectively accountable for five or six team members.

What is the level of work on your team, what is its variability, how much judgment is required related to work instructions, what is the risk of underperformance?  Those are the questions you have to answer first.

Finger Pointing Between Functional Departments

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
Any advice as to how to align all members from multiple cross-functional departments into one purpose; create an efficient, streamlined process that assures that communication, documentation and actual product flow is executed efficiently?  We are specifically a design firm, but our revenue comes from the products manufactured from our exclusive designs.  So, we have mature internal systems in each department, but the transitions of work flow from one department to the other sometimes break down, so there are logjams, finger-pointing and sometimes, general chaos.

Response:
Much of the answer is in your question.  Let me pick out your key words.

  • Purpose
  • Efficiency
  • Flow

Let me add three more.

  • Balance and optimization
  • Authority
  • Accountability

What you have described is the classic transition from Stratum III systems to Stratum IV system integration.  It sounds like you have done an adequate job of creating multiple internal systems, that are efficient in each of your workflow disciplines.  It is the integration of these systems that is giving you fits.  Let me take a stab at listing some typical systems in this flow.

  • Market research system
  • Design system
  • Prototyping system
  • Approval system
  • Production system
  • Finished goods inventory system
  • Marketing system
  • Distribution and logistics system

Each of your internal systems likely works well within itself, but now you are experiencing balance problems between your internal systems.  It is not sufficient to have a great design system and a great production system.  If you have a weak prototyping system, your designs will get stuck on paper and never make it to production.  You may have a great marketing system that creates consumer demand, but if you have a weak finished goods inventory system, your products will never find their way to distribution.  Your weak systems will be doing their best and your strong systems will be finger-pointing.

So, that’s the problem.  What is the solution?  This is a Stratum IV issue, where someone needs to have end-to-end accountability.  Some companies attempt to solve this problem by creating a role called product manager.  The product manager would be accountable for tracking each step, likely creating a Gant chart of product progress from one function to another.  While this role gathers necessary data about the status of a single product in the chain, it still might only document that the product is stuck.

That is why this is a Stratum IV issue, one of balance and integration.  The S-IV manager (likely a VP) would be accountable for examining each system for capacity and handoff.  This is not looking internally at the mechanics of a single system, but the interaction of each reinforcing system to each balancing system.  It is not a matter of having one or two high performing functions, but having all functions able to keep up with each other, optimized for capacity.  No single system manager will have the authority, nor likely the capability, to do this work.

And somewhere in this integrated whole system, there will be a constraint.  There will be some limitation in a single system which will drive the cadence of all the systems working together.  The hat trick is identifying and placing that constraint strategically.  Typically, this strategic constraint will be an expensive resource, too expensive to duplicate (which would double the capacity of that system).  The identification, selection and placement of the strategic constraint, and then subordination of all other systems to the strategic constraint is the work of the S-IV manager.

With this integrated system design, then the work of documentation, handoffs, communication and feedback loops begins.  Most companies get this backward and have a communication seminar without balancing the systems for total throughput.  You can imagine that this communication seminar makes everyone feel good, but nothing changes in throughput, the finger-pointing continues.

For more reading, start with Eli Goldratt’s The Goal and Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline.

Expectations as Clear as Mud

“Most of the time, your team members will do exactly what is expected of them, if they could just figure out, what that is,” I explained.  “When you observe underperformance, look for the cause.  It is usually in one of these five areas.”

  • Make the expectation (of output) clear.
  • Ensure the availability of required resources.
  • Validate the required skills and sufficient practice for the task.
  • Match the persons capability with the capability required for the task (measured in time span).
  • Ensure the person places a high value on the work (interest or passion for the work).
  • Ensure the person engages in reasonable behaviors required to complete the task.

“But I told my assistant that I needed the report ASAP,” Carolyn objected.  “When I went to find out the status, I found out the report had not even been started.”

“Let’s work through the list.  The expectations were clear to you, but were they clear to the team member?  What does ASAP mean?  You needed the report for the meeting on Friday, so ASAP could mean – as soon as possible before Friday.

“When I look at expectations, clarity of expectations, I think QQTR.  Quantity-Quality-Time-Resources.  If I miss any of these elements, then the expectation is not clear.”

  • What is the quantity of the output?
  • What is the quality standard (so I know what to count and what not to count)?
  • What is the time deadline, specifically, date and time?
  • What resources are available, or not available?

QQTR

How to Hold Someone Accountable

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
I very much enjoy your blog and always find improvement opportunities within your messages.  As you point out rather frequently, holding the right people accoutable is crucial.  In that regard, I would like to ask, what different ways have you found effective in “holding people accountable” beyond expressing your dissatisfaction with their performance, formal performance improvement requirments (PIP)  or replacing them?  I would like to know what tools/techniques you recommend and believe most effective.

Response:
Here is my short list -

  • Raising my voice.
  • Repeated criticism.
  • Frequent complaining.
  • Public flogging.

The person who believes these methods effective is someone who has no children.  None of these work.  I spent several hours with one of my executive groups on this very issue and at the end of the day, here was our conclusion.  The only person who can truly hold me accountable is me.  All other forms of harassment are largely ineffective.  Self-accountability is the only path.

Yet, we still say that we have to hold someone accountable.  My definition of a manager is that person held accountable for the output of their team.  So I say it, too.

So, here’s a better list of conditions required for self-accountability.

  • Make the expectation (of output) clear.
  • Ensure the availability of required resources.
  • Validate the required skills and sufficient practice for the task.
  • Match the persons capability with the capability required for the task (measured in time span).
  • Ensure the person places a high value on the work (interest or passion for the work).
  • Ensure the person engages in reasonable behaviors required to complete the task.

If we still observe underperformance or misbehavior, we have to make a judgment as to the cause.  Then we have to make a judgment if this cause can be corrected.

The Role of the Manager’s Manager

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question - 
I have appointed a new manager to my team, so I am his manager.  I thought he would pick things up quicker, but he seems to be floundering.  I think he will make over time, but I wanted to know if I should send him to training, get him a book on management?

Response -
If you think this new manager will make it, over time, just needs a sprinkling of managerial pixie dust, then you will hate this response.  The most potent step you can take is for you, as his manager, to get directly involved.

Certainly, you could offload him into a leadership program, there are many good ones around.  You could purchase a management book for him to read, but both will pale in comparison to the direct influence you can have, as his manager.

Every employee is entitled to have an effective manager with the capability to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.  Your job, as his manager, is to bring that value.  Easy to say, hard to do.

And just to make sure I have your attention.  It is you as his manager, that I hold accountable for his output in the role.  You selected him, you on-boarded him, you control the environment he works in.  You are in control of his training.  You are in the position of coach.  You are the manager accountable for his output.