Category Archives: Accountability

But, We Have a Company to Run

“But, we have an airline to run,” Samuel continued to object. “As chairman of the board, it is my primary responsibility to make sure we have the right person at the helm. It is not my responsibility to micro-manage you, meddle in the way you run things. But, the way you run things makes me wonder if we have the right person at the helm.”

“Look, Sam,” Catherine replied, “we can squeeze the legroom, rearrange the seating on the planes. We can start charging for checked baggage. We can add a service fee if someone wants a soda. But that is not our problem.”

Catherine looked intently at Sam, sitting at the head of the boardroom. In the periphery, she could see the logos of the other companies in the portfolio. Outbound Air was the company in trouble and she had been selected to turn it profitable. She continued.

“Sam, we have close to a thousand employees now. They work 40 hours per week. Economically, they depend on us. Our compensation system and job opportunities directly impact how they live, now, next week and next year. Their self-esteem, what they achieve in life, in large part, depends on the role they play for us. How we set expectations, how we define their working relationships, how we evaluate their effectiveness, all, have direct impact on their contribution. They come home at night, frustrated or satisfied based on how things went that day. The way we design the environment of their work has way more impact on our bottom line than any fees we may charge for luggage.”

The saga of Outbound Air continues. Find out how Catherine got here.

How to Predict a Departure

“Who is responsible for the team?” I asked. “Who is responsible for the performance of the team, and all the things that affect performance?”

Melanie looked around her office, as if someone was going to appear.

I continued. “If it’s not you, as the department manager, if it’s not you, then who?”

Melanie’s eyes stopped skirting the room. No hero appeared. She floated her excuse, “But how am I responsible that one of my team members quit?”

“That’s a very good question. How are you, as the manager, responsible that one of your team members quit?”

“What, am I supposed to be clairvoyant?” Melanie snapped.

“That would be helpful,” I nodded. “But let’s say you don’t have supernatural powers. How could you, as the manager, know enough about your team, to have predicted this departure?”

Who Sets the Context of Work?

“But, you are still here. What’s in it for you? What keeps you here?” I asked.

Riley had to think. Turnover on his team was high. Morale was in the dumps. He described his team as lifeless. “I guess I just don’t feel the same way they do. I know the work is hard. I know we have to pay attention. I know the work doesn’t stop at 5 o’clock. But for some reason, for me, it’s important to be here.”

“Why do you think it’s important for you and not so important for your team? At the end of the day, you are all working on the same projects.”

“Well, my manager and I talk about the work,” he explained. “We talk about the results of the what we do, as a company. I feel that I make a contribution, as a manager. What I do is important. In spite of how hard it is, it’s important.”

“You feel that way, because you and your manager talk about the work, the importance of the work? Have you ever talked about the work with your team?” I asked.

“Yeah, but, it’s different with them. I mean, they don’t get the whole picture. They don’t seem to understand it the same way that I do. For them, it’s just a job.”

“So, the context of their work, is that it’s just a job? Who is accountable for creating that context?”

They Don’t Get Yelled At

“How long has your crew been together?” I asked.

“Humph,” Riley snorted. “A couple of people have been here over a year, but most, just a few months. Lots of turnover.”

“And what is the cost of that turnover?”

“Expensive. It’s not that the work we do is that complicated, but there are so many details to keep track of that it takes a while to get your arms around everything. And we don’t do much formal training, more like shadowing other people on the team who have been here. Seems like just when we get someone trained up, they quit.”

“So, what’s in it, the job, I mean, for someone who sticks with it, pays attention to detail, sniffs out problems before they mushroom?”

Riley was quiet. “They don’t get yelled at,” he replied.

The Reactor Doesn’t Melt Down and Nobody Dies

“I don’t know why my team is behaving this way,” Riley complained. “I know we drive our people hard, and I know we expect a lot from them, but they knew that when they signed up for the job. We are a very intense organization.”

“How are they behaving?” I wanted to know.

“You can see them dragging into a meeting. Smiles are few and far between. It’s like they need a vacation really bad. Bordering on burn-out. I know we expect them to be responsive on their smart-phones, even after hours, but we are in the service business. We don’t know when our customers are going to call, or some project is going to go sideways.”

“So, in addition to working a normal day-shift, they are on-call after hours?”

Riley nodded. “Yes, but they get on-call pay, even if nothing happens. And we rotate that, so it’s not like it’s every day.”

“So, what is causing the fatigue,” I asked.

“I don’t know. It’s just that we are intense. If we relax, details get missed. And, missed details can turn into real problems. We have to keep our guard up.”

“And, if you keep your guard up and no details are missed, what happens?”

Riley had to stop and think. “Nothing special. Things go smooth, no one panics, but it’s not like we win the Super Bowl.”

“When your team does a really good job, it’s nothing special. So, who appreciates it, when they do a really good job?”

“No one really,” Riley admitted. “A really good job just means that no one is upset, mostly the customer.”

“Kind of like running a nuclear power plant,” I said. “If we do our job well, everyone gets electricity, the reactor doesn’t melt down and nobody dies.”

Sure Fire Participation

“Yes, but if people are afraid to participate, afraid to contribute their ideas in a meeting, how do you deal with that?” Reggie asked.

“Do your team members have ideas?” I responded.

“Well, yes, some sort of an ideas.”

“So, the problem is, to get the idea out of their head, with zero possibility that it might be rejected by the group? How would you do that?” I stared at Reggie while I reached over and pulled a pen out of my pocket and set it on the table.

“Get them to write their idea down?” Reggie guessed. I nodded. “But still, how do you get them to share their ideas with each other, with the group?”

“It’s too late, the idea is already out of their head. By the way, what happens to the quality of any idea as it moves from the mind to a piece of paper?”

“Well, it improves.”

“So, now, each person owns a much improved idea on a piece of paper in front of them. Divide the group into teams of two or three and have them share their idea with that small group. I guarantee, there will be no hesitation in that small group.

“The next step is to have the small groups report their ideas to the large group. The quality of ideas will be very high and everyone will have participated. Remember, the purpose of this meeting was simply to get your people discussing ideas with each other.”

Everyone Contributes, No One is Wrong

“How could you create an environment of trust, where, no matter the contribution, it was accepted and valued?” I repeated.

Reggie was stumped, at least for the moment. I think it was more that he didn’t think this kind of conversation was possible with his team.

“Reggie, what if you opened the meeting with something like this, a Good News exercise? Go around the room and have each person describe something good that had happened to them in the past week, business or personal.”

Reggie began to stare at the right hand corner of the ceiling, making a picture in his mind.

I broke his concentration. “What do you accomplish with an exercise like that?” I asked.

Reggie’s head began to slowly nod, then he spoke. “Okay, first everybody participates. Second, no one can be wrong.”

“Exactly, that’s where we start.”

Getting the Team to Take Accountability

“So, Reggie, here is my challenge to you. In what way can you get your managers to talk about those behaviors instead of you?”

“But I’m the manager,” Reggie protested. “I thought I was the one to set the direction. I thought I was the one to give the marching orders. I thought it was my responsibility to tell them what to do. It’s my responsibility to manage them.”

“Reggie, people don’t want to be managed. People want to be lead. It is your responsibility to set the direction, but from there, your role becomes leadership. How do you get people to think? How do you get people to consider different alternatives? How do you get people talking?”

Reggie was quick to respond, “That’s easy. You just ask them questions. But I have tried that before and most times, I don’t get any response.”

“And why don’t you get a response. What’s the problem? What’s going on the mind of your team member?”

“Well,” Reggie started, “sometimes they just don’t have anything to say, and sometimes they are afraid to say anything.”

“Where does that fear come from?” I continued.

Reggie stopped. “I guess they don’t want to be wrong.”

“How could you change that? How could you create an environment of trust, where no matter the contribution, it was accepted and valued?”

First, Define the Behavior

“So, you tell me. What could we do differently to get the behaviors we want that drive the results that we want?” Reggie insisted.

“You already have the first two steps,” I began. “The first thing you did was define the purpose for the program. You said the purpose to keep your managers focused on the company’s goals and to engage in behaviors to create those results.” Reggie nodded his head in agreement.

“Your second step was to communicate those behaviors you identified to drive the results you wanted, right? You did that in your individual KRA meetings.” Reggie continued to nod his head.

“So, if you didn’t have the bonus program, in two cases you would have achieved the results you wanted anyway, three of your managers would not have spent counterproductive time trying to game your gross margin system, and your other two more of your managers would not have become discouraged halfway through the quarter?”

“Okay, I’m with you,” Reggie interrupted. “But, what can I do differently, to make sure I get the behaviors I want?”

“Every week, you sat down with each manager and reviewed the behaviors you wanted, right? And each week, each manager promised to try very hard to do what you talked about, yes?”


“So, stop talking about it. You stop talking about those behaviors.” Reggie looked puzzled. I continued, “The wrong person is doing all the talking. You stop talking. Your management team need to be talking about this stuff, not you. The first thing that needs to change is who is doing the talking.

“So, Reggie, here is my challenge to you. In what way can you get your management team to talk about those behaviors instead of you?”

Does Bonus Drive Performance?

“So, tell me Reggie, what exactly were you trying to accomplish with the bonus system? Because that is where we have start our discussion. What was the purpose?” I asked.

“The purpose, well, you know. I want my managers to stay focused, to have the company’s best interest at heart, to take that one more phone call before going home,” Reggie replied.

“And how did you communicate this to each of your managers?”

“Well, once a year, we sit down and look at their job. We break it down into Key Result Areas, then create a goal in each area, for the year. We attach dollars to each of the goals, to be paid quarterly. We are doing it just the way our consultant told us to do it.”

“And what are the results?”

“It’s all over the board. Two managers made most of their KRAs, but I don’t think they did anything special, it just happened. Three other managers did some suspect things to manipulate the numbers into the last quarter, so they got their bonus, but, they didn’t really achieve the goal, it just looked like it. And two other managers, well, they missed their targets, in fact, they quit trying about halfway through the quarter.” Reggie stopped. He didn’t like his own expert opinion on this.

“So, by your assessment, the bonus program achieved results in two cases, but you figure those results would have occurred with or without a bonus program. And in five other cases, the bonus program created manipulation or became a disincentive to performance,” I restated.

“Yes, that’s it. So, you tell me. What could we do differently to get the behaviors we want that drive the results that we want?”