Category Archives: Accountability

What Do You Do Well?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I have a performance review with a top performer on my team. In addition to reviewing his past 3 months results, I am trying to prepare some discussion topics that are geared towards 1) further developing his strengths and 2) finding ways to challenge him so he does not get bored.

Response:

I think you just defined the discussion topics.

Developing strengths can usually be identified with the following questions.

  • What is it that you believe you do well?
  • If I was standing as an observer, what would I see in you as a strength?
  • How do you gain the greatest leverage from your strengths?
  • How do you nurture your strengths?
  • How can I, as your manager, nurture those strengths?

Finding ways to challenge the team member is most easily done through delegation. Most people believe delegation is a time management tool, but it is also your most powerful people-development tool. Ask these questions.

  • Looking forward, what responsibility would challenge and test your abilities?
  • If we were to assign that responsibility to you, what safeguards could we put in place to make it a learning experience rather than a trial by fire?

When you think about retaining your top performers, these are the most important conversations.

Who Will Be Accountable?

We sat around the table discussing the new team member scheduled to show up for work the next morning.

“Who’s she going to report to?” came the question from Raphael.

“What do you mean report to?” I asked.

“Well, the new person has to report to someone,” Raphael replied.

“When, you say report, you mean report for duty? If that is the case, she can report to reception and reception can properly note the new team member has reported (for duty).”

“No, I mean the new person has to have a manager to report to,” Raphael pushed back.

“So, you think you are a manager so people can report to you?” I pressed.

“I suppose so, that’s what managers do, have people report to them.”

“Let me ask a question. Who around this table will be accountable for the output of this new team member?”

“Accountable, what’s accountability got to do with it?” Raphael looked slightly annoyed.

“If a ship runs aground at night, because the night watchman falls asleep, who do we fire?” I asked.

Raphael had to stop, briefly, “Well, we fire the captain.”

“Oh, really,” I smiled. “Why?”

“Why? The captain is accountable for whatever happens on the ship,” Raphael knew the answer, but did not like the direction of the conversation.

“So, if the manager is accountable for the output of the team, the question is not who this new team member will report to, but which manager around this table will be accountable for this new team member’s output.”

Effective Or Not?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was fortunate enough to attend one of your in-person sessions. I have a specific supervisor not able to effectively complete some parts in her role description, so we followed your assessment exercise. She and I had pretty similar views and she saw that the higher levels of work was where she was struggling. She has asked for 60 days to make some improvements. In your experience have you found that improvements are possible, and that people are able to stretch to perform higher level functions?

Response:
First, I congratulate you on taking the time to have this difficult conversation with your team member. A sixty day period is certainly a reasonable request, however, it’s not hands-off. I would recommend a weekly thirty-minute coaching session between the two of you. You have already identified the areas of struggle, that’s your agenda (written agenda). Pick a Friday or a Monday.

Specifically, your discussion should revolve around the work. I define work as problem solving and decision making. Your questions should be “what decisions were a challenge this week?” and “what problems were a challenge this week?” Pay close attention to how your team member responds.

Your question is centered around the issue of capability. Is your team member capable of making the decisions and solving the problems embedded in the work? Your discussions about the struggle will give you clarity. Over a six-week period, you should have six clear data points that will reveal a pattern. Then the decision is pretty simple – effective? or not?

Practiced, Grooved Behavior

“But, I thought my team was competent. They have worked under this kind of pressure, solved these kinds of problems before,” Marion reported.

“So, what do you think is the problem?” I asked.

“I know we spent a lot of time working from home over the past couple of months. And, now we are back in the office most of the time. Things are different. People stick to their cubicles, practice social distance. It’s like Men-in-Black erased the memories of how well they used to work together.”

“What’s missing now, that was there before?”

“They seem out of practice. It’s not like they are screwing everything up, but they used to be tight. Now, every hiccup creates a little team stumble.”

“Marion, you say they are out of practice. What have they been practicing?”

She chuckled. “They have practiced being apart, practiced being disconnected, working alone, not talking to each other.”

“We are always in practice,” I said. “Just sometimes we practice stuff that’s counter-productive to where we want to go. We get good at what we practice. If we practice being lazy, we get good at being lazy. If we practice enough, it becomes a habit. Don’t practice things you don’t want to get good at.”

Pretending

“I’ve tried everything I know to get Perry to improve,” Susan lamented.

“Everything?” I asked.

“I really like Perry, I just wish he could be more effective,” she said, ignoring my question. “In fact, everybody likes Perry. But, at the same time, he constantly disappoints.”

“When he disappoints, what is the impact that has on the project? What is the impact it has on the team?”

Susan nodded. “Yep, everyone takes a beat, they sigh, they cover up. The project comes in late, but nobody wants to complain about Perry.”

“And, what if you do nothing to intervene. What will happen in a week, another month, a year?”

“People will put up with him for a while longer, but in a month, it might impact morale. In a year, I could lose someone else on the team, someone tired of covering for Perry.”

“What’s stopping you from doing something now?”

“Hope,” Susan explained, thinking I would agree that there was some hope for Perry.

“Susan. What are you pretending not to know?”

Not Warm and Fuzzy

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been reading a couple of books on Servant Leadership. It makes sense, but seems kind of warm and fuzzy. I am not necessarily a warm and fuzzy person.

Response:
So, let’s shift your viewpoint of Servant Leadership from a warm and fuzzy concept to getting some work done. If you read this blog, you know I define work as problem solving and decision making. In your role, as a manager, you have a team to perform some organizational function (marketing, sales, account management, ops, quality control, research & development, HR, accounting). In the work of your team, they have appropriate problem solving and decision making. When things are stable, your team can manage all the routine problem solving and decision making.

And, when things change, and the level of decision making creeps up, sometimes they struggle. And, that is where you come in, as the manager. It is your role to bring value to your team’s group and individual problem solving. You do not do this by telling people what to do, you do this primarily with questions.

So, the concept of Servant Leadership has little to do with warm and fuzzy, everything to do with decision making and problem solving.

The Bloated Organization

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I grew up, as a manager in a small company. I just received an offer, which I accepted at a large company with over a thousand employees. As I look around, and I know this is a corporate structure, I feel a little lost. There are managers of this and that, directors, senior levels, junior levels. I got a copy of the org chart, looks like there are about eleven levels between the clerical team and the CEO. I have only been here for two weeks, but it looks like chaos. Even the meetings I attend seem misdirected. There is a formal agenda that gets blown through quickly, then there is a discussion (argument) that goes until the end of the meeting (always ends on time). Did I make a mistake? Should I have stayed at my old company? (Unfortunately, too late, they already filled my old position.)

Response:
At least they end their meetings on time.

I often get a call from a company like this, complaining of two things. They think they have a communication crisis or a personality conflict between two people. The company wants to know if I can arrive, do some personality profiling and conduct a communication seminar. Your description gives me better clues to what is really going on.

In most cases, I do not believe in communication breakdowns or personality conflicts. I believe there is a structural issue. Structure, organizational structure, is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. On paper, it looks like a chart, in real life, a messy chart.

The most important definition in working relationships is two related concepts, accountability and authority, one goes with the other. To be accountable for an output, I must have the authority to make a decision or solve a problem in the way I would have it solved. If I have the authority to make such a decision, I must also have the accountability that comes with it.

This basis for organizational structure, accountability and authority, also provides guidance for the number of management levels required. Without much more due diligence, my intuition tells me this organization needs no more than five levels, meaning it needs no more than five levels of accountability.

Organizations, like the one you described, get bloated because there is no framework for decision making or problem solving. Supervisors get promoted to manager because someone needed a raise and got a title instead. Or, someone got a raise and needed a title to go with it. Or, an underperforming team member needed more supervision, so they got a special manager to watch over them (instead of a demotion or termination). Organizations get bloated for all kinds of reasons. And, that bloating costs the company in decision friction and problem solving throughput.

But, you are in a situation you are stuck with, at least for now. And you are likely a junior manager with lots of accountability and little authority. Here is your first baby step. Get clear with your manager, in each key area of your role, what is the specific output and how often will that be reviewed. For each accountability, what is the authority you have to make a decision or solve a problem in the way you would have it solved. That will keep you from getting fired in the first 60 days.

Check back with me then and tell me what more you have learned.

That Feeling in Your Stomach

Cheryl was waiting in the conference room when I arrived. I could see that her meeting had some unexpected twists.

“I felt like I had been fed to the wolves,” she started. “You were right, they said the problems with the finished goods were my problems. They said that I was responsible for the 2 percent increase in failure rate.”

I nodded. “So, how did your stomach feel?”

Cheryl looked genuinely pissed, but maintained her composure. “It was upside down. You could have cut the tension with a knife.”

“That’s good,” I said. “When your stomach is upside down, you are almost always talking about a real issue that needs to be out on the table.” Cheryl may have been looking for sympathy. “So, what did you say?”

“I practiced that stupid speech we talked about, so that is what I said. I told them that I needed their help. It felt strange. I didn’t like it. I felt like I was leaving my reputation totally in their hands. I felt like I was losing control.”

“And how did they respond?” I asked. “Did they argue with you?”

“Well, no,” Cheryl replied. “They were mostly silent. Then Hector pulled one of the parts from the reject pile. He pointed out a burr that was in the same place on every part. Sammy spoke up and said they had run short on that same part the week before. Get this. Because they were short, they used the rejected parts to finish the batch.

“They said they would have asked me what to do, but that I had been yelling at them, so they all kept quiet.” Cheryl stopped.

“It was a tough session?”

“It seems I was the problem. Yes, it was a tough session.”

Bring Value to Decision Making

“So, you believe, when your manager left you to solve the problem, simply by asking you questions, that brought value to your thinking. Are you sure your manager wasn’t just being lazy, maybe indecisive herself?” I asked.

“Oh, no. Quite the contrary,” Kim replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely, my manager was clear about decision making. We even had three meetings together just to make a list of all the decisions that needed to be made in our department. Then we grouped the decisions according to who had the authority. Here is the list –

  • Decisions I could make, and didn’t even have to tell my manager.
  • Decisions I could make, but had to tell my manager, after the decision was made.
  • Decisions I could make, but had to tell my manager, before the decision was made.
  • Decisions I had to discuss with my manager, but the decision was still mine to make.
  • Decisions I had to discuss with my manager, but the decision was my manager’s.
  • Decisions my manager would make without discussion.

So, my manager was clear about decision making authority in our working relationship.”

Bring Value to Problem Solving

“What were the specific things your manager did that brought value to your problem solving and decision making?” I repeated. “We have already established that it is not barking orders, bossing you around or yelling at you when you screwed up.”

Kim had to think. She could easily tell me all the bad experience with previous managers, but, thinking about positive experience was much more difficult.

“There was this one time,” she started, “where I was working on a problem and I had no idea what to do next. After an hour thinking about it, I finally went to my manager, who I knew had all the answers. I expected to have the best solution right away, so I could get on with my job.”

“Apparently, that’s not what happened.” I said.

“Not at all. My manager asked me to describe the problem, asked me what I thought was causing the problem.”

“Sounds reasonable,” I agreed. “Your manager couldn’t give you the solution without understanding the problem.”

“Then, she asked me what the alternatives might be. She said I was closest to the problem, I probably had an idea how we might be able to solve the problem.”

“You said you had already been thinking about it for an hour and couldn’t come up with anything.”

“Yes, but that is because I was trying to come up with the perfect solution. My manager wanted a bunch of alternatives even if they weren’t perfect.”

“And?”

“Since I wasn’t looking for the perfect solution, I had four or five things that might work or might not work.”

“So?”

“So, my manager asked me, of all those alternatives, which had the best chance? Actually, I think they all would have failed, but if I put solution number two with solution number four, then it might work. So, she told me to go and try it, so I did and it worked.”

“So, your manager did not give you the answer. Didn’t tell you what to do, didn’t boss you around or yell at you?”

“Nope. Just brought value to my problem solving by asking questions.”