Category Archives: Leadership

Accountability for Wrong Decisions

“You have talked about managerial systems and organizational structure,” I started. “Those are well-worn labels, but the devil is always in the details.”

Pablo nodded. “Yes, the detail of structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. The success of any organizational structure rests on its effectiveness to define two things – in this working relationship, what is the accountability and what is the authority?”

“But, isn’t it second-nature, that especially in a hierarchy, the manager has the authority and the team member is accountable to carry out the decisions of the manager?”

“Not so fast,” Pablo said slowly. “Each has the authority to make decisions within an appropriate span of discretion. And it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“But, if the team member, within an appropriate span of discretion, makes the wrong decision, how can you hold the manager accountable?” I asked.

“Because the manager selected the team member, trained the team member, assessed the team member and then delegated the decision to the team member. If the team member makes the wrong decision, that outcome is the accountability of the manager.” Pablo stopped to let that sink in.

“When we are clear about accountability, behavior follows,” Pablo continued. “When we accurately define the accountability, people know what to expect and they behave accordingly. If the team member is held to account for a wrong decision or underperformance, there begins a mistrust about whether the manager was clear in their instruction, whether the training was adequate, the right tools available, the circumstance not anticipated. If the manager is held to account for the team member’s wrong decision or underperformance, there begins a supportive relationship to ensure the training was adequate, the working conditions conducive, the selected project appropriate, within the team member’s capability.

“You see,” Pablo said, “the manager cannot allow the team member to fail. In a punitive context, that is why the manager often snatches back the authority for the decision and simply assigns the task. In a trusting context, the manager has to make sure all the variables around the team member are adequate and conducive to success. And, that includes the manager’s selection of that team member in the first place. The success of the organization starts with being clear about managerial accountability.”

The Delegation Paradox

“But, it seems to me, that accountability is already fixed,” I replied. “The manager makes the decisions and the team member carries it out. Isn’t that the pervasive understanding for everyone?”

“You might think that, but you would be mistaken,” Pablo ventured. “For a company to grow, it cannot be so. If the manager makes all the decisions, eventually, what happens to the speed of decision making?”

“Well, it begins to slow down,” I observed.

“Or stops, when the manager becomes overwhelmed with all the decisions. As the organization grows, there are too many decisions to be made by one person.”

“And?” I prompted.

“For the organization to grow, the manager has to delegate,” Pablo flatly stated.

“But, every manager already knows they have to delegate, happens all the time,” I said.

“No, every manager knows they have to delegate, and they think, what they have to delegate are task assignments. In the delegation of a task, the manager also has to delegate appropriate decision making along with the task.”

“But, shouldn’t the manager reserve the authority for the decisions to be made?” I wanted to know.

“Only, if the manager wants to slow things down, or bring things to a crashing halt,” Pablo chuckled. “Appropriate decision making has to be delegated along with the task assignment. Most managers, at the end of a delegation meeting, ask ‘Do you understand what to do?’ A more relevant question would be ‘As you work through this task, what decisions do you have to make?’ Every level of work has appropriate decision making.”

“Well, that should get some things off the manager’s plate,” I said.

“Not exactly,” Pablo had a hint of a smirk on his face. “You see, the manager is still accountable for the output of the team member. If the team member underperforms or fails, it is the manager who is accountable. And that changes everything.”

Fix Accountability

“All well and good,” I said. “If we want to build managerial systems based on something other than greed, status and power, where do we start?”

“All at once, and all over,” Pablo chuckled. “Look, the first place we start is by clearly defining the working relationships people have with each other. There are two types, vertical managerial relationships and horizontal cross-functional relationships. When we look at those two types of working relationships, we most often fail to define the accurate placement of accountability and exact scope of authority.”

“Accountability?” I prompted.

“All too often, we fix accountability one level of work too low in the organization, and it plays into the blame game,” Pablo explained. “Between the team member and the manager, it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“How so?”

“Simple,” Pablo said. “The manager selected the team member, trained the team member, provided the tools for the team member, selected the project for the team member, created the working environment for the team member. The manager controls all the variables around the team member, it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“But if the team member underperforms, doesn’t that point the finger at the team member?” I countered.

“See, you fell right into the blame game,” Pablo smiled. “The team member does have an accountability, and that is to show up to work each and every day, to bring their full potential, to exercise their best judgement, in short, to do their best. It is the manager accountable for the team member’s output. The first place to start is to fix clear accountability.”

Sense of Accomplishment

“If you want to change the behavior, change the context,” Pablo repeated. “How do I want my team members to show up for work? As the CEO, I have to create the environment that encourages the behavior I want.”

“For example?” I asked.

“Personal accomplishment,” Pablo said. “Let’s just take that one.”

“Okay, are you suggesting we walk around and hand out attaboys so people get a sense of personal accomplishment?”

“Sure, people need acknowledgement, but hollow acknowledgement does nothing for the human psyche. If you want people to have a sense of personal accomplishment, give them something that challenges their capability, challenges their skill set, gets them out of their comfort zone. And, I am not talking about some contrived exercise. If you want people to feel a sense of personal accomplishment, give them a real problem to solve.”

Change the Context

“And, to promote the social good for the team employed by my company,” Pablo said, “I have to believe in the good inside each person. I have to create managerial systems that support that belief.”

“What you say is counter to many managerial practices,” I said. “In my travels, I see compensation systems, bonus and incentive programs that rely on greed and competition over compensation. I see team members with a narrow focus only on the next promotion, hidden agendas, backdoor politics, even backstabbing. I see a general mistrust of authority inside the company.”

“Yes, often that is what you see,” Pablo replied. “And, it is through no fault of employees. They engage in behavior to survive inside the system in which they live. If we create a system that relies on greed, we will get greedy behavior. If the only way we acknowledge contribution is by status, if the only thing that feeds a person’s self concept is a promotion, then you will get politics based on power. If you want to change the behavior, change the context in which they live.”

The Obligation

“Look, it didn’t take long after I started my company,” Pablo continued, “that there were three things up to me. No one else in the company has the obligations that I have –

  • First, I have the obligation to provide for the success of the company. It is my baby. I created it, no one else has the passion for it that I have.
  • Soon after, as headcount increased, I realized that the success of the company rested on the social good of the team members employed by the company. Without them, the enterprise would stall, and eventually die.
  • I also had to look at the larger context. I have an obligation to support and strengthen free enterprise. It is the capitalist political system that creates individual economic independence against the seduction of a centralized controlling government.

Pablo looked me square in the eye. “I come from a foreign country,” he said. “I have seen the other side.”

The Accountability of the CEO

“You survived,” I said. “I mean, your company survived.”

“We did okay,” Pablo replied. “We were essential, so we never had to shut down. Had to change a few things in the physical layout, and we had some outbreaks. We did okay.”

“Most important lesson, for you, as the CEO?” I asked.

“The most important lesson is the security the company provided to everyone who works here,” he said.

“Security? This was hardly a time of security.”

“I think it is important to understand how deeply our company affects the lives of people who work here. It impacts not only their economic lives, but their social lives. It impacts their self-esteem, and what they achieve in life.

“I remember, a year ago, when COVID was least understood,” Pablo continued. “I announced in an all-company meeting, that every one of their jobs was secure. I was out on a bit of a limb, because, by a whim of government, we were essential. You see, I know every team member goes home each and every day with either a feeling of frustration, or a feeling of satisfaction, depending on how the day went. They either feel secure or insecure, as a result of the managerial systems we have in place. We either build trust and security or mistrust and insecurity. That’s my job.”

Important Connection

“What would be valuable for you to know about a team member, as a manager?” I asked.

“Well, what motivates them. What makes them want to come to work,” answered Nathan.

“There is a story about three men who were working together, each doing the same job. When asked about their work, each replied differently. The first said that he was breaking rock. The second said that he was constructing a building. The third said that he and his colleagues were building a school in their community so their children would have a place to learn to read.”

I watched Nathan’s eyes absorb the story. Finally he spoke.

“I suppose it would be valuable to know what is important to each of my team members.”

“Why would that be valuable to know?”

“I have to find the connection,” Nathan started, “I have to find the connection between what is important to them and their work.”

“And if you can find the connection?”

“Then we are in. The sky turns blue, the flowers bloom and the birds sing.”

“And if you cannot find the connection?”

“Then the work will be repetitious, the work will be like breaking rock.”

“And?”

“And, so, I have to keep searching to make the connection.” The conversation became quiet. Nathan was searching, perhaps thinking about his own connection.

Decide What is Necessary

“The forecast was a bit optimistic,” Miguel observed. “We went back and looked at our sales activity. Not our sales results, because those were dismal. I gotta tell you, my guys were pounding the shoe leather. It’s funny. The same salespeople with the same customers, but not closing sales like they did this month last year.”

“Working harder isn’t working anymore?” I asked.

“No, I think my guys are going to have to work differently, not harder,” Miguel replied.

“And who will decide what they do differently?”

“What do you mean?”

“Whose job is it, to decide what is necessary? How to go to market? To make the efforts of your salespeople more productive?”

Miguel’s face slowly revealed a mild panic. He stared straight ahead. “It’s me.”

“It’s time,” I nodded. “It is the job of the manager to take the resources of the company and make them productive. It is only managers who make those resources productive. As a manager in this company, you are the only one who can make your sales team productive. The job of management is more important than ever. The decisions you make in the next twelve months will determine whether your company will survive.”

Identify Management Potential

Succession is not just when the CEO decides to retire to Florida. Succession happens all the time, all over the organization. Technicians become team leaders, team leaders become supervisors, supervisors become managers and managers become executive managers.

And, we are all getting older. How old will you be in five years? It’s a simple math problem, but the answer can be surprising.

We look for those team members who have matured and are ready to step up. Or do we? Most times, we wait until there is an open position and we scramble.

Often, we put together a leadership program to teach identified management skills. Should it be a matter of teaching management skills, or rather, putting people in position to identify their management potential.

I did not say give them a promotion, a raise or the corner office, because if you did that, and they failed, you would have a chocolate mess on your hands. You test people with project work.