As a consultant who frequently helps clients implement new initiatives, I wish I had a dime for every time I heard client employees say “I like what you are trying to implement, but that will never work here” or “when you leave, everything will go back to the way it was before you got here.” Why is this? Why do employees lack confidence in new initiatives being sustained when consultants leave? The answer is the lack of accountability, and a system for it. Far too many business leaders hope that implementing a good process will drive their people to operate efficiently, but without a system of accountability, the very best processes are destined to lack sustainability.
As a former officer in the United States Marine Corps, our leadership training curriculum at The Basic School defined accountability as: “The reckoning, wherein a leader answers for their actions and accepts the consequences, good or bad. Accountability is the very cornerstone of leadership. Accountability establishes reasons, motives and importance for actions in the eyes of supervisors as well as subordinates. Accountability is the final act in the establishment of one’s credibility.” Credibility, a key word, and the main reason why we hear employees call new initiatives and processes “the flavor of the month.” An employee’s faith in a new process and/or initiative is a reflection of leadership’s credibility and ability to hold the organization accountable.
Too often accountability is confused for disciplinary action. They are not the same. Disciplinary action is the last action that should be taken after attempts at accountability have proven to be in-effective. Leaders too often use accountability as a cliché or punch line, but shy away from it when the time arrives to act on it. Some leaders fear not being liked over holding reports accountable. I have seen many client leaders hold meetings, and address issues by addressing the masses, not addressing the individual and the issue on a one-on-one basis. They state their displeasure to the group, but never address the person and incident. This sends a bad message to employees. Employees know who you are talking about and the situation you are referring to. They also see that leadership is afraid to address the issues head on. This makes a statement about a leader’s credibility, and a system of accountability is needed.
To implement a system of accountability you need to start by looking at the elements of a system of accountability. Leaders of an organization should sit down and take the time to analyze their leadership style and their organization based on these five elements:
1. Efficient and effective chain of command
2. Effective communication
3. Follow up (inspect what you expect)
4. A describable and fair system of rewards and consequences
As leaders think of these elements they should ask themselves: Do these elements exist? Are they utilized or practiced? How effective are they? and what course of action needs to be taken?
An efficient and effective chain of command (organizational structure) provides a definitive structure for employees to be held accountable, and at the same time properly spread-loads the responsibility and accountability. I have seen client leadership with “horizontal” organizational structures; one person who has many employees as direct reports. This is a perfect recipe for micro management, and a system that lacks accountability. How can a subordinate leader expect to be held accountable for his or her department, if their boss is doing their job for them? A subordinate leader who may not hold anyone accountable, and at the same time is not held accountable. The proper structure provides the base for a successful system of accountability.
Example: of an effective and efficient chain of command: We will refer back to the United States Marines’ basic chain of command philosophy of three Marines report to one. A basic battalion is roughly 500 Marines. A battalion commander is responsible and accountable for all of those Marines, but to hold all those Marines accountable, on a one on one basis, is nearly impossible and highly inefficient. He has three company commanders who report to him. The battalion commander holds each of them accountable for everything their company does and fails to do. The battalion commander does not waste the time and effort to find the individual Marine who is responsible for an incident. He addresses the situation with the company commander, and the rest, as they say, rolls down-hill. This is a chain of command operating at optimal efficiency, and a single Marine able to hold over 500 Marines accountable by only having to address three of his officers. A simple concept that is highly efficient and effective for over 176,000 Marines worldwide.
Once the best structure for an organization is in place, the existence of effective communication is needed. When a leader analyzes their organization’s communication, they should focus on answering these questions:
What’s the company’s vision, goals, objectives, and desired end states for implemented processes and initiatives?
These questions are not to act as a hammer for making them learn the answer. Their answers should act as a measure to how well leadership is communicating. If the employees cannot answer these questions, the leadership needs to take necessary action to improve on their communication. When employees can answer questions around vision, goals, objectives, and desired end states, they can operate more independently, and with little or no supervision, thus creating their own personal accountability.
A truly successful process implementation requires sustainability. Sustainability was mentioned before and I want to take a minute to explain what sustainability truly means. In this context, sustainability is achieved when the ‘new process’ becomes the status quo or norm for the organization. It’s no longer a new way to do business, it’s “The Way We Do Business”. To ensure sustainability, leadership must get up, walk away from their office, and physically “inspect what they expect.” Conduct follow-ups with employees face to face. Ask questions about the implementation. Find out what people are saying. Lastly, make sure that what has been agreed to be implemented is being executed by employees (“in the field” or “without consultant assistance”).
I have seen new initiatives implemented and business leaders rely on consultants for reporting on the progress of the implementation, as well as having the consultants report on how well the new initiative is being received by the employees. A common mistake client leadership makes is allowing the consultant to appear to be the “bad cop” for the new initiative, and they (client leadership) appear to be the “good cop.” They do not have the courage to take ownership, lead, commit, nor hold employees accountable. As I mentioned before, the employees are waiting for us to leave, because leadership does not have the credibility to enforce accountability to the newly established process.
This leads me to the next element of having a describable and fair system of rewards and consequences. If an employee doesn’t see or understand the benefits of changing his/her behavior to follow a new process or way of doing business, what are the consequences for refusing to change? How confident are employees in answering what the consequences are if they do not follow the new process? Are their answers hearsay, or is there a system in place? Is the system a formal or informal system? Has there long been a culture of politics which feeds into their speculation? And, on the other side of the coin, do employees know the reward system? Do they have confidence that the system that is in place is fair? Always remember when asking these questions about an initiative; perception is reality.
I have asked people to describe what consequences and rewards look like where they work. Very few have ever been able to answer, and for those who do answer, no two answers are ever the same. This is a glaring indicator of the level of accountability in an organization. When employees cannot describe rewards and consequences, they either do not exist, or are not administered in a consistent manner.
This is like going to a baseball game and the home plate umpire has no strike zone. Does the batter know what to swing at, and what to let go for a ball? No, all they can do is use their best judgment and swing at what looks good to them, and hope the umpire sees it the same way. That is not how I want to watch baseball, and, in regards to work environments, it is definitely not an environment I would like to work in.
The final element is probably the most commonly confused, and that is commitment. I have sat in meetings with client leadership and heard them speak about how committed they are. I think that in their minds they may feel committed to one degree or another, but commitment is never sold with words and thoughts. It is the actions of leaders which displays true commitment.
Commitment is easy when business is good and the company is making money. It is when times get tough when commitment is truly tested. We have completed implementation efforts and left clients ecstatic with the results and enthusiastic about continuing their improvement. All employees appear to be bought in. When we follow up, after time has passed, we hear that everything was going well until “we added units to the plant”, and then “we had to add more people to work those units”. They say that they had to just get it done and abandon the process. They hoped to restart the process once the “dust settled”, but never did. This has everything to do with a lack of commitment from leadership. The truly committed will not except any excuses. Those who lack commitment can find an excuse around every corner. If you have excuses, then you do not have commitment. That is the bottom line when measuring commitment.
A system of accountability is the key to sustaining any process or initiative that has been recently implemented in an organization. The process will not drive your people. It takes leadership to drive people, and people to drive processes. Leaders should evaluate the level of accountability they have going into implementing new initiatives and processes to maximize the sustainability when the consultants leave. Waiting until after we have left is too late.
Share Your Thoughts!
I encourage and look forward to your thoughts and feedback on my blog posts. Please feel free to take the time to share your comments on the posts that interest you.
The copyright in this website and the material on this website (including without limitation the text, computer code, artwork, photographs, images, music, audio material, video material and audio-visual material on this website) is owned by Christopher Waters and Agoge Leadership Development LLC and its licencors.