Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Holding leaders to account

In my talk to the Annual Leadership Dialogue at Windsor Castle two days ago I spoke about the scope in many organisations for improving the process by which leaders are held to account. Both the words and the action are frequently misunderstood and loosely handled. Besides holding responsibility, every senior manager should be accountable to an appropriate authority and in an appropriate way for how well that responsibility is discharged. This is deeper and more challenging than an annual appraisal. It may entail groups being held to account together, or individuals accounting to a board. The focus is usually on a change programme, and its purpose is to ensure success, not to hold a post mortem after some failure.

Early in the contracting process for change programmes there needs to be a discussion on what is the chief executive’s role. This is too easily fudged, with fellow directors then able to shun their responsibility for implementing changes in their departments. It is easy to see such programmes as HR initiatives which will succeed or fail according to how well HR designs and runs the programmes, plus the competence of any consultants. Failure becomes more likely, and it becomes easy to find scapegoats. To avoid this risk, the chief executive must make clear to the top team that he/she will hold that team accountable for the success of the programme and that the process for doing this is spelled out (e.g. they will be called to account, together as a team, in a challenging face-to-face discussion that will be robust, etc, etc.). At the same time, HR’s accountability is clarified; with such clarity, HR’s sense of vulnerability diminishes, and there is less need for them to protect information and hang onto control. A greater trust between the parties develops.

To give a different kind of example, how clear and how discussed in the organisation is the matter of who is responsible for how well the organisation functions as a system? I have in mind questions such as ‘How freely is information enabled to flow unimpeded by rules, protocol, status, hierarchy, etc?, How easily can people gain access to those they feel a need to talk to?, How truthfully can people speak to colleagues and managers?, How are people allowed to participate in decisions that affect them?, What is the focus for performance management discussions?, What attitude is taken towards working across boundaries?, What are the underlying mental models, mindsets and assumptions?’. The responsible executive then needs to be held to account in an appropriate manner.

In organisations plagued with silo-behaving functions, a similar process of holding functional heads to account (in person and acting together) can be used to engineer a dismantling of those silos. But the behaviour of the chief executive, and the form of words used, is critical. These examples are discussed in the book and the toolkit. Or phone for further advice.

One participant at Windsor explained that he was engaged in a major leadership programme with a large city council in NE England. The programme was stuck and failing. On Monday he joyfully said that he had now found the missing ingredient: ‘managing accountability as part of managing change’. It may seem obvious, but it is easily overlooked.