Throughout my career it has been my understanding that when leaders take personal accountability, they are willing to answer for the outcomes of their decisions, their behaviors, and their actions. This concept of accountability is often attributed to President Harry Truman who kept a sign on his desk inscribed “The Buck Stops Here.” I firmly believe that effective leadership requires real accountability, and President Truman’s sign alluded to the fact that he was responsible for the decisions and actions of his administration.
I found it alarming that in Brandon Hall Group’s 2014 State of Performance Management Survey, 34% of global organizations said that executives do not hold leaders accountable for performance. In their 2014 State of Talent Management Survey, results showed that 39% plan to increase or significantly increase their focus on holding managers accountable.
Interestingly, this data corresponds to feedback I regularly receive from supervisors and managers in government agencies. There appears to be a reluctance by some supervisors to provide clear, measurable performance assessments. A common source of concern frequently identified during training sessions is federal employee frustration at the reluctance by some supervisors to provide clear, measurable feedback during performance reviews. The concern seems to be generated by a perception that if marginal employees don’t receive inflated appraisals it could result in a grievance or complaint.
In my research for the Leadership Foundry, a leader development team that seeks to forge changes that empower leaders in the workplace, I interviewed leaders that I know and/or that I may have had the privilege of working with to capture some insights concerning leader accountability that might assist aspiring leaders. This research has been conducted with corporate executives, military leaders, and government employees.
It appears that most supervisors and managers have their own concept of what accountability is and how they try to pursue it. In my discussions with organizational leaders it is apparent that performance appraisals are only one part of holding leaders accountable. Leading by example, immediately addressing unethical/unprofessional conduct, and correcting unmet expectations highlight some of the feedback that was provided.
Accountability discussions with military senior officers and non-commissioned officers primarily focused on meeting standards and actions to ensure that meeting and maintaining established standards was paramount. An Army Colonel advised that by allowing one individual to not meet established standards you establish a new standard for the entire organization. And a financial institution president said that he regularly advises his staff and subordinate managers that unethical or untrustworthy behavior of a subordinate must be treated just like a hand grenade thrown on their desk; they must get rid of it immediately.
The CEO of an electric power corporation said they try to keep their appraisal simple for employees and their supervisors. They do that by focusing on four key items in their annual appraisal:
I was pleasantly surprised by several corporate executives that admit to putting the utmost importance on continuous communication with their direct reports and how critical actionable feedback is to their employees. A leader within a national service industry stated that they were in the process of eliminating annual performance reviews and replacing it with a continuous-conversation model. And a leader within an international corporation said they have been using a continuous-conversation process that is supplemented by an annual appraisal. She claimed that they “touch base” about every two weeks with their direct reports to obtain project updates, address potential process issues, and discuss the way ahead. These leaders emphasized this process of providing informal, open channels of communication is valued by the employees. Not only does it provide an “azimuth check” on team member progress, its enhanced supervisor/employee relationships while minimizing the perception of micromanaging.
After conducting these interviews, I found it interesting that in Brandon Hall Group’s 2018 Performance Management Survey there appears to be a move from annual performance reviews and ratings, to continuous check-ins. This transition has accelerated to the point where the continuous-conversation model will soon be the norm, as 69% of organizations either plan to eliminate the formal performance appraisal altogether or supplement it with frequent performance conversations and coaching.
While many business organizations appear to be adopting a variation of the continuous-conversation process, I have not seen a similar transition being implemented in government agencies. Although many government organizations revise their appraisal system periodically, it does not appear that an initiative to implement a continuous-conversation appraisal process is imminent.
Some organizations also use a 360o assessment to identify leader strengths and vulnerabilities. Jeff Haden, Inc. Contributing Editor, published an article (April 19, 2019) that strikes at the very heart of accountability: “Here’s How Google Knows in Less Than 5 Minutes if Someone Is a Great Leader.” Google identified the key behaviors of its best team managers, and asks team members to answer the following questions:
In many work environments where the development of leader “soft skills” are minimized, it is interesting that Google asks only one questions (#9) related to a manager’s hard skills. And the very first question addresses providing actionable feedback. Not being a fan of just providing a list of “leader traits” which aspiring leaders may not be able to relate to work experiences, I appreciate Google’s focus on “behaviors” rather than traits.
Performance assessments, whether annually or in the form of continuous communication, are truly just one measure of leader accountability. However, based on feedback from developing leaders, it is critical for them. President Truman’s sign “The Buck Stops Here” captures the very essence of leader accountability. Accountability, in the very simplest terms: a leader is responsible for everything their organization does – or fails to do.
William D. Wofford
Senior Facilitator, Executive Coach
Xator’s Leadership Foundry
April 8, 2020