Growth and shifting accountability

You start a company and knight yourself fearless leader. With grit and tenacity you lead it through the exciting and sometimes terrifying start-up phase. It’s like a Boeing 747 at the foot of the runway. The captain pushes the throttle to full power and the massive plane begins roaring down the runway. The commitment is made to get airborne, and in less than a minute, it defies gravity and takes hundreds of passengers on a journey to some faraway land. At cruising altitude the captain’s role shifts from taking off to leading, managing and monitoring the journey. Accountabilities shift to the co-pilot, crew and the sophisticated air traffic control network. To have passengers, crew and equipment arrive at their destination safely, the captain must shift accountabilities to others during the journey.

A company’s growth journey also requires the shifting of accountabilities to members of the leadership team. It’s the only way for a leader to create sufficient separation from full-on daily engagement in company activities to focus on longer-range growth objectives and needs. One of my favorite quotes by Jack Stack says it best; “If you’re making decisions today that will affect your company in the next 30 days, you’re making the wrong decisions.”

Challenges and frustration typically occur when leaders fail to recognize that shifting accountabilities down to their leadership team is, in fact, a company-wide culture shift. The rush to push accountability down into the company often fails or just throws a cloud of frustration over the entire company.

Here are three possible syndromes that stall efforts to shift accountability:

  1. Won’t-let-go syndrome: The Peter Principle is defined as the state where one reaches his or her level of incompetence. There are leaders that, no matter how much lip service they give it, will not loosen their grip on the controls. This is one common reason why so many entrepreneurial companies grow to a point and then get stuck. It doesn’t matter how much a leader wants to grow the company, if he or she can’t trust others to make good decisions and be accountable, the leader is the road block – not everyone else. Because the leader is stuck in command-and-control mode, the best the leadership team can do is maintain status quo. Until the leader looks in the mirror and really sees that he or she is the problem, nothing will change.
  2. What-do-I-do-now syndrome: OK, so the leader gets that letting go of the controls and shifting accountability is what the company needs. The leader calls the infamous “It’s time for change” leadership team meeting and lays out the new direction of the company and the distribution of accountabilities. Yes, it’s a new day at XYZ Company. The meeting ends, the leadership team heads back to work – and nothing changes. It’s not that people don’t agree with the change – they just don’t know what to do with this new level of decision-making and accountability they’ve been handed. Where’s the road map? Where’s the training and mentoring? What are the expectations beyond “get it done”? It’s even more disastrous when a command-and-control leader shifts accountability because those on the receiving end interpret the move as a setup for failure. It sounds like, “Hey, if I try and do anything, our fearless leader is going interfere, change what I put my effort into, or take it over completely.” Never shift accountability without a long-term road map that includes clear expectations, how much accountability you’re handing over, and the necessary training and support that will set your team members up to win.
  3. Who-do-I-follow-now syndrome: This syndrome is a combination of the first two. You can shift accountability but the real leadership work is in shifting employee focus to the leader who is now accountable for their work. There are all sorts of dynamics that must be overcome including employees not respecting their new leader, the new leader has poor communication skills, or something as basic as employees not wanting to lose their connection with their fearless leader and continue to bypass the new levels of accountability.

Shifting accountability is something all leaders need to engage in if they are intent on growing their companies. In February 2011, I named Robbi Grayson as president of Strategies. I couldn’t take the company where I want it to go without letting go of the key controls of the company. More importantly, I couldn’t do more of the work I love to do until I shifted accountability. By design, the transition has been gradual – like cutting one string at a time. It’s been fun, and yes, we’ve worked through some bumps. It’s working because Robbi and I are committed to the process and the outcome. We communicate relentlessly. We are learning and growing the experience. And our experiences make us better trainers and coaches.

The process of shifting accountability must be planned and orchestrated like any other major change initiative. Ignore it and you’ll remain stuck. Rush it and you’re setting yourself and your team members up for failure. The no-compromise leader prepares, communicates and executes.

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Please share your thoughts with me about today’s Monday Morning Wake-Up. Click above to comment.

Neil Ducoff, Founder & CEO of Strategies and author of No-Compromise Leadership

Pass this e-mail on to your business colleagues, managers and friends. They’ll appreciate it.


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