Coaching, executive coaching, global Leadership, Senior Executives

Beyond Performance Requirements: Accountability at the Executive Level

When executives go beyond just meeting performance requirements and start taking full ownership for their responsibilities, the payoff can be substantial.

But driving accountability at the executive level is uniquely challenging. It’s more multi-faceted and less clear cut than it is for first-level managers. Most executives are managing others who are themselves managing managers, and the impact cascades down from there. It’s therefore rare that executives can evaluate their direct reports simply by whether or not they’re hitting a set of numbers.

A major hurdle: the need to delegate decision-making

 Ideally, executives delegate generously by communicating the “what” that needs to be done but leaving it to their direct reports to determine the “how”.

Too little delegation discourages direct reports from taking full ownership of their areas of responsibility and makes it difficult for them to pass responsibility on to their own direct reports.

For many executives delegation is an ongoing journey of balancing oversight and follow up while still allowing the direct report full “ownership”. The urge to micro manage or come down heavily on direct reports when performance isn’t up to par is sometimes hard to resist. When this occurs, the motivation of direct reports is likely to suffer.

As a result, when the organization decides to push for higher levels of accountability, these direct reports are skeptical and confused about what it means to take full ownership.

This is only one example of how delegation can go awry, but it highlights a core challenge in driving accountability, which is the need for mutual trust in reporting relationships. Superiors have to be able to trust their direct reports in order to delegate sufficient authority, and their direct reports have to trust that superiors are genuinely delegating and will support them when they pursue their own approaches.

If that trust is strong enough, direct reports can not only carry out their expected tasks but find creative ways to move past obstacles they encounter and look for new opportunities to provide value to the organization.

In addition to interpersonal differences, obstacles to the development of trust can include:

  • Disconnects between executives who come from companies with different cultures or from countries with different assumptions about authority and reporting relationships. 
  • Gaps in perspective between older leaders and younger contributors who bring a different set of expectations to the workplace. Younger employees tend to look for new kinds of meaning in their work and often have a level of self-confidence that makes them less willing to compromise. Older bosses may see this as evidence of entitlement and consider the younger executives naïve and idealistic. On their side, younger workers often see bosses as the old guard who have had their day, are not open to new ideas, and are slowed by obstacles that could easily be surmounted.

When these stereotypes hold sway, the road to empowerment and ownership can be rocky.

Although trust has to be mutual, if it’s lacking in reporting relationships, there are actions bosses can take to see that it’s established. They can enter into dialogue with their direct reports, listen without judgment, seriously consider what they hear, and allow their reports enough room to come up with their own solutions and take ownership for results. Of course there are instances when more dramatic personnel decisions are required, such as demotion or other corrective action, but too often the process is cut short, missing the opportunity to turn an individual around.

Frameworks for accountability

In addition to delegation based on trust, executives need to:

Make sure their own house is in order

Are they tolerating a direct report who is under performing? Are they avoiding taking responsibility for their own decisions? Are they fully aligned with corporate objectives and committed to the long-term success of the company?

If the leader is falling short in any of these ways, direct reports may end up doing what the boss does rather than what he or she says.

See that reporting relationships are clear and logical

It’s not uncommon, for example, for an executive to report to multiple dotted-line superiors or even multiple solid-line superiors. In some cases, this works out satisfactorily. But if the multiple bosses have multiple expectations, it can leave the direct report unsure as to which one to follow.

Reporting relationships also need to make sense. The individual may report to only one executive, but is it a person whose responsibilities and experience are conducive to providing the right assistance and supervision? Particularly in rapidly transforming organizations, which are more the norm than the exception these days, new roles are created and insufficient thought is put into the decision of where (and under whom) to position this role. This can leave executives scratching their heads as to how they fit in and how exactly their bosses can support them.

Poorly structured reporting relationships like these may have negative impacts that go well beyond the performance of the direct report.

Confirm alignment

Bosses often assume their direct reports understand how their work serves corporate objectives when in fact it isn’t clear. They may also assume they’ve fully communicated a new direction, but their direct reports don’t see how it translates down to their own teams.

To confirm alignment, leaders need to actively encourage their reports to ask questions,and leaders should ask questions themselves: “Are you thinking about what this might mean for your team?” Or, “Do you think that your role will change as a result of this new direction?”

Misalignment that impacts accountability can also occur with support functions such as legal, HR, IT, and finance that are not always directly tied to the flow of deliverables.

Disconnects sometimes develop within these areas when members are unclear or not current as to how their given priorities fit into the organizations overall mission, vision, and strategy. Often this is reinforced by core function leadership (e.g., operations) and an organizational culture that doesn’t recognize the value of support functions.

Starting with the shared understanding that support functions are as essential to the success of the organization as core functions, leaders need to make sure that each function understands how its work contributes to the bottom line.

The legal department, for example, may not be directly involved in the production of goods and services, but in helping companies avoid law suits, defending it when it issued, and reaching optimal settlements when necessary it provides substantial savings.

In driving accountability, it may also be necessary to ask support function heads to widen their leadership horizons. The IT department, for example, may be known for high-performing software development teams, but, outside of those teams, are its members collaborating sufficiently to provide optimal service to other departments? And is IT’s own talent being managed for maximum returns?

Similarly, HR, though it significantly impacts the bottom line through the handling of hiring, training, and benefit management, may find its biggest impact in seeing that other departments are not only in legal compliance on environmental, health & safety, and quality of service issues but have the instructional resources to reduce the number of oversights and failures.

Clarify expectations

In driving accountability, another component of alignment is the specific expectations executives have for each of their direct reports. This may vary from one role to the next and from one person to the next. For example, the executive may want one individual to be the informal stand-in when they are absent, but sometimes this isn’t clearly understood. It leaves other team members confused regarding where to take their concerns or get help with road blocks. In the short term, the buck may stop with the stand-in manager, but no one but the boss and the stand-in are aware of it.

Equally important, do bosses know what direct reports need from them? It’s perfectly appropriate, even essential, that direct reports clarify their own needs and expectations with their superior. Like mutual trust, expectations are a two-way street.

Because presumptions by either party can distort perceptions, carving out time to clarify and negotiate expectations is essential. To embrace full ownership, direct reports need to feel secure in their understanding of what is expected from them and what they can expect from their superiors.

Consider appropriate incentives

Both external and internal incentives have a role to play in fostering higher levels of accountability. The challenge here is that some executives are more motivated by external incentives such as money, recognition, and status while others respond more to internal incentives such as opportunities to develop their expertise, do work that matters to them, be more independent, or connect with others in the organization.

An individual’s motivation can also change over time. After being motivated primarily by financial rewards, for example, an executive may find that intrinsic rewards have become more important.

Executives who understand where each of their direct reports derive their primary motivation can let that guide them in directing individuals and supporting them towards a level of goal fulfillment that optimizes their contribution to the organization.

Ultimately a range of factors contribute to higher levels of accountability at the executive level. Executives need to consider each one and recognize that the lifeblood of accountability flows through individual reporting relationships founded on mutual trust,clear expectations, and an understanding of what the other person values.


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