I used to keep a file in my desk drawer on the positive and negative lessons I learned from leaders—some great, others less than great. Eventually, the file was misplaced but many of the ideas were sticky enough to remain with me through the years. Below are a few of those leadership lessons on the importance of creating a culture of accountability that is both empowering and productive.
In some organizations, when things go wrong, the first order of business is assessing blame rather than fixing the problem. The movie K-19 is about a Soviet naval commander (played by Harrison Ford) assigned to test the first of a new class of nuclear attack submarines. The vessel in the movie was riddled with problems and delays. After one particular setback a Soviet Admiral wanting someone to hold accountable demanded, “Give me a name!”
The Admiral was simply just passing along irrational demands of those above him. The general assumption was that ratcheting up the sense of accountability and the severity of consequences for failure would terrify people into making the impossible happen. The real problem, of course, was systemic—the Soviet industrial system and its military leadership were the real culprits responsible for delivering defective parts and unrealistic timelines.
Several years ago I consulted with a foundation that had been around for a very long time. They had hired a new CEO who seemed to focus intently on short-term objectives without high concern for long-term consequences. He drove his fundraising staff mercilessly with an unrealistic accountability matrix. Dissension emerged quickly among seasoned staff members, most who had been at the foundation from 10 to 25 years. Consequently, they were the stewards of key donor relationships. Approaching the end of a fiscal year, the organization’s funding was falling short but only three to four percent below the aggressive goals the CEO had established. He responded by threatening to fire anyone who fell short of his/her goal.
Outside the office he seemed to be a really nice guy. I’ve wondered what it was in his training or experience that compelled him to operate with such a warped view of accountability.
No one was fired because everyone left. Since then, fundraisers have come and gone, as if through a revolving door. Most new applicants were too inexperienced to have been aware of the CEO’s reputation. He’s still there, but the organizational funding hasn’t increased in the last eight years. The sad part is that outside the office he seemed to be a really nice guy. In retrospect, I’ve wondered what it was in his training or experience that compelled him to operate with such a warped view of accountability.
The two examples above, one real and the other fictional, provide ample reasons for employees to hate accountability. In contrast, below are two of the lessons and experiences that have had the opposite effect on me.
Lesson #1: Great leaders watch carefully in order to catch people doing things right. I learned this from a leader over 30 years ago, and it remains one of my most important leadership lessons. My dad used to say, “Ninety-eight percent of working people go to bed at night starving for recognition” [See FIVE IMPORTANT LESSONS; From the Greatest Fundraiser I’ve Ever Known (my dad)]. I can’t vouch for the research, but dad really believed it. And, I came to believe it too. Even when I was unable to reward staff with bonuses or increased salary, I always looked for ways to celebrate what they were doing. Since I often had some extra travel budget, I would tell a staffer who I had “caught doing something right” to take their spouse with them on their next business trip, stay for the weekend, and come back on Tuesday.
How many times have you had someone express appreciation like that to you?
Sometimes just saying, “Man, you’re doing a really awesome job” will do wonders for your staff. The same is true for donors. I was in the habit of hand delivering end-of-year receipts to donors because it gave me a chance to thank them in person. When they took hold of the envelope I was handing them, I wouldn’t let go. After tugging on it for a second, they would instinctively look up at me. At that moment, I’d look them straight in the eye and say, “Thank you for what you’ve done this past year. It’s really made a difference in the lives of those we serve.” No matter how many times I did that to the same donor, it never ceased to have a powerful effect.
How many times have you had someone express appreciation like that to you? How many times have you caught people on your staff doing something right, looked them in the eye, and talked about what a great job they were doing? It’s even more powerful when you point out precisely what it is they are doing so well.
Some of you may be thinking that this sounds like Classical Conditioning and Pavlov’s salivating dogs. Maybe there are some similarities, but there’s one big difference. Dogs don’t understand stated objectives, but people do. People also understand good performance and are acutely aware when they are not rewarded or recognized for it.
Lesson #2: Great leaders accept personal responsibility. I worked for a gentleman who was a really great leader. Whenever something went wrong, he was quick to say, “I’m the president; it’s my responsibility.” I’ll never forget one occasion, in front of the Board of Directors, he took the blame for something that was totally my fault. I was really young, new on the job, and the one truly responsible for a lot of his problems. Privately, he’d take me aside and in a very kind, fatherly way, point out in excruciating detail what I had done both right and wrong. He was tough, kind, and willing to take responsibility. Consequently, I was never afraid of him – had no real reason to be.
I would have walked on coals of fire for that man and wanted to become a leader just like him.
He was a very consistent leader and over time created a culture of accountability that was very empowering. People were quick to accept personal accountability (rather than hide or shift blame) and quick to credit the contributions of their peers. Whenever one of us made a mistake or fell short in anyway of his expectations, we would go straight to him without hesitation, never wanting him to hear from someone else or find out some other way. The way he dealt with me and my mess-ups really helped me get over my own habit of beating myself up over mistakes or missed opportunities.
I would have walked on coals of fire for that man and wanted to become a leader just like him. He created such an organizational culture that was both empowering and highly productive. That was one of my greatest leadership examples.
It’s not easy to get over a heavy dose of toxic accountability. But, don’t let a bad experience warp your perception and cause you to miss out on a great leadership lesson.
Eddie Thompson, Ed.D
Founder and CEO
Thompson & Associates
Copyright 2015, R. Edward Thompson