Individual Accountability

“Somebody’s gotta go to jail, Ben.”

     ~Special Agent Peter Sadusky

Something goes wrong, somebody does something wrong, and the boss winds up on the hot seat. It’s a feeling every supervisor on the planet knows all too well. If doing it yourself were an option, things like this would never happen.

But it’s not, so stuff like this does happen.

Every once in a while, the CEO is the boss taking heat for something they had nothing to do with doing wrong.  I’m sure they don’t feel any differently than you: “If I’d done it myself, this never would have happened.” But they didn’t, and it did. 

The only thing different when the CEO’s on the hot seat is the size and scope of what went wrong: it dwarfs anything that’s ever gone wrong in your corner of the business.  

Case in point: earlier this year, a huge publicly traded company, expanding one of their mines, literally blew up one of the most historic archeological sites on the continent of Australia. The property they mine belongs to the indigenous people and the site contains literally thousands of historically significant sites to be preserved and protected. But the most significant ones of all – two rock shelters more than 40,000 years old sitting in the expansion area – weren’t on the protected list.

Big mistake.

The mine expansion pressed ahead; it was only when the explosive charges had been planted close to the rock shelters that somebody in management realized what was about to happen! By then it was too late to do anything safely other than to detonate.

Huge mistake, but hardly an accident. There was a plan, executed exactly as planned. 

No surprise, the public was outraged.  Hence the Wall Street Journal headline: “CEO To Step Down Amid Fallout Over Destruction of Ancient Rock Shelters. Investors had pushed for senior leaders to be held accountable for destruction of caves.” 

Talk about being held accountable! So, shall we? 

You know, talk about being held accountable.

Crime and Punishment

Every time I read a story like this, I can’t help but think of a favorite scene in the movie, National Treasure. The bad guys were plotting to steal the Declaration of Independence right out from under its display case in the National Archives. So, the quirky hero in the story, Ben, stole it first. 

By movie’s end, the national treasure had been returned to its rightful owner – the United States government. But a crime had been committed, and, as the FBI agent explained it, “Somebody’s gotta go to jail, Ben.”

Jail, huh? Talk about being held accountable.

Now, I’m sure in your organization being held accountable doesn’t involve issuing prison jumpsuits to miscreants. In the familiar terms of industrial management, it’s known as corrective action, positive discipline, or administrative action like forfeiting incentive compensation. 

By the way, the latter is exactly what the company’s Board had in mind as the means to deal with the mistake. But their bosses – the shareholders – weren’t buying. That required the more drastic action taken by the Chairman: “We have listened to our stakeholders’ concerns that a lack of individual accountability undermines the…ability to rebuild trust and to move forward.”

Accountability: somebody’s gotta go to jail.

If you took a survey of industrial leaders on the meaning of accountability, the vast majority would well agree, “Being accountable is just a polite way of describing punishment.  When somebody does something wrong, there has to be a price to pay.”

You don’t have to run that survey; I already have. Asked tens of thousands of leaders just like you. Being honest here – what I call the Principle of Honest Dialog – the consensus opinion of your peers the world over is that accountability is all about consequences. That Chairman, the Board and those stakeholders would concur. Hence the call for accountability.

Being honest, I’m of the opinion that being held accountable means nothing like that.

You might well disagree. If you do, at least don’t confuse your followers by being polite. Follow the Principle of Honest Dialog and give it to them straight up: “Folks, if you make mistakes, you’ll be held accountable, which simply means you’ll be in a lot of trouble with me and our bosses. Any questions?”

I doubt you’ll get any. 

Mistakes Were Made

On the heels of a huge mistake, a Board fires its CEO. That sure showed those stakeholders somebody was accountable! Doing that might leave shareholders and stakeholders less unhappy – I can’t imagine anyone winding up happy – but it does nothing to make sure a mistake like that doesn’t happen again. The new CEO will have to figure that one out, or else wind up being the one accountable after the next big mistake.

But in all fairness, someone can’t pay a price – er, be held accountable – without the boss understanding what they did wrong. The Board would not argue with that: before taking action, they commissioned an investigation. “We are determined to learn the lessons from this event so that the destruction of heritage sites of exceptional archaeological and cultural significance… never occurs again.” 

The Board politely called them “lessons” but being honest, they’re mistakes. Mistakes were made, and a lot of them:

  • Risk management standards were not followed.
  • Heritage considerations were not given the priority that they should have.
  • Plans were not fully and completely shared with the landowners.
  • New research findings were not recognized, shared, and dealt with.
  • Different parts of the company had access to different information.
  • Silos within the company prevented issues from being properly managed across corporate functions. 
  • Removal of information from the information management system created a blind spot.
  • Significant issues were not escalated to management – at least not until it became too late do anything about the situation.

Reverse any one of those, the big mistake would have either been prevented in the first place or caught before it was too late.

But it wasn’t. 

Now What?

Here’s a classic case where something bad happens, an investigation ensues, and the findings reveal the how and why – and who. The report contains a long list of how’s and why’s.

As to the who, it’s management. With findings like those, how could the failing be otherwise? Whose job is it to make sure standards are followed, priority is given to what’s defined as the priority, plans are communicated with stakeholders, important new information gets communicated, those with a need for information get what they need, significant issues get escalated and senior management knows what’s going on? 

That’s management’s job.  This one looks like a classic case of “normalizing deviations.” Lots of examples where operations with a culture of normalizing deviations for minor issues found themselves dealing with a disaster: Challenger, Bhopal, Columbia, Deepwater. 

So, who’s accountable?

That’s where things get murky. Those shortcomings and mistakes occured over more than a decade; they happened on the watch of a number of managers, many of whom have long since departed the scene, making it impossible to pin the blame on any one manager, or even several.  

Sounds like culture, doesn’t it? Per the report: “Structures and work systems operate within and are dependent on the broader framework of the work culture.” 

Culture strikes again. Too bad they can’t send culture off to jail: that would sure show them, wouldn’t it! 

Understanding Accountability

We’ll leave it to the Chairman, the Board and the new CEO to figure out how to change the culture in their company so that something like this doesn’t happen again. Accomplishing that is never easy, because they’ll be taking on the culture.

I should say, “their culture.”  Every organization has its culture. What makes culture change so tough is that for culture to change, everyone has to change. Meaning that the leader in charge has to change everyone, management in particular.

But that’s not your problem.

You’re interested in making a difference and keeping off the hot seat where you lead. If you want to succeed at that, you would do well to understand what being “held accountable” should mean – because it matters that much to performance. You also need to know how to properly hold someone accountable when mistakes are made. Neither are that difficult, but both are much different than what most leaders think. Let’s cover the basics.

First things first: in order to hold someone accountable, you have to know that a mistake was made. And who made that mistake.

If you don’t know who did something wrong, you can’t hold anyone accountable. And if you don’t know that something went wrong, you don’t even know that someone might need to be held accountable.

That’s obvious. But if “That never happened” is the norm, you’ll be limited to investigating mistakes discovered by someone else, like the customer or the boss. If you even take the time to investigate them. 

You can see the problem – your problem.

Go back and read that list of mistakes made by managers in the mining company: it’s impossible that those shortcomings weren’t producing a lot of small errors and problems. Dealing with the small problems when they happened might just have prevented the big mistake from happening.

Lesson number one: dig into your small problems like they were big problems.

Next, don’t think “being held accountable” means punishment.

Punishment is suffering consequences because of bad behavior. Every parent on the planet knows there are situations where a healthy dose of negative consequences is what it takes to change behavior. If you are of the opinion that someone needs to feel the effect of consequences to avoid making the same mistake again, that’s your call.

Just don’t call that “being held accountable” because, if you do, you’ll be giving up the power found in the process of holding someone accountable.

So, exactly what is that process?

Think of holding someone accountable as a tough conversation, led by the leader when a follower has made the kind of mistake that requires more than just correcting behavior. You’ll know when that’s what’s called for.

As to what’s in that conversation, it’s not that complicated: what someone did that they shouldn’t have; the harm that mistake caused, and the harm that mistake might have caused; what that someone is expected to do and required to do; what can happen if the mistake happens again; finally, what’s needed to make sure the situation is not repeated.

That’s the essence of holding someone accountable. It’s not a short conversation, but it’s not sending anyone to jail. It’s a process the best leaders have done for years…decades. 

Practice it on a regular basis, when small mistakes are made, you might just keep yourself from being on the hot seat for a big mistake.

Paul Balmert
September 2020

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