10 Ways Leaders Sabotage Accountability

Last Updated Jan 3, 2011 10:43 PM EST

10 Ways Leaders Sabotage AccountabilityWith all the talk about accountability these days, you'd think it would be top-of-mind for every CEO and board director. And yet, when it comes to holding executives and managers accountable, leaders are far more effective at avoiding or even sabotaging those efforts than accomplishing them.

True story: I once had a CEO who absolutely refused to clarify his VP's responsibilities. Twice during my tenure at the company I had overlapping responsibilities with another exec, making accountability nearly impossible for both of us. The second time it happened, having had enough, we both quit -- on the same day.

I can tell you dozens of stories. While that would indeed be entertaining, I've got an even better idea. In the hope that executives and boards are paying attention and interested in taking accountability seriously, here are:

10 Ways Leaders Sabotage Accountability

  1. Executive compensation. I've seen hundreds of executive compensation structures and only a handful actually did a good job of rewarding behavior consistent with the company's business goals and shareholder interests. In other words, the primary tool for driving accountability, well, doesn't. It's sad, really.
  2. Strategy du jour. Besides spreading corporate-wide chaos, the biggest negative impact of strategy du jour - constant changes of direction based on limited data - is that there's no way to hold anyone accountable because too many variables are changing at once.
  3. Meeting ARs with no owners, dates, or next steps. It took a few decades but finally, most managers know to assign ARs (Action Required) at meetings. And yet, they haven't learned that those ARs also need to have owners, dates for completion or next steps, etc. More often than not, there's no follow up whatsoever.
  4. Project metrics. Executives say they want accountability, but when it comes to coughing up a few bucks to measure the success of a project, more often than not, they baulk. Even if they do fund metrics, they're often an afterthought, poorly executed, and nobody follows up.
  5. Global or international operations. All-too-often, international operations are not held accountable for expense and revenue lines. When the numbers are good, everyone - including the regional execs and those with functional or business responsibility at corporate - claim responsibility. But when the numbers are in the tank, everyone points at the other guy. In reality, nobody's accountable.
  6. Matrix organizations. While matrix organizational structures have proven to be highly effective in big companies with broad product lines, accountability is still a huge challenge. Somehow, when you make two managers accountable for the same goal, even when they're perfectly aligned, they can end up pointing fingers at each other.
  7. Overlapping responsibilities. As I described in the intro, CEOs are often unwilling to clearly identify staff responsibilities, although I'm at a complete loss to understand why. Whether it's revenue, P&L, market share, or even marketing, you'll often get two executives claiming responsibility for the same function or metric and that makes accountability very tricky.
  8. Dysfunctional board oversight. The reason why our government has three branches is to provide checks and balances. And even then, the system allows for a shocking lack of accountability. It's the same in the corporate world. So when board directors rubberstamp everything put in front of them, that means no checks and balances and zero accountability.
  9. Annual performance reviews. For mid-level managers, annual performance reviews often do more harm than good by sending mixed messages, reinforcing CYA behavior, or even downright promoting sugarcoating and BS.
  10. Sacred cows and pet projects. There are plenty of ways to break every accountability model, but when all else fails, some execs will resort to the sacred cow, aka pet project. It doesn't matter how much it costs, how it performs, or even if it performs at all, it's invulnerable to all attempts at accountability.
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Image courtesy Flickr user a2gemma