Accountability – The Too-late Dimension of Leadership


A responsibility matrix defines it. Leaders are expected to assume it. Performance reviews require it. The majority of people avoid it.

While thinking about the interdependence of leadership, sales results, critical thinking, and individual performance, I concluded the vital connection between these four components of success is accountability. I am not talking about the after-the-action kind of accountability when a company does something wrong or Wall Street promises are not met and a CEO says he or she is accountable. While that is admirable, and is better than no accountability, it doesn’t prevent a problem or performance gap–it just pins the blame on someone.

What would happen if we shift the timing of accountability from calling on someone to justify their behavior to asking them to define how they will manage their and others’ accountability as an active part of day-to-day coaching and performance management?

I don’t think this is a matter of semantics. Accountability is most effective when it is a proactive, intentional behavior that is defined when an initiative begins and is integrated and demonstrated throughout a project’s life cycle or regularly discussed during a sales year.

Every year sales leaders define revenue targets and sales professionals commit to achieving them. CEOs give guidance on how their companies will perform. Operational leaders promise greater team performance and higher levels of efficiency. To make it all happen, companies invest millions of dollars training employees to perform better and teaching leaders to coach to expectations.

But throughout the year, when people don’t perform as expected, leaders avoid the difficult conversations, don’t make time available to coach, or they are not held responsible for having the conversations. Performance lags through a quarter, six months, or a year. Worse yet, leaders protect team members from their individual accountability, knowing an individual team member’s performance gap is a reflection of a gap in the leader’s performance as well.

After three decades of corporate life I’ve concluded there is only one group of people who do not embrace and promote accountability as a proactive leadership behavior. That group is the people that don’t want to do what they are expected to do.


Welcoming CIOs Back to the Table

For several years the pendulum has slowly tilted away from CIOs and CTOs in mid-market companies participating heavily in strategic decisions about IT investments. A recent survey by Deloitte Growth Enterprise Services indicates the pendulum is swinging back as tech leaders are asked to do more than keep spending under control and overhead costs within budget.

Earlier this year, Deloitte polled 500 mid-market leaders and learned that 49 percent of technology adoption is now led by IT department leaders, compared to only 36 percent in 2015. That is a big shift in a positive direction that bodes well for the value impact of C-level technology executives.

Corporate concerns about greater productivity, improvements in operational effectiveness, and ensuring greater cybersecurity give technology leaders a pivotal opportunity to position IT as a crucial and relevant driving force that can help a business better connect with customers—the foundation for any kind of growth.

CIO magazine offers a brief summary of the survey. A more complete analysis and access to the full report is available from Deloitte.

Corporate Culture or Collective Behavior?

How much attention should a CEO give to corporate culture? Are culture and behavior mutually inclusive, mutually exclusive, or unavoidably interdependent?

culture and behavior

In their Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report, Deloitte Consulting states that 82 of their respondents think culture is a potential competitive advantage. The report concludes that culture is a business issue that can determine success or failure.

How a company creates or defines culture is a subject of some debate. The Deloitte study defines culture as the “values, beliefs, behaviors, artifacts, and reward systems that influence people’s behavior on a day-to-day basis.” The report goes on to say, “Culture includes all the behaviors that may or may not influence business performance.”

Perhaps a more simple, or certainly accurate definition is that culture is the collective behavior of people across an organization. Regardless of stated values, espoused beliefs, and independent of rewards systems, culture is the natural outcome of what people do. When people do whatever they do long enough, that behavior creates a culture.

I’ve been in companies where dysfunctional if not destructive actions between associates are routine. In one company, even the executive team would compete in an unhealthy way. Yet none of those companies would define their culture as being the actions you observed. All of them marketed themselves as something their behaviors did not support.

In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shared his perspective on culture.

“A word about corporate cultures: for better or for worse, they are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you’re discovering it, uncovering it – not creating it. It is created slowly over time by the people and by events – by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of the company lore,” (Amazon Shareholder Letter).

From my experience across multiple industries and companies, cultures change when behavior changes. Behavior changes when senior leaders, championed by a committed CEO set the standard, hold themselves accountable to that standard, and relentlessly hold people across the organization accountable for demonstrating the desired behaviors.

Culture studies, employee surveys, and well-written manifestos don’t create cultures. Focus on culture first or independent of behavior and you get what we got when we tried to create zero-defect cultures in the 80’s. You don’t get what you want, but you do get sophisticated ways for people to hide the fact they are not behaving consistent with an unrealistic or incongruous demand.

People create cultures by how they behave. Get the behavior right and culture will follow.

Decision-Making Seminar Presented at SMU Business Leadership Center

Since 2007 I have had the privilege of speaking a couple of times each year to the graduate students attending the SMU Cox School of Business. It’s delightfully rewarding to interact with bright and engaging men and women who are already or will soon be contributing to the success of organizations across the Dallas metroplex.

Following last week’s session, the Business Leadership Center provided the following release:

SMU Cox School of Business
Dallas, TX/USA – September 15, 2016
SMU Cox School of Business
Joe Jordan, President of Jordan Development, Inc., presented a seminar titled Choices, Dilemmas, and Other Hazards of Decision Making on September 14, 2016 as part of the Edwin L. Cox Business Leadership Center’s programming for Cox MBA students. Through the BLC, Cox graduate students gain insight into various facets of business leadership. BLC instructors are business leaders drawn from prominent national and international companies, who come to the SMU campus to share their extensive knowledge with Cox students.

BLC Instructors include representatives from Jordan Development, Inc., Accenture, Bank of Texas, The Container Store, Friday’s Restaurants, Walmart and many more. Although no class credit is given for attendance, students consistently rate what they have learned from BLC instructors as extremely valuable, and many students say that the BLC was a major factor in their decision to attend Cox.

Mr. Jordan earned a Business Leadership Teaching Excellence Award for his presentation, which means that the students attending rated the seminar as a 4.8 or higher out of a possible “perfect” rating of 5.

Balancing Leadership Tensions in a PE-owned Company

Balancing Leadership Tensions in a PE-owned Company

Leading a profitably growing company requires balancing the inevitable tensions of leadership. A recent Bain and Company study identified three tensions specific to CEOs in PE-owned enterprises—

  • Quick thinking vs. systems thinking
  • Urgency vs. empathy
  • Picking talent vs. developing talent

Bain found that nearly half of the private equity firms it interviewed replaced CEOs running portfolio companies. In 60% of those situations the PE firm hadn’t anticipated making a CEO change when the company was purchased.

Critical changes at that level of leadership are expensive and risky. Explore the insights Bain gained at: The Mistakes PE Firms Make When They Pick CEOs for Portfolio Companies.