Accountability Leadership by Di Worrall @DiWorrall



“Break the riddle of accountability, the thinking goes, and you will have solved one of the thorniest issues in modern business.”

– Mihnea Moldoveanu from “The Promise: The Basic Building Block of Accountability,” (Rotman Magazine, Fall 2009).

Ask anyone in charge of managing people to define their number one leadership challenge, and they’re likely to tell you that it’s achieving accountability for performance. CEOs, top executive teams, managers, and line supervisors all struggle to get the right things done, the right way, by the right staff, at the right time. When goals are met or exceeded, everyone’s a hero. But even the very best organisations face unforeseen challenges and sometimes fail to meet their goals. At such times the organisation must quickly be put on the right track, and this cannot be done without a strong culture of accountability.

Whether I’m working as a senior executive, a consultant, or executive coach in organisations, I consistently witness how fractures within individual, team, and cultural accountability inevitably lead to unrealised opportunities and poor business effectiveness. Across the gamut of businesses – manufacturing, service, non-profit, government, global and small businesses – leaders find it challenging to motivate and inspire people to give their best work.

Cultures low in accountability demonstrate behaviours that undermine business results through silence, fear, blame, collusion, resistance, and deflection of responsibility. Companies enable dysfunctional cultures through structures such as organisational silos, cumbersome bureaucratic hierarchies, and entitlement-based policies.

Unchecked, such behaviours and systems contribute to the following problems:

Poor performance – In the 1980s, American CIA agent Aldrich Ames sold US government secrets to the Soviet KGB, allowing a significant breach of national security. His actions can be traced in part to the CIA’s fundamental inability to hold employees to account for their performance.

•   Lack of trust – Following an enquiry into Ames’s activities, it was perceived that CIA Director James Woolsey failed in his responsibility to implement appropriate consequences that would rectify the organisation’s systemic problems with accountability. Trust in the directors’ capacity to hold the organisation to account was significantly undermined, and he was forced to resign.

Missed deadlines and cost overruns – Consistent with many flawed private public partnerships around the world, executives at the William Osler Health Centre in Ontario were over-confident and over-optimistic at the outset of negotiating a big hospital project with the Health Infrastructure Company of Canada. Executives failed to challenge initial assumptions, and failed to hold the service provider to account with respect to cost overruns as high as $550 million, together with an additional $147 million in capital costs and significant reductions in the planned hospital’s dimensions. The program was delivered late while the detailed financial arrangements remained undisclosed and unaccountable to the public under the guise of “commercial in confidence.”

Questionable ethics – From 2002-2005, surveys by the Centre for Academic Integrity of 50,000 students across eighty-three college campuses in the US and Canada revealed that 70% of undergraduate students admitted to cheating and 41% of faculty members who were aware of student cheating did nothing, setting the stage in a student’s formative years for future unethical and unaccountable behaviour in business.

Chronic inefficiency – In its work with developing countries, The Medicines Transparency Alliance found that lack of transparency and accountability on the price, availability, quality, and promotion of medicines led to price hikes, inadequate forecasting and short supply, increased spoilage and theft due to inefficient storage, and wastage of products that were over-ordered and were beyond their use-by date.

Poor customer satisfaction – After a series of documented incidents involving stuck accelerators, Toyota was slow to accept responsibility and to recall millions of cars. The company’s tepid response and poor transparency damaged its reputation and stock value, and led to its losing its number one position in the global auto market.

Poor safety – Several rooms at Norwich and Norfolk University Hospital that were used to contain patients with lethal viruses such as tuberculosis were found to be defective. Following an investigation by the National Audit Office it was determined that both hospital management and Octagon Healthcare (the consortium that constructed and operated the hospital) knew of the defects for at least two years, but each had taken the position that the other party should be held accountable for the problem.

Di Worrall

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Genre – Business, Leadership, Workplace Behaviour, Human Resources, Executive Coaching

Rating – PG

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