Last year, a colleague and I were speaking at a conference about my book, The Leadership Contract. There was a lively question-and-answer segment with the delegates, as everyone was grappling with the issue of leadership accountability.
One delegate asked us a final question: “If there were one or two things my organization could do differently to drive stronger leadership accountability, what would it be?”
It was a great question. My response was that in working with our clients we have learned two things: to create and communicate clear leadership expectations for all leaders, and to stop enabling mediocrity from leaders.
After our session, we had many delegates thank us for our comments. The most intriguing feedback focused around the issue of mediocre leadership. Many of the participants shared that they hadn’t fully realized how much their organizations were enabling mediocrity. They knew it had to stop because their companies were paying a huge price for it.
Through my work with clients, it’s become clear to me that leadership accountability is now a critical business issue. A recent survey conducted by Lee Hecht Harrison in partnership with HRPS (the executive division of the Society for Human Resource Management), found that 73% of the senior HR executives believe leadership accountability is a critical issue in their companies. However, only 37% of them are satisfied with the degree of accountability demonstrated by their leaders.
The universality of this issue was demonstrated when, just a few weeks ago, I was speaking at a conference in Brussels. The audience included senior CHROs from large European companies. I asked them to complete another survey and I found that only 27% of them believed their companies had a strong leadership culture. Furthermore, only 24% felt that their organizations had the courage to weed out mediocre leaders.
All of which leads to an important question: Why are so many companies willing to tolerate mediocre leadership?
In many instances, attempts to build strong leadership accountability are undermined because we fail to take action on leaders who simply are not prepared to be accountable. However, keeping mediocre leaders in their roles has consequences. It sends the message to other leaders and employees that you are prepared to tolerate mediocrity in your organization. It also disengages your high performers, who see mediocre leaders as undermining their contributions.
In the second edition of The Leadership Contract, released in January, I tried to tackle this issue head on.
It’s time for organizations to get tough and identify leaders who shouldn’t be in leadership roles. Now, some of them may not really want to be in leadership roles and are looking for a way out. Maybe they are better suited for an individual contributor role. These people should have been left as technical experts and not promoted into the management track in the first place.
Other leaders may simply need a wake up call in the form of clear leadership expectations. Has your organization drawn a line in the sand about what it really means to be a leader? Have you been clear about what you expect from your leaders, and what behavior is unacceptable?
Then, other leaders may actually need to leave your organization outright because they just don’t reflect your values, are not aligned to your strategy, and have no interest in improving their performance.
Whatever the scenario, as an organization you need to do your part and act on this critical issue. This may be a hard message, but failure to deal head on with leadership accountability will hold your organization back.
I’ve seen the positive impact when an organization starts to get serious about leadership accountability.
A client in the insurance industry was overseeing an organizational transformation. The way the company had operated for decades needed to change. Many leaders showed up every day simply going through the motions – they were on autopilot. It wasn’t all their fault; the company had tolerated this culture for many years. But the business was failing to hit financial targets and execute key strategic initiatives. Employee engagement was extremely low.
The new CEO and head of HR partnered to drive the transformation and set a new course for the future. A critical part of their strategy was to create a clear set of expectations for all leaders. They called these leadership expectations the “price of entry” conversation, which included criteria that would be required of leaders in the future. Those criteria were also used to evaluate all leaders and identify those that were not ready or capable of living up to the new expectations.
The executive team went through some frank, gut wrenching conversations about their talent. They should have been having these discussions all along, but never did. After the discussions, hard decisions were made. Several leaders ended up leaving the organization. Some left voluntarily and others were pushed out. It was a tough period, but in the end, the organization became stronger because those who remained were totally committed to leading in a new way. They were finally accountable.
Some of you may feel that this approach was too drastic. But at the end of the day, this is what driving real leadership accountability looks like.
We need to wake up and stop being naïve, assuming that lame, mediocre, and unaccountable leaders will help our companies be successful. They never have and they never will.
Are you ready to do what is necessary to build real leadership accountability in your organization?
About the Author
Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.Follow on Twitter More Content by Vince Molinaro