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Fostering Organizational Accountability

November 3, 2021
By John McNichols

When most business owners started out, the only one to blame for something not getting done was ourselves. There was no one else to delegate tasks or objectives to. 

We were the Chief Executive, Project Manager, Chief Engineer, Finance Manager, Bookkeeper, Operations Manager, and Janitor. Early on in most businesses, as complimentary resources are added, everyone pitches in and does ‘whatever it takes,’ with little need for structure. But as we grow and add staff, the business requires a logical infrastructure.

Who is responsible for getting this or that done? Who do I go to for what? To whom am I accountable? Is there anyone that is accountable to me?  Who is ‘in charge’ of getting this or that accomplished?  Part of this infrastructure is found in a Functional Organizational Chart that defines the various functions the business must accomplish. Even if much of the functionality is ‘contracted out,’ someone within the organization needs to be responsible for the performance of the tasks. 

Formal org charts define who is ‘in charge’ of what, who reports to whom, and their position within the company. Good organizational charts divide up objectives and missions into logical elements.  Sales, Operations, and Administration are at the core of every business. Many businesses have additional functions or break each of these general functions further into logical sub-elements. Great organizations not only define who wears what hat, but also what they need to do, what they are responsible for, what are the expected results, and some objective measures. As an individual leader in an organization, how do you know if you are having a successful day/week/month/year? What baseline do you judge your performance and satisfaction?

Many Founder / Owner organizations operate on the whims and moods of the leader on a day-to-day basis, even after growing to a significant enterprise. Not only is this hard on the organization and its resources, but often the leader feels they must do and be involved in everything. This is often the limiting factor in growing beyond the early start-up stages and becoming a growing business and creating value for business owners. 

By defining structure and roles and assigning them to individuals, much of this organizational and individual stress is minimized. Once this organizational infrastructure is established, it is not something that should change regularly. If Sally is responsible for accomplishing something, and she falls behind for some reason, it still needs to be clear that it is Sally’s responsibility. Don’t just give the responsibility to someone else because they are ‘available’ or ‘a team player.’ This can breed a culture where no one is accountable for anything.

There is always someone else to blame, or accolades going to the ‘visible’ instead of the ‘involved.’ Instead, help the organization by making it clear who is responsible for a particular function, what needs to be accomplished, and how is it measured. Clear roles, responsibilities, expectations, and measures clarify and communicate inside and outside an organization and enable organizations and leaders to succeed.

To draw upon an American football sports analogy, everyone cannot be a quarterback. Successful teams need linemen, receivers, running backs, linebackers, pass defense, and even kickers.  Yes, many championships have been won by kickers. Why does this work so consistently?  It works because each of the players has a well-defined role to play, trains to perform at the highest level to achieve the expectations, and have visible and well-established measures of their success. 

In any organized sport and many leisure activities, the ‘scorecard’ is known and does not change frequently.  Success for a team sport is the Win-Loss ratio.  For a baseball player it might be RBIs or strikeouts.  In deer hunting, it is points on the rack.  For fishing, the length and weight of the ‘catch.’  In his book “the game of work,” Chuck Coonradt espouses a theory that ‘people will pay to work harder than they will work for pay.’1   Consider what we pay for our kids to participate in travel soccer leagues, cheerleading camps, or equestrian events.  How much did we spend on our last hunting trip?  Let’s see, new gun, ammo, scope, camo gear, snacks, gas food lodging, deer pee scent, (yes, it’s a thing), etc. 

We do these things because the criteria for success is clear and we ascribe value to it.  In contrast, Chuck explains that many individuals are not sure what success looks like for them in the workplace or it is constantly changing.  Companies that have clearly defined measures of success that are consistent in their mission, objectives, and goals, are among the top-performing organizations.  

The key to fostering organizational accountability is to have clearly defined, visible, and understood goals, objectives, and measurements.  Any leader’s job is to cast the vision for what they want to see accomplished or achieved.  This is the overarching thing that keeps us focused on the early stages of our enterprise and gets us through the difficult times.  Without that vision and belief in what we set out to achieve, we would not be where we are today.  As our companies grow, we need to be able to not only cast that vision to an ever-growing group of diverse individuals with various backgrounds, skills, and experiences, but we need to be able to break this vision down into bite-size parts that can be assigned to individuals to ‘own.’ 

This process begins with assigning roles and responsibilities for specific functions to individual leaders.These roles and responsibilities are the ‘what’ we want to be accomplished.  Expectations are the ‘how’ we want to achieve the desired results. Finally, the measurement piece is the objective criteria that determine how an individual leader is performing.  These need to be objective metrics, or Key Performance Indicators, (KPIs) that indicate achievement or attainment of the desired result. This last piece is the secret to fostering accountability within an organization.

By establishing an organization that is aligned with the functions needed to achieve the company’s mission, assigning individual leaders to each of those functions, and aligning KPIs with those functional elements, clear lines of accountability can be identified and managed. By establishing KPIs that are visible, controllable, and realistic, a leader can see the results of their effort in concrete terms on a regular basis. By establishing these KPIs for each key leader, an executive can know who is responsible for achieving which company objectives, and how they are progressing towards their goals. This crystalizes who is responsible for what.  This is the basis for any accountability system.

To foster individual leader accountability, clear roles, responsibilities, expectations, and measurements need to be in place. These need to be assigned to individual leaders within a functional organizational structure that is aligned with the company’s mission. Without establishing these clear, visible, and commonly understood elements, there can be no accountability. Companies and leaders that implement these tools will perform better, have less stress, and are more likely to achieve their vision. 

Author Bio: John McNichols is a Project Director at Cogent Analytics, a leading business management consulting firm based in NC consecutively ranked on the inc. 5000 list. John is an influential leader, strategic thinker, and relationship builder with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Engineering Management. In addition, he develops strategic relationships with his clients while innovating and implementing systems to improve consistency, profitability, and quality.

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