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Accountable Leadership: The Key to Organizational Success

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Team leaders achieving success at enVista.

Have you ever asked yourself why some companies are more successful than others? I ask myself that question a lot. I must not be alone, given how many books are written on the topic. Good to Great comes to mind by Jim Collins, as does In Search of Excellence: America’s Best-Run Companies by Tom Peters, or Management Challenges for the 21st Century by Peter Drucker. The list goes on and on. I do not claim to have a better “mouse trap” on the concept of management theory and managerial science. However, I have had the privilege of working with top executives from both domestic and international companies across many industries, and multiple companies within the same industry. From what I have observed, there are five key distinctions and attributes that make some companies more successful than others.

  1. It starts with trust.
    Intimate trust is required among the Executive Leadership team. By intimate, I mean an almost family-like, brother/sisterhood quality to the team dynamics. I have noticed that successful organizations have a bond between the Executive Leaders whereby no one is afraid to avoid conflict, speak up, and say what is on their mind. The Executive Team members are passionate about the company’s goals versus their own personal goals. Another way to state this is that the executives give more of themselves then they actually receive-they demonstrate selfless action.

    Time and time again I have seen unsuccessful companies run by dogmatic leaders, who take the “air out of the room,” who deem themselves more important than the rest of the team, and consequently surround themselves with “yes” people. I once participated in a meeting where a CEO of a large automotive retail chain asked how his company should realign his national sales team. He was given direct feedback from his team – and then ignored it. I refer to this as “DNBI”, the “duly noted, but ignored” syndrome. Now ask yourself if you think his team will provide objective facts and data and openly share their thoughts. I highly doubt it. When there is intimate trust, company politics vanish. Why? Because politics are created in organizations when one individual places his or her priorities and agenda above everyone else’s. This fosters manipulative behavior, which is detrimental to any company.

    As a leader in your organization, ask yourself, do your team members trust one another and you to the point where they feel encouraged to bring up and resolve areas of potential conflict?
  2. Leaders are passionate beyond explanation and committed to the cause.
    I have found that successful companies have passionate people throughout the organization. This does not mean a bunch of unorganized “cheerleaders.” Rather, it means that associates from the warehouse to sales people in the field believe in what they are doing, but more importantly, understand how their role impacts the common good of the company. Again, this starts with the Executive Leadership team having a strategy and sharing a story about where the company is going and why. Successful companies have at least a three-year strategy that they are constantly reviewing, tweaking, monitoring their organizational performance against, and providing near-time feedback to their associates and other stakeholders around. Successful companies build a self-recovery system so when they get off plan, they get right back on track.

    Over the course of 17 years of consulting, I have found that people want to understand where they are going and how their individual performance affects company performance. I worked with a company that made it simple for their associates. Each associate had a placard on their desk. One side of the placard listed the company’s strategic goals for the year, while the other side listed the individual’s goals. There were no more than five corporate goals and no more than 10 individual associate goals. The objective was to align associate job functions and performance with the organization’s goals.

    As a leader in your organization, ask yourself, Do I know where my company is going and do I have a compelling story that has been shared with my organization?
  3. A discipline to stay focused and execute on results.
    I once heard a quote from an unknown source, “What you focus on is what gets done.” I have found that companies that are dynamic but consistent are more successful than companies that are dynamic and inconsistent. Inconsistency is stemmed from chasing industry fads and not staying focused on core competencies. I realize the phrase “core competency” is over used, however, it is important to know your company’s strengths and weaknesses. As the infamous Sun Tzu wrote in his book, The Art of War, “Know thyself” before going to battle. Successful organizations have an insatiable appetite for results. They thrive on taking action on their intent. Mark Samuel of Impact Consulting would call this “personal accountability.” Successful companies love keeping score, holding their associates accountable and rewarding them for meeting or achieving their priorities and goals. Hence, successful organizations are not afraid to have crucial conversations about accountability and the discipline of execution with their associates.

    Sports analogies are often over used in business, but I do like to draw parallels between basketball teams and Executive Leadership teams. A basketball team consists of five team members with one goal – executing as a team to put the ball in the basket to ultimately beat the other team (competition) by way of keeping score (measurement). Basketball requires team participation. An individual star basketball player is ineffective against a team of five players working in unison. Case in point, the great Michael Jordan had 10 NBA individual scoring championships, however, it took him 7 years before he won his first team title in the 1990-1991 season. I believe this victory was made possible because Phil Jackson surrounded Jordan with a great team that complemented Jordan (Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, BJ Armstrong and John Paxon).

    As a leader of your organization, ask yourself, does your team have the discipline to execute? Do they know what is expected of them and are they being held accountable for their individual and organizational results?
  4. Willing resources vs. capable resources.
    Another way to state this is, are your resources committed to the cause and are you giving them the tools to succeed? Henry Ford said, “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training your employees and having them stay.” I have found that organizations that have “willing” and committed resources are more successful than “capable” resources. You can have brilliant talent on your team from the best universities, but if they are not committed to your organization’s cause, then quite frankly, they are useless. Commitment to hard work, making personal sacrifices, being accountable, and willingness to learn are the resource traits that I have seen make great companies.

    I had the opportunity to hear Lou Holtz speak at a Manhattan Associates User Conference about nine years ago. He argued that success is about making sacrifices. Being grateful for or aware of one’s good fortune is not enough. Creating or nurturing opportunity takes internal drive and dedication. You can teach and train people what they need to know, but what they do with it comes from their own internal hunger and commitment.

    The same applies to Executive Leadership teams. The most successful companies are committed to their business 24/7. Yes, I said 24/7! I worked with an Executive Leadership team as a Change Management Facilitator three years ago and what I found fascinating was that the team was “on” 24/7, not because they felt peer pressure, but because they truly loved what they were doing, and consequently, they were motivated to overcome their company’s challenges. It was not uncommon for them to meet during the weekend to review strategies and tactical plans. I am not advocating a lack of work/life balance. Instead, I am convinced that successful organizations foster passionate leaders who bring their outside life and values to work.

    As a Leader in your organization, are your resources willing, committed and talented, and is your Leadership team as committed as you are?
  5. Avoidance of Accountability.
    I am a fan of Mark Samuel, author of Personal Accountability and Organizational Accountability. I stated above that Samuel defines accountability as taking action on your intent. With every situation, you make a choice; you can either be a victim or you can be accountable for your actions. Successful organizations are made up of highly accountable people. Beyond taking action on their intent, they are change agents driving the business forward. Using another sports analogy, successful organizations require associates who want to play the game and take action versus sit on the sideline. Benchwarmers are frowned upon.

    I was prompted to write this piece after watching how some companies have come to enVista with a “call to action” and then followed through and “executed” the strategy that we helped them develop, while others spent significant dollars on consulting and executed zero.

    I am always baffled when we are more passionate about a client’s business than they are.

In the end, I believe it boils down to this: successful companies reward and appreciate results, they foster their associates to take action and be accountable, and they seek out passionate people who are motivated by the company’s direction and therefore commit to the company’s cause over their own personal agendas. Simply stated, successful organizations recognize that a positive culture is based upon conversations, relationships and commitments. Effective executives understand the power of language, how to harness that language and deliver a concise message.

As a leader, do you foster accountability, do you create an environment where positive thinking creates positive actions?

I would also add, that successful leaders of successful organizations:

  1. Respect their associates
  2. They listen
  3. Their moral compass is never questioned
  4. They are humble
  5. They seldom take credit for their company’s success
  6. They surround themselves with committed and talented people
  7. They have pin point focus
  8. They are great storytellers
  9. They think more of others than they do themselves

Always enMotion,

Jim Barnes

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