Dr Vince MolinaroCEO of Leadership Contract Inc., is a NY Times best-selling author and consultant on scaling leadership accountability.
Two simple words can – in the right circumstances – lead to some critical conversations, especially about the responsibility of business leadership.
Throughout my career, I’ve met senior leaders who recognize the flaws in their leadership culture, but never seem to get around to doing anything about it. That has undoubtedly been the central finding of my research: organizations recognize a lack of accountability, but have no plan to improve the situation. Through my work, I’ve tried to give senior leaders that much-needed pathway to accountability.
And not just the principles of accountability. Talking about taking more responsibility is ultimately very simple. I’ve tried to show people how to go from inexplicable to responsible. And in many cases, that journey begins with a candid conversation.
In my last article, I discussed the importance of conducting a leadership accountability audit. It involves a questionnaire that every leader in your organization fills out. The results will show you how accountable your leaders are right now, whether the organization sets the right expectations and whether it tolerates bad behavior and underperformance by leaders.
The audit results provide valuable insight into your organization’s current state of leadership responsibility. By themselves, however, the results are meaningless unless you are willing to act. This is where a strategic leadership conversation comes into play.
How to start a meaningful exchange
Once the audit results are aggregated and organized, it’s time to talk about what they mean and what you’re willing to do about them. When working directly with senior leaders on this process, I typically suggest the following structure for the strategic conversation.
Introductions and context setting (5 minutes)
Start by explaining why there is a need for this conversation and how it aligns with existing strategic priorities. Whatever challenge your organization faces – digital transformation, merger or acquisition, talent shortage, major expansion – emphasize that responsible leadership is critical to success.
Data Summary of the Leadership Accountability Audit (20 minutes)
The audit results may be shocking to some people on your senior leadership team, especially comments included in essay questions. No one likes to be confronted with evidence of gaps in leadership accountability. However, to solve a problem, you must acknowledge that you have a problem. That is where an audit helps you.
Facilitated discussion (50 minutes)
This is everyone’s chance to engage with the topic and ask and answer some tough questions. I usually suggest questions like:
1. Based on the audit evidence, do we have the leadership culture that will ensure our future success?
2. To what extent are our leaders fully committed to their roles and responsibilities? Are they willing to step forward and do what it takes?
3. Where is leadership responsibility strong in the organization? Here you can explore responsibility by level: front line, mid level and executive ranks.
4. Level work again, where is leadership responsibility weak? How can this create risks in achieving our strategic objectives?
5. As an organization, do we confront mediocre and irresponsible leaders quickly and effectively? Or do we tolerate and approve of leaders who misbehave and are incompetent?
6. What recommendations do you have for strengthening leadership accountability throughout the organization?
7. How will we measure the impact of our responses? In other words, how do we know when we have strong leadership responsibility across the organization?
Implications and next steps (15 minutes)
The remaining time in your strategic conversation should be focused on developing an action plan to address the accountability gaps. It is my experience that this process will lead to a powerful and meaningful dialogue full of much needed and healthy debates. But it will of course not be pleasant for some people involved; I’ve found that weak performance in the leadership hierarchy often points to deficiencies in the support and development provided by senior leaders.
However, if I’ve learned anything from my time as a consultant to senior leaders, it’s that no organization can build leadership accountability by shifting responsibility; everyone must accept their role in the problem and the solution.
You may also find it worth repeating the leadership accountability audit every 12 to 18 months to measure your progress in improving leadership accountability.