We’ve all been through it…some more than others. The ups and downs of business. You know what I mean, one minute you are riding the tide of sales that seem to fall from the sky, and the next your pipeline is a barren wasteland. (Those of you are lucky enough to have not been through this can stop reading at this point.) For the rest of you, I have more questions than answers. What is it about those barren times that lead employees to say “the culture has changed here or this is not the place it was when I started”?
My theory is what is being felt is a (re)new(ed) emphasis on accountability. Because the pipeline is not as robust, revenue (certainly, at least, growth of revenue) declines, therefore, we all manage expenses much tighter, perhaps even cutting some expenses. Projects get canceled or put on hold. We become less tolerant of poor or marginal performers and in some cases those employees are let go. It is this emphasis on accountability that employees feel. They may only be able to articulate it as “culture change”.
Creating an environment of accountability is one of the most challenging aspects of leadership. Fast growth in revenue hides a multitude of sins, not the least of which is the failure of management to instill the culture of accountability throughout the organization. Projects, investments, and people should be managed with the same scrutiny whether you are experiencing triple digit growth or in decline, right? A poor performer is a poor performer in good times and in bad, right?
To create an environment of accountability requires three things: clearly defined expectations, which includes deliverables, deadlines and depth; an acknowledgement of the understanding of the expectations; and fair and consistent consequences for not meeting expectations. Those three elements do not change in different business climates, do they? Let’s look at two areas of accountability that occur in business every day: Project Accountability; and, Employee Accountability.
Defining expectations and deliverables in projects is something we all have done throughout our career. We may use different methodologies, but we have a pretty good idea of what we want to achieve through the project. Many of us also use some sort of governance to decide which projects will have resources assigned and which ones will not.
I grant you, the level of risk a company is willing to assume will be different during peaks than in the valleys. But shouldn’t the processes and the expectations of projects be the same? Marginal projects are marginal projects. If the return is not there, should we be doing the project, even if we have cash on hand to support it?
And, of the projects we do fund, what happens when they don’t provide the benefit that was touted as the reason for embarking on it in the first place? Is the executive or line of business sponsor held accountable to the results?
And, what of our teams? Shouldn’t we be holding our teams to the same standards regardless of the businesses economic situation? Of course, we should. We should set clear expectations of performance. This has to be a continuous conversation. It cannot be done just at hiring, or once a year during performance evaluations. It should happen as a part of a normal day, whether it is a task assignment, a project role, or a strategic directive. Here is what your role is and here is what I expect of you.
For expectations to be clear, they must be understood. As a leader it is our responsibility to ensure the expectations are understood. This can only happen through conversation. Do they understand what is being asked of them? Do they understand your expectations for the deliverables and the time in which they are needed? Do they have the skills to carry out the task, project or strategy, and if not, what resources are available to them to obtain those skills?
How are you holding them accountable if the expectations (deadlines, deliverables, quality) are not met? Are there conversations? Do you explain the gaps? Do you refer back to the original conversations to understand if there was a disconnect? Do you offer support, coaching, training or education to fill those gaps? With those that consistently miss expectations, do you have the crucial conversations with them so they clearly understand what must be done and the consequences of not achieving it?
The Big Question
Several years ago, a much younger me gave an interview in which I stated something to the effect of “you have to grow with downsizing in mind.” It was pretty controversial (and somewhat prophetic) within my company at the time. We were in a period of meteoric growth. “What downsizing”, they wanted to know. I was the CIO and what I was trying to say was that IT cannot growing linearly with the company. We must grow our systems in such a way that they can grow…and shrink…with the company.
When the valley did appear, it was still a shock to everyone’s system, mine included. It was the second time in my career I began to hear the refrains of “it’s different here now”, “this place used to be fun” and “our culture really has changed”.
My big question for you, dear reader, is this: “Is it possible to create an environment of accountability and transparency and have a fun, challenging, exciting place to work in the peaks, as well as the valleys?”