EXEMPLIFY RESPONSIBLE LEADERSHIP BY TAKING RADICAL RESPONSIBILITY
By James McPartland
"Mistakes were made."
The increasing use of a passive voice to describe the actions and decisions of human beings as if they were events that unfolded on their own has become an almost comical device to avoid taking responsibility for outcomes. Most of us are savvy enough not to actually say, “Mistakes were made,” when we are asked for reasons that something went other than how it was planned. But we avoid taking responsibility in other, subtler ways.
When asked to explain a bad outcome, most of us will instinctively begin to place blame, both directly and indirectly. We mention the economy, the weather, and other events beyond our control. It’s not unheard of for a losing candidate in a political race to blame rain for suppressing voter turnout, or for a real estate agent to point to larger trends in the local housing market. All these may be very valid explanations for a less than desirable result, but they are rarely the only explanations.
Passing the buck is contagious, and in my work as an executive coach to CEOs, organizational leaders, and their teams across the world, I have seen firsthand how it can damage successful companies from the inside. Yet avoiding responsibility goes much deeper than just commonplace blame shifting. Two recent examples from my own coaching practice illustrate the less obvious ways great leaders may fail to create a culture of responsibility in their organizations. These situations shared almost nothing in common on the surface, yet both issues were resolved because starting from the top down, the leaders within each organization each took
a radical approach to personal and professional responsibility.
CLIENT #1: "JEFF"
The first client is a man I’ll call “Jeff.” Jeff is an executive of a large, multinational firm, overseeing more than twenty brand managers. He is fantastic at his job; his direct reports love him, and the brands they manage are among the corporation’s top performers. I’d known about him for a while, and I was honestly a little surprised when he called to engage my services.
Jeff’s problem concerned one of his direct reports, “Susan.” Susan had been a top performing brand manager for seven years. She held an Ivy League MBA and was in charge of a gourmet line of prepackaged meals targeted at upper-middle income women. She managed chefs, designers, and a team of salespeople who built and maintained relationships with distributors.
Recently, Jeff had become concerned about Susan’s department. First, one of their most important chefs quit. As Jeff investigated, he began to hear complaints that Susan was micromanaging everyone and responding harshly to mistakes and disagreements. Rumors circulated that more people in the department were interviewing with other companies. Jeff called me for advice to stop the bleeding and prevent further damage.
CLIENT #2: "ROBERT"
The second client is a man I’ll call “Robert.” Robert is an easygoing guy with a master’s in engineering. He recruits teams of engineers and IT specialists for work with fortune 100 companies. His teams almost never meet with him in person; everything is done online or through video-conferencing. Robert is kind, polite and extremely conscientious. Since teams tend to take on the characteristics of their leaders, I was puzzled when he told me that some of their client companies were complaining about missed deadlines and poor customer service.
Again, on the surface, the problems these men faced were very different. One was dealing with a manager whose department is rather suddenly having issues. Another is dealing with an ever-changing team of engineers and tech specialists—with varying degrees of training—who aren’t measuring up to expectations. And while these two challenges required tailored solutions, both involved rethinking the concept of responsibility starting at the top.
A DIFFERENT WAY OF LOOKING AT RESPONSIBILITY
Responsibility is one of those funny words that can carry both extreme positive and negative connotations, depending on the context in which it is discussed. We admire people who voluntarily assume responsibility and consider this an indispensable part of leadership. Yet it is very hard to hear the word “responsibility” without immediately thinking about the word “blame.” In fact, one of the reflexive responses you will hear when you bring up the concept of responsibility is an accusation that you are somehow "blaming the victim."
With my clients, I propose a different way of looking at responsibility, especially in the context of an existing problem. I explain that responsibility is not about assigning blame, but rather about empowering the best possible solutions. It requires thoroughly investigating multiple causes of a problem and identifying exactly which of those causes we have control over. Without this process, we are powerless to change what we are not satisfied with, and we remain ignorant of viable courses of action.
5-STEP RESET PROCESS
When dealing with situations such as those Jeff and Robert found themselves in, where it becomes clear that responsibility needs to be modeled from the top down, I walk my clients through a simple five-step RESET process:
1. Recount the issue. With as much precision and detail as possible, ask yourself: What's really going wrong?
2. Evaluate the current impact of the issue: Who or what is affected and how?
3. Surmise the future impact if the issue remains unresolved: What is most likely to happen? What is really at stake?
4. Envision the ideal resolution of the issue: What is the best possible outcome, given current realities?
5. Take action: What are the best, quantifiable actions you can take right now?
I find that many CEOs and organizational leaders struggle with step one (recounting the issue), so I asked Jeff several detailed questions about Susan’s behavior and performance to help us clarify what was really going on. I could tell my questions were making him uncomfortable, but diagnosing the problem accurately and precisely was very important before further action was taken. Jeff, to his credit, answered candidly.
We then evaluated the current impact and discussed the direct implications of Susan’s behavior: the lower morale and performance of the staff. It was clear that, if left unaddressed (surmising the future impact), Susan’s department would experience a great deal of turnover and probably a further decline in performance. Together, Jeff and I envisioned the ideal resolution and agreed that the best possible outcome was for Susan to confront whatever precipitated her change in behavior and return to her "old self".
I think Jeff was initially concerned that I would recommend that he fire Susan. Instead, we came up with a “take action’ plan, starting with some very specific questions to ask her. These were all well within the appropriate boundaries for a professional conversation, but they also got to the heart of what was going on in her department. I knew that making these inquiries took Jeff out of his comfort zone, but I told him to come to me when he had the answers.
It’s important to remember that even positive changes bring their own disruptions. As Robert and I went through step one, we concluded that his challenges arose from working conditions made possible by the unprecedented technological advancements of the last two decades. Before high-speed internet connections and video conferencing software, teams like Robert’s would have to meet in person at least occasionally. This progress has freed up countless manhours for more productivity and given managers like Robert access to a workforce from all over the country. But they have also caused some things to slip through the cracks.
Robert and I went through the complaints he had received, carefully evaluated them and considered possible causes. It is very important to take time with this process, instead of jumping to conclusions. We concluded the missed deadlines weren’t due to people working slowly, but rather to disagreements over exactly who was supposed to do what. Similarly, we determined that the poor customer service wasn’t a result of misconduct on the part of his team members, but rather of subpar social skills. Naturally, we surmised that if these issues went unaddressed in the future, they would result in lost business.
The challenges Jeff and Robert were facing were very different, but both required not greater oversight, but a stronger culture of responsibility to address effectively. When Jeff reported back to me about his conversation with Susan, he confirmed my suspicions. Susan was facing a challenge in her personal life: her husband had asked for a separation, which had completely blindsided her. Like so many of us, she believed she could compartmentalize this problem, but it was nonetheless affecting her job performance.
I was able to help Jeff see that Susan’s separation was connected to her micromanaging and snapping at her subordinates in two ways. First, her ability to trust others had been greatly damaged by the situation in her personal life. If she couldn’t trust the man she had lived with for almost twenty years, who could she trust? Second, with so much in her life feeling out of her control, exercising greater control at work felt comforting. Jeff’s job, I explained, was to help her see her behavior from her employees’ perspective. She wasn’t responsible for her husband’s behavior. But she was responsible for her own behavior, even if it was subconscious. And the most responsible thing she could do in her situation was make sure she was taking good care of herself.
To address Robert’s situation, I explained that researchers have observed "digital technologies can contribute to a lack of clarity around the rules, roles and relationships, making responsibility or the choice to take ownership all the way to the end outcome, more difficult in today’s workplace". I helped Robert understand how he needed to take the responsibility to clearly define the role of every person on the team, rather than assuming that everyone “got it” or that everyone would look out for each other.
Robert himself is very agreeable and friendly, but like many leaders, he takes the skills that come naturally to him for granted. He didn’t realize that many people—especially in technology-driven fields—may have to intentionally learn how to relate to others in a smooth and natural way. Because he doesn’t meet with his teams in person, his values and expectations haven’t been clearly communicated to new members. Together we pioneered some digital hangouts where he was able to help the team connect with him and with one another more meaningfully. He began to see that as he helped the team members build stronger relationships with each other, they were much more likely to look out for one another and ensure their clients got great service.
Jeff reported to me that Susan had wanted to try marriage counseling, but her husband had refused to go. Jeff gently encouraged Susan to go to therapy on her own, which of course was covered by her insurance. He also suggested she get regular massages and begin an exercise and wellness program to discharge stress. Together, Jeff and I developed a plan to help Susan revamp her communication strategies, which ensured all her employees felt comfortable expressing their perspectives to her without fear of backlash or reprisal.
PRACTICING RESPONSIBLE LEADERSHIP
The breakdown of responsibility in both Robert’s and Jeff’s situations was complicated. Jeff had correctly assumed that Susan’s personal life was her own responsibility. But he had failed to recognize his responsibility as her leader to ensure she was aware of the resources at her disposal to take care of her personal needs. This was understandably uncomfortable for Jeff, but it proved to be a vital step in ensuring that he didn’t lose a valuable employee and ultimately an entire department. For her part, Susan had correctly assumed that she couldn’t work on her marriage unless her husband was willing to work on it too. But she had failed to recognize that she could still work on herself and give herself the capacity to respond to their marital challenges in the most productive and healthy way possible.
The breakdown of responsibility in Robert’s case was one of the newer challenges presented by digital technology. Robert previously relied on employees subconsciously picking up on various cues he gave when teaching and training. Because this had always worked so well, Robert was never aware of what he was doing or why it was working. The remote nature of his current leadership role meant that he had to deliberately think through all the concepts he had subconsciously communicated before and learn to communicate them explicitly and intentionally. Robert had always taken the responsibility to live out the values he wanted to see in his team members. But now he had to take responsibility for how well his team understood those values, and for communicating them in a way that team members could understand without meeting in person.
Both Robert and Jeff are competent and effective leaders. Both faced challenges that they were able to overcome because they addressed them promptly and radically instead of allowing them to spin out of control.
Just as each of us are responsible for the state of our own physical, emotional and mental health, as leaders we must take responsibility for the state of our departments, companies and employees. Take a radical approach and prioritize the practice of RESET: One by one, Recount issues in the workplace and at home as they arise, Evaluate the current impact, Surmise the future impact (if left unaddressed), Envision the ideal resolution, and lastly, Take immediate action. At the end of the day in life and business, taking responsibility is like exercising a muscle: the more we make a habit of it, the stronger we get and the easier it becomes to be the leaders we are gifted to be.