Why Accountability Matters

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

Don't let accountability be your weak link...Accountability and transparency are hot topics today, and rightly so…Given this new found popularity, I felt that a piece delving into the topic of accountability would be both prudent and timely. Frankly, considering what the lack of accountability has done to our nation’s economy and political structure we should all be spending more time on the topic. However the truth is that few people really like to hear the “A” word applied to their individual circumstances, choices, decisions, and performance. Regrettably, this is precisely why we are embroiled with many of the daunting challenges facing our country today.  Nothing keeps personal and corporate train wrecks from occurring more than a solid framework of accountability. In today’s post I’ll examine the many  reasons for why accountability should matter to all of us…

Regardless of where you are in the corporate hierarchy, accountability is a fundamental principle associated with success. Administrative and support staff needs to be accountable for the quality and timeliness of their work. Sales people need to be accountable for not only production volume, but also the manner in which they represent the company brand while attaining said volume. Management needs to be accountable to their subordinates, as well as to executive leadership. Executives need to be accountable for their quality of leadership and decision making, and as we discussed yesterday, board members need to be accountable to shareholders. I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t also take a moment to remind politicians that they are accountable to their constituents.

Accountability is the lowest cost, most practical, and most productive form of risk management and quality assurance that can be implemented across an enterprise. It is really nothing more than a common sense understanding that decisions made within a framework are going to have a greater chance of success than those made in a vacuum. Decisioning options vetted in the full light of public view will by default go a long way toward the prevention of self-dealing.

It is those individuals or organizations who don’t believe they are accountable to anyone, for anything, or at anytime that are nothing more than a disaster waiting to happen. All human beings, regardless of who they are, can be capable of making huge mistakes when operating in a vacuum or under a veil of secrecy. While there are certainly those individuals who are just predatory, bad to the bone people, clearly not everyone who makes a mistake is evil with the intent to do harm to others. Rather many people when faced with a tough situation simply were not operating in an accountable manner, and therefore made a decision that they would not have likely made if they were openly operating under the scrutiny and review of others.

All one has to do is to just pay attention to the recent headlines to understand the critical importance of, and need for accountability. I truly believe that if most of the public figures falling prey to bad decisions of late had been operating in the open light of day, and had they sought counsel in their decision making, that the outcomes of their recent debacles may have been quite different. If you think back to any of the bad and/or regrettable decisions you’ve made in your life, it is highly probable that you didn’t seek the counsel of others (or ignored said counsel) prior to making the wrong decision. Setting up an enterprise wide framework for accountability is as simple as implementing the following five items:

1. Have a clearly articulated statement of corporate values: Not only state the values that you want the entity to use as a foundation for operation, but also use the values to frame your vision, mission, strategy, tactics, and processes. Hire and manage based upon the corporate values. If you hire someone who doesn’t share the corporate values, or don’t hold existing employees accountable for maintaining the corporate values, then you will get what you deserve.

2. Have a written delegation of authority: A written guideline for corporate decisioning will help individuals make good decisions. Describe in great detail which employees are authorized to make what decisions. Establish budgetary and approval guidelines for all decisions, making sure that good checks and balances are in place to help keep employees accountable.

3. Implement a good leadership development program: Utilizing training, coaching, mentoring, peer review, talent management, and other development best practices will help insure that your leaders will continue to grow, and that corporate accountability guidelines are being consistently reinforced.

4. Active Oversight: Engaged management oversight is key to preventing poor decisioning. It is fairly easy to course correct if you’re only a few degrees off course for a short period of time. However, if allowed to wander far astray for great lengths of time, it may be virtually impossible to prevent a disaster. All small problems can be dealt with. However the bigger the problem, and the longer it has been allowed to fester, the more difficult and costly the solution (if there is a solution) will be.

5. Compensatory Penalties: Those individuals who believe they are substantially at risk for poor decisioning will simply make fewer bad choices. Fines, liquidated or punitive damages, compensation forfeiture, restitution, and/or termination will keep most people on the right side of the line.  

The bottom line is that individuals, teams, business units, divisions and corporations will be better off when a culture of accountability is adopted. Don’t run from accountability; rather embrace it as a way to manage personal and professional risk.

Related Post: ”Rogue CEOs & Board Accountability

CEOs In Crisis

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

CEOs In CrisisCEOs are in a state of crisis. As an adviser to CEOs, I can tell you that chief executives are under siege on all fronts…This is clearly a defining time for CEOs as an occupational class. To be clear, I’m not using the term “crisis” as it relates to dealing with the difficulties and challenges associated with navigating a recession, rather I’m talking about CEOs being able to successfully manage the intensity of negative public opinion.  In today’s post I’ll share why I believe most CEOs are unfairly being vilified.

Will the actions of a few bad CEOs take down the reputations of all, or is the American public smart enough to see through the blame game currently being played by the media and the politicians? Look, I understand that Americans are upset about the economic debacle we find ourselves presently entangled in. I’m upset and outraged as well. Nobody could listen to the stories of CEO abuse that have circulated in the media of late and not have the hair stand-up on the back of their neck. That being said, not all CEOs are bad guys…in fact I’ll go so far as to say rogue CEOs are the exception and not the rule.

So, are CEOs getting a bad rap? In a word, yes. We’ve entered the blame zone of rash allegations and finger pointing in order to deflect responsibility. While I understand that no sane person could have watched the events of the last few month’s and not want to pin the blame on someone, simply assigning “villain” status to chief executives as a class because their compensation plans seem egregious to some is not the answer.

So, is CEO compensation out of control? In some cases I absolutely believe it is, but not in every case as many politicians and pundits would have you believe. I take great exception to those chief executives that take advantage of the position they hold, the shareholders they represent, and the relationships they’re entrusted with. That being said, the CEOs described in the preceding sentence don’t constitute the majority of chief executives.

I have called for transparency in previously addressing the issue of Rogue CEOs and Board Accountability. I can tell you from first hand experience that most chief executives are hard working professionals who take their fiduciary obligations very seriously. Moreover they hold the position of chief executive while incurring great personal risk and sacrifice. All one has to do is watch a CEO testify on Capitol Hill to know that the buck does eventually come to rest with the chief executive. I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to chasten the shameless politicians who use national tragedy and congressional testimony as a publicity platform to air venomous soundbites in order to transfer blame and placate their constituencies, but I digress…

At face value, I don’t care how much money a CEO does or doesn’t make. The issue is not the amount of remuneration paid out to CEOs, but rather on what basis, and when it is paid out. Simply put, CEOs that perform deserve all the compensatory benefits that accompany said performance, and to compensate them for the risk they undertake in the execution of their duties. Conversely, those CEOs who fail to perform have no business maximizing compensation to the detriment of the stakeholders they were supposed to be serving. I have no troube with a CEO using a corporate jet to conduct business that is in the best interests of shareholders. It is the CEO who abuses shareholder trust by using the corporate jet for personal gain or frivolous activities that has crossed the line. Again, keep in mind that most CEOs have never even seen the inside of a private jet…

Sure some CEOs are idiots, but so are a certain percentage of people in any occupational class. No doubt CEOs will need to work overtime in order to rebuild trust and credibility with the public…Their actions must match their words, and they need to demonstrate an understanding that holding the title of chief executive is a priviledge, not a right. All of this said, what is perhaps most important for the American public to realize is the true peril that lies ahead if we over-react and neuter CEOs such that they become nothing more than powerless figureheads. Oversight is a good thing, but where were these concerned politicians leading up to this current mess.

Bottom line…it is not wrong to assign some blame to the rogue CEOs who deserve it, but it is terribly wrong to assign blame to those good chief executives just because CEO is printed on their business card.

Trust and CEOs

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

Steve RubelIf you’re a CEO, are you trusted? If you’re not the CEO, do you trust your chief executive? Steve Rubel, the Director of Insights for Edelman Digital, and one of my favorite bloggers (Micro Persuasion blog) was recently quoted as saying “People have not trusted CEOs for years, and especially not for the last 12 months.” I normally tend to agree with Steve, and regrettably, I must admit that he accurately reflects the public perception with the aforementioned quote as well. As a backdrop for today’s post, I’d suggest reading a prior post entitled “The No Spin Zone” in which I breakdown the need for trust in the workplace.

One of the first things I stress with my clients is that to be an effective leader they must be regarded as trustworthy. CEOs must make it a priority to not only establish trust, but to maintain a trust bond with all key stakeholders and constituents. CEOs who break trust with their CXOs, management, staff, investors, lenders, media, vendors, suppliers, and partners will not survive for long. Even if by some stroke of luck they happen to survive, they certainly will not be effective. While great leaders will often have their policies and positions challenged, they will rarely have their character or integrity called into question.

So why is it that the public does not trust CEOs? If you will, I’ll ask you to put aside for a moment the fact that the media has vilified CEOs of late…Most rational people will see through the sensationalism and exploitation of a few easy targets, and not let the acts of a few rogue CEOs determine the fate of an entire occupational class (see “CEOs in Crisis“). The real reason that CEOs are not trusted is that they are not well known at a personal level.

CEOs who either sequester themselves away in their offices, or allow their access to be gated by others do themselves and their organizations a great disservice. CEOs who view themselves at the top of the org chart overseeing all, as opposed to placing themselves at the bottom of the org chart serving all others will have a difficult time establishing trust. It is a complete misnomer that you have to guard your authentic self to be an effective leader. Quite the opposite is true…To be known at a personal level, to be authentic and transparent, and to be just another member of the team doesn’t make you a bad leader, it makes you a trusted, respected, and effective leader.     

Rogue CEOs & Board Accountability

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

Accountability should be more than fine print...Rogue CEOs…given the recent failure of banks and financial institutions previously thought to be untouchable, there has been a tremendous amount of justifiable venom being spewed at the CEOs of these firms. Their ignorance, and in some cases their arrogance, allowed these rogue CEOs to operate outside of normal business rules, conduct self-serving agendas, and partake in self-dealing transactions all while receiving outrageous compensation. Before I go any further, let me state that I believe we should understand that the overwhelming majority of CEOs operate within the bounds of reason and ethics consistently placing stakeholder interests ahead of their own. The real question we should be asking is where were the boards of directors during this period of mismanagement? You see it is the board who is responsible for holding the chief executive accountable. Even where you have a CEO who is inclined to misbehave, an actively engaged board of directors simply won’t allow it to happen. In todays post I’ll examine the role of the board of directors in keeping CEOs accountable… 

Before I proceed further, and for contextual purposes, I believe it’s important to actually define the role of the board of directors. While there are certainly a variety of opinions as to the roles and obligations of a company’s board of directors, from my perspective they can all be boiled down into four simple responsibilities:

  1. Shareholder Accountability: A board member’s primary responsibility is to act in good faith as a fiduciary in representing the long-term best interests of shareholders. A board’s actions and decisions must be able to pass the litmus test of public scrutiny (legally, morally, and ethically), rise above personal agendas, and always place shareholder interests above all else;
  2. Corporate Governance: A board must insure that the corporation’s charter and by-laws are adhered to. Moreover a board must use its best efforts to hold executives accountable for insuring that corporate actions fall within other legal, financial, regulatory, and compliance boundaries. Ignorance and apathy are not the traits of a good board. Great board members are proactive, involved, supportive, consultative, experienced, and savvy. They know the rules, play between the lines, and do the right things. 
  3. CEO Oversight: It is the board’s job to select the CEO, provide the CEO with support and guidance, and to hold the CEO accountable. Good boards exercise great care and prudence in profiling CEO candidates, recruiting the right CEO for the job, providing the CEO with a clear job description, successfully onboarding the CEO, and holding the CEO accountable for meeting a set of clearly defined expectations. Good boards do not attempt to micro-manage a CEO, rather they understand their highest value in being a value added resource for the CEO focused on helping the CEO become successful. 
  4. External Visibility: A key responsibility of the board is to serve as an external champion of the corporate brand. Board members should have a clear understanding of the corporate vision and mission, and where prudent, evangelize the message for the benefit of the corporation. Whether this requires providing networking assistance, investor relations support, or engaging the media, a highly regarded and active board can add substantial value to the enterprise.

In the text that follows I’ll offer several points that will help a board evaluate whether or not they have the right CEO for the job:

  • Tenure: In a previous post entitled “CEO Term Limits” (a must read for board members) I stated that there is no such thing as a standard shelf-life for a CEO. No rules of thumb apply when evaluating whether a CEO has outworn his/her usefulness purely from a chronological perspective. I’ve witnessed CEO’s where the company has outgrown their skill sets, and/or abilities within a year of hire (a bad hire…), and I’ve also observed many instances of CEOs that have successfully guided companies for 20 years. The question is not how long a CEO serves, but rather what he or she does while serving. Whether age 32, or age 72, a board must ask themselves, is our CEO doing the job, and perhaps the better question is, are they the best CEO for the job?
  • Performance: The topic of performance is a multi-faceted issue. A CEO’s performance should be benchmarked against a variety of key performance indicators which are clearly spelled out in the chief executive’s employment agreement. When evaluating performance, a board must evaluate whether a lack of performance exists across all areas or in a single area, whether the lack of performance is a short-term aberration vs. the likelihood of it being a burgeoning problem, and whether the CEO can be coached through the performance gap, or whether the lack of performance is an irreconcilable issue.
  • Ethics Violations: The character of the CEO is often synonymous with the brand of the enterprise. Once a chief executive has violated the public trust, or made a gross or negligent error in judgment which could taint the corporate brand, a board should move swiftly to restore the integrity of the corporation. Many things can be spun, justified, rationalized, or managed, but a lack of ethical behavior on the part of the chief executive is not one of them. Let me also be clear that a good employment contract will make null and void any favorable severance packages where malfeasance, misfeasance, gross negligence, or fraud on the part of the CEO is present.
  • Loss of Confidence: Once the board, the employees, the capital markets, the press, or other key constituencies have lost confidence in the CEO, the board must replace the CEO. A CEO cannot lead, motivate, or inspire without the trust and confidence of those they serve.
  • Lack of Development: The corporate enterprise and the business world in general, are dynamic, fluid, and evolving environments. Therefore great chief executives cannot be static in their personal or professional development, or in their strategic and tactical approach to doing business. A CEO that does not exhibit the ability to change, innovate, and grow with the world around them is someone who will likely need to be replaced.

In the final analysis, the board’s decision as to whether a CEO should be replaced is a decision that should be made within the framework of managing risk and opportunity. The board must weigh the transitioning a CEO against the financial costs, the impact of the business disruption and lack of continuity that can come with replacing the CEO, the market reaction to a change in leadership, and whether the decision is ultimately motivated by right thinking. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the title of “Director” should not be synonymous with “Crony.”  Any board member not willing to uphold the aforementioned duties and responsibilities should be replaced in a New York second.