Accountability – separating milk out of a cup of tea

This article examines the concept of ‘accountability’ and explores its impact on organisational culture and business responses. But first, let’s baseline our understanding of organisational culture. Easiest described as a set of values, beliefs, norms, customs, rules, codes of conduct that are shared by its members and demarcates a business from others, organisational culture can at times appear woolly and hard to pinpoint.

Even the smallest well-intentioned action contributes to organisational culture. For instance, faced with stiff competition, examples of businesses that have tightened decision making by signing off investments at head office are increasingly common. Rigorous scrutiny of supporting information and multi layered approvals inevitably create bottlenecks and slow decision making. Front line sales forces are left powerless to negotiate and achieve closure; often losing out to competition that arrive better empowered to agree terms and sign off commercials.  Sales force morale inevitably gets dented and with it an overall absence of initiative and drive. Such examples abound in every functional area and shapes organisational culture at most businesses.

The scope of culture is significant and enormous; numerous aspects of an organisation contribute to its culture and these moving parts ensure that organisational culture is forever evolving. Effective and efficient organisational cultures encourage new ideas and practices which rapidly become essential differentiators to retain and attract a discerning 21st century workforce. The concept of ‘Accountability’ is one such example. It is an important aspect of organisational cultures but remains one of the lesser understood aspects of organisational culture.


Many of us love our tea with milk. Anyone who’s ever tried to separate milk out of a cup of tea would know the futility of this task. Once the brew is prepared and milk added, the only way to separate the two is to throw it away and start afresh. For many businesses this is an apt metaphor to describe their organisation structures. Clear separation at the top of the organisation dissolves into an indistinguishable blend from which a precise separation of who does what becomes impossible. As long as everything goes well, its fine, but the moment a customer account is dropped or errors in service delivery emerge, questions about who to hold accountable and responsible become difficult to answer.

Too many Japanese and European businesses have grown organically and in the polite atmosphere at work, employees focus on getting work completed and through the door. Practicalities of day to day work execution and good camaraderie lead team members to fill in for each other. But who is ultimately accountable or responsible?

Our recent recessionary business environment has brought this into sharp focus. Losing key accounts puts entire supply chains at risk of employment as customer fulfilment traditionally required numerous touchpoints from order processing, billing, payment collection and so on. The disruption, insecurity and uncertainty this creates affect all customers including those who are the mainstay of the business during these difficult times. Stopping an entire product category or withdrawing from a market magnifies the disruption and trauma considerably.

Conversely, who does a business reward if something goes exceedingly well – an entire team including those who are passengers or just deserving individual contributors? Such confusion enables poor performers to conceal themselves, secure in the knowledge that there is little they can be held responsible for and even less that they can be held accountable for.    Every business and organisation has its share of non performing employees and the activation effort to deal with them is often so high that many businesses prefer to leave them unidentified and endure their poor performance in silence.

Creating accountability and ownership requires some effort and method. At a minimum clear job descriptions expressing unambiguous accountabilities and responsibilities create a visible and transparent culture of who does what. Obvious as this may seem, it is common to come across Japanese organisations where job descriptions do not exist or are unclear. The sharp contrast of the idea of accountability of a Japanese employee with no clear job description and an European employee bound by his/her job description in the same company working for the same goal is frequently pointed out as a challenge in cross cultural workshops. Many Japanese companies, especially manufacturing companies love talking about ‘mieru‐ka’ (bringing visibility about their business) especially in the area of production processes, planning, logistics, marketing, IT and accounts. These companies often boast how well this is managed to bring effectiveness to the business. However when it comes to people management, my impression is that ‘mieru‐ka’ is somewhat lacking.

Designing organisations that ensure accountability across all levels is neither impossible nor difficult; it does however need careful thought and design.  Accurate workload and capacity forecasting, clear responsibilities and accountabilities in job descriptions, key performance indicators, RACI[1] matrices aligning to business strategy are just some of the essentials that ought to be in place. The magic though is to ensure that every role is clearly accountable for something, however large or tiny, with a clear purpose that helps realise the business strategy, much like the fabled conversation between US President John F Kennedy and a NASA janitor in 1962, who, when asked by the President what he was doing, said that he was helping put a man on the moon.

1 RACI: Responsible, those who do the work to achieve the task; Accountable, final approval authority responsible for the correctness of the work and delegates to those Responsible; Consulted, subject matter experts or other stakeholders who are consulted with; Informed, those who are kept informed of the progress of the task through one way communication only.


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Obedience Cultures and Leadership

Culture of Obedience

It is fascinating how organisations instil a culture of obedience so that employees come to work and perform their tasks without any questions. Without doubt, a culture of obedience is crucial and no chain of command would be effective if every decision is questioned and debated. Yet, all too often employees take no accountability for their actions other than blindly following orders from above. It is almost as if they have left their individual sense of judgement and consciences at home. Ask any manager or employee how they clarify their doubts at work and they will almost always, check with their immediate supervisor or search the company procedures and policies manual. What happens if the rule book is wrong, out of date or the manager is incorrect?

2015 has been a year where some of the world’s largest and most respected companies have become embroiled in corporate scandals. Although each case is unique and different, these scandals make a mockery of corporate integrity. They are most likely the result of a collective effort involving people across different levels of the business, rather than the work of a rogue employee. As always, these scandals will be thoroughly investigated by professionals and almost all will involve hefty fines or expensive settlements. Very few of these investigations will involve any civil or criminal prosecution of key managers and decision makers.

2015 has also seen the emergence of the Yates memorandum on 9th September 2015 which allows for the prosecution of individuals in corporate fraud cases. Sally Yates, the US Deputy Attorney General announced that fining businesses will take second place to pursuing civil and criminal charges against individuals and executives. Her memo makes clear that ‘to qualify for any co-operation credit whatsoever, in both criminal and civil cases, corporations under investigation must provide the Department of Justice with all relevant facts about the individuals involved in corporate misconduct’. If implemented rigorously, this will ensure managers cannot hide behind an inscrutable corporate entity. It would be nothing short of a paradigm shift and a bold example to other countries.

A direct consequence of the culture of obedience is that it codifies what is right and what is wrong. It sets fixed boundaries that invoke sanctions if they are crossed. We stop thinking for ourselves and no longer take responsibility for what is actually right or wrong. All we remain focused on is following the rules, procedures or laid down policy, thus avoiding sanctions for disobedience. As a result, we completely lose sight of the initial purpose and intentions of the rules. It is not surprising therefore that we have laws to enforce laws and regulations which lead to more red tape. Big business typifies this; every large organisation has its own set of policies and compliance procedures, all encouraged by its organisational culture. Until investigators tell us otherwise, we will not know if it was just a few rogue employees or the culture of obedience that led to some of this year’s corporate scandals.

Leadership Role

The inevitable question in the context of the Yates memorandum for organisations is how to create a corporate culture where its employees are encouraged to highlight areas that may conflict with the company’s goals without any fear or retribution. This is especially important in those cultures where hierarchy, conformity and loyalty are valued and where individualism is not considered the norm. Whistle-blowing arrangements and hotlines have had limited success. More regulations, policies and audits would only lead to more bureaucracy and innovation and creativity would be affected.  There needs to be another way.

The answer in my view lies in the quality and calibre of leadership that such organisations create. Most leadership models talk about what a leader needs to do and there are numerous aspects of leadership that are laboriously taught in class room settings. All require leaders to demonstrate behaviour that succeeds in generating followers. I believe that this is insufficient. Leaders should be able to engage with employees by involving them in their decision making process by considering any inputs they may have as this will strengthen the overall business response in today’s VUCA environment.

Mature organisations need to think about creating leadership skills that encourage every employee to express their view. Employees should be encouraged to challenge bottlenecks and business risks. Organisations would need to ensure that its leaders encourage and listen to these views. Stifling and dismissing different opinions should not be an option. Leadership must be about doing the right thing; as the legendary Kazuo Inamori has pointed out, the acid test of a leader is the ability to hold one’s head high because one did the right thing. Encouraging opinion and alternative voices is much easier said than done and more so in those cultures where its people are systematically and socially encouraged to follow orders, where ‘reading the air’ and understanding unspoken thoughts and feelings of the manager are valued.

Though difficult, it is not impossible.  Leaders in Europe and USA are familiar with quarterly town hall meetings where every employee participates in a briefing from their senior leadership. Employees are provided a carefully prepared presidential state of the nation address about the business followed by a brief question and answer session.

Some companies have successfully used large group intervention methods to transform such gatherings of its employees into highly interactive and participative events. Specialist group interaction formats like Open Space Technology[1] and World Café[2] physically create time and space for people to engage deeply and creatively around issues that interest and matter to them. These methods ensure participation and enhance collaboration across employees. Passive audiences of town hall meetings are transformed into highly engaged and energetic participants who take collective responsibility for outcomes.

For leaders, mastery of these methods may need some training and skill; the returns however would be well worthwhile the effort. Above all, they would provide confidence to leaders that everyone in their team understands the overall rationale of their actions and commits appropriately to their role.

[1] Open Space Technology is an effective format for large groups to physically meet and self-organise to discuss complex and difficult topics in a short period of time. Participants follow their interests and participate in different discussions, swiftly moving across different topics of interest once they have contributed.

By the end of the session participants have committed to the topics in the discussion.

[2] World Café is another large group engagement format where participants spend a fixed time discussing their topics of interest. Groups rotate across all topics and by the end of the session a collaborative dialogue with shared and agreed outcomes has taken place successfully.

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Slow but sure – tempered radicals lead change

“CEO axed….fails to perform…new skills and strategy required…..”

A sad headline fast becoming familiar and it’s no surprise if we accept that fifty percent of the largest US firms are expected to have a new CEO within the next four years[1]. Most CEO exits bring an abrupt end to ongoing major change initiatives. Appointed successors hasten the dismantling process and eagerly replace with their own strategic change initiative, experts and project management resources.

Ever since John Kotter[2] described change as a process and not an event; his eight stages have become a favourite rite of passage for major organisational change. An entire industry of change consultants and advisors follow his approach to the letter or claim their own fame with­ tweaks to certain aspects of his eight stages. Kotter’s approach to change is thorough; successful change needs to smoothly transition through his different stages. Yet failures do happen; either due to a rush in jumping over the stages or failing to sufficiently tether and consolidate different aspects of change during preceding stages. Failures are also expensive and often leave behind a legacy of cynicism and change fatigue across the workforce.

There is another approach to change – one that is more evolutionary, gradual and patient. Simpler, smaller and quieter than major change initiatives, such change engages people at each small step, consolidates little successes before pressing forward. Undoubtedly slower and far less glamorous than major change processes and initiatives, outcomes are emergent and loosely choreographed; change agents are not a loud visible coalition but individuals who have quietly chosen to put their head above the parapet and through their personal action demonstrate a conviction that change is necessary and provide an alternative rhetoric and approach to status quo.

As a management consultant and HR practitioner working across different clients, countries, cultures, industries and jurisdictions I have been associated with major change initiatives and have had my fair share of dismantling major change initiatives. Equally I have been fortunate to work with amazing people who have seized opportunities to make a difference about something they held dear. These people stayed true to their principles and convictions; their individual leadership action got noticed and without much fanfare, their actions mushroomed into something on a much grander scale.

Debra Meyerson’s phrase ‘tempered radicals’ is perhaps the best way to describe such change agents; people who quietly beaver away within organisations to effect significant change in moderate steps. Much less visible than conventional leaders, tempered radicals demonstrate a form of leadership that is subtle, one small step at a time, yet operate uniquely in addressing the fundamental issues of discord and providing alternative perspectives. Fifteen years on, her HBR article[3] remains as pertinent as it did in 2001. She identifies four prominent tactics adopted by tempered radicals: disruptive self-expression, verbal jujitsu, variable term opportunism and strategic alliance building. In the next few paragraphs I share some of my experiences with tempered radicals, both as a management advisor and as a practitioner.

Disruptive self-expression

Meyerson describes disruptive self-expression as an inconspicuous way to initiate change in which an individual simply acts in a way that feels personally right and gets noticed by others. Actions of leaders are among the first that get noticed and not surprisingly, often copied. This places considerable responsibility on leaders to be aware of the consequences of their actions – deliberate as well as unintended. As a result many leaders often question the status quo, set an example, push boundaries and create a legacy.

Worried by employees emulating senior expatriates working late into the night, the Managing Director, at a client made it a point to ensure that three or four times a week he would walk around the office, on his way out, and ‘instruct’ late working colleagues to leave the building immediately. Pretty soon everyone got the message; not only would senior expatriates leave on time; they also encouraged their teams to do the same. An unintended but welcome consequence was that last minute requests for work stopped; managers in general planned better and were perceived to be more considerate in allocating work and setting deadlines.

Faced with the challenge of generating sensitivity about diversity and appreciation of different views in an international workforce, I am reminded of how a HR Vice President seized the opportunity of the Tokyo-Seoul 2002 FIFA world cup to drive the point home. With over twenty nationalities represented at its Berlin HR headquarters, each member was encouraged to decorate their desks in their national colour, wear their national dress and every football match was much celebrated, cheered and discussed. The diversity of the HR workforce was obvious for all to savour; the strong friendships, sense of camaraderie and informality continued long after the two months of football ended. Somewhat unintentionally, the HR division became a much cited alternative to the

stereotypical German work culture famous for its single minded focus on the task at hand, formality and its clear demarcation between public and private life.

Verbal jujitsu

Debra Meyerson describes verbal jujitsu as turning an insensitive statement, action or behaviour, back on itself. I am reminded of another client who worked in a professional services company for an ambitious and somewhat mercurial partner. Every Sunday afternoon the partner would return from his family home, drive three hours back to his London apartment for the week. He would call up my client each time and spend two hours reviewing progress on their different projects. Her initial acceptance fast turned into indignation when she was left a rather brusque voicemail for not being available one Sunday. She had also discovered by then, from conversations with her colleagues, that this partner never interrupted their weekends. Keen to avoid a direct confrontation she took a tactful approach and started to phone him on Saturdays. Almost immediately the partner asked her to stop and remarked that it was his weekend. She laughed and explained that this was the same way she was feeling each time he phoned on Sunday. The partner took on board the loud message and never interrupted her weekends again!

Not everyone has to be so cunning or brave in demonstrating verbal jujitsu. Sometimes little actions can have an outsize impact.  Exhausted of having to wake up in the middle of the night to participate in teleconferences as part of a global project, always timed to suit the convenience of senior headquarter participants in California, another client suggested that the timing of the weekly phone conferences should be rotated to suit the convenience of different participant locations. Welcomed immediately by most participants, it was impossible for the HQ based project manager to turn down this popular request.

Variable term opportunists

Variable term opportunists identify, create and capitalise on short and long term opportunities for change. I am reminded of an incident that goes back to my time in India. With ambitious growth plans, we were searching for a cost effective alternative to our expensive city centre office. Our search took us to the outskirts of Delhi where a suitable building was identified. It was obvious that employees would find it difficult to reach the office and there was much discussion on cost implications of running a staff bus service. The matter was sealed one afternoon when, reclining in his air-conditioned Mercedes, following a visit to the new premises on a hot 45°celsius afternoon, our Managing Director remarked how uncomfortable the weather was. Seizing the moment I mentioned that while his Mercedes would always keep him cool, our employees would not be so fortunate. Without any hesitation he approved a free staff bus service and insisted that they be air conditioned. Finding AC busses became my next challenge as this was still a novelty in those days. I am told that this practice continued for many years till the recent introduction of Delhi’s excellent metro.


Strategic Alliances

A fourth strategy used by tempered radicals is strategic alliances; often deliberately struck and carefully orchestrated, they help push a change through more quickly and effectively. Healthy eating and consuming more fresh fruit were amongst the many rituals that my client sought to encourage across the workforce. Working together with its caterers we tactically increased the subsidy on fruits, freshly made juices, smoothies and salads. We also developed a special healthy meal menu and changed meeting room catering options towards more healthy food items. These changes proved very popular with employees as they were both cheaper and healthier. The increased consumption also helped the catering company improve its own profitability and performance.

At another client, though there was no shortage of talented women in their different talent programmes, there were disproportionately fewer women in departmental manager positions. A decision by the HRD to weave an element of mentoring by divisional managers to the overall talent programme brought more visibility of women participants. This dramatically improved the success of participants to departmental manager positions.


The fascinating thing with change is that it is inevitable. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter has famously remarked, ‘change is disturbing when done to us, exhilarating when it is done by us’.  An important aspect of exhilaration, in my view, must be ‘stickiness’ – can change outlast the creator, can change make a difference, not once or twice but consistently and continually, and can change augment the performance of an organisation. I hope the previous examples demonstrate how simple it is for an individual to make a statement; how important it is to be true and authentic to the principles one holds dear. Too often organisations, especially large ones, forget that change is led by people; it affects people and its success depends on how enthusiastically the same people take to it. Bringing this awareness to major change initiatives may ensure they outlast its key sponsors and champions.

[1] K Coyne and EJ Coyne Sr – Surviving your next CEO – HBR, May 2007

[2] John Kotter – Leading Change, Why Transformation Efforts Fail – HBR, Jan 2007

[3] Debra Meyerson – Radical Change, the Quiet Way, HBR, Oct 2001

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Unconscious bias – from training to practice

Sheryl Sandberg’s recent decision to share Facebook’s unconscious bias training video with the world has brought the entire issue of unconscious bias to the forefront of public domain. Just over an hour long, two articulate Facebook trainers take an audience of its employees on a journey explaining unconscious bias and how it subtly vitiates workplace culture and undermines performance across its employees. For a business that depends on the calibre of its human capital, where it’s people are its singular asset, where its customers include almost half the world’s population, any attempt, however accidental and unintended, to deprecate any section of its workforce can only have devastating consequences for its business.

Facebook’s vulnerability is not unique. One could argue that any business which engages people runs similar risks. Unconscious bias, in all its different forms – age, colour, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender, politics, religion, sexuality – to name just a few, is at its core, a representation of wider society and culture. Bias is not a new concept; it has existed since time immemorial and will continue long after us in one form or another. Its prominence today reflects the realities of our globalised and interconnected world where living and working with people ‘not like us’ is no longer a brief and occasional occurrence but one that has become an intrinsic part of our 21st century life.  Therefore, when an iconic business of our present day talks about it, we should pay heed, take notice and perhaps ask ourselves about our own assumptions and biases.

Laws have been enacted and all self-respecting HR departments have their policies, procedures and methods to deal with unconscious bias related matters. Yet, no matter how hard they try, subtle biases remain entrenched often proving difficult to identify, let alone address. I remember being taken aback on seeing the policy manual for expatriate Japanese managers at a client where, concealed among the many useful practical tips, was the remark that all expatriates coming to Europe should not ask or expect women colleagues to run any errands including fetching tea and welcoming visitors.

For many there is a tacit assumption that employees require to be within eye sight of their manager and closely supervised. At the start of my career, it was anathema to even think about working from home. Computers and broadband were not so prevalent and for many supervisors, a request to work from home was actually a euphemism for skiving. They would frown upon and turn down such requests despite clearly laid down HR policies encouraging flexible working. I wonder how such supervisors would have coped with today’s attitude that ‘work is something you do, not something that you go to’ and the bewildering resourcing practices that many astute employers are currently offering.

I have often noticed at my clients that Japanese direct reports of Japanese expatriate managers regularly work till late at night and even on weekends while their European colleagues, reporting to the same manager, are often working more civil hours. The reasons offered to me are numerous and at times rather erudite; they range from time zone differences, the nature of the Japanese employment relationship, urgent missives from Japanese HQ, avoiding peak hour traffic, living alone, challenging perceptions back home that life in an expat assignment is all fun and even a sense of guilt at being selected for the expatriate assignment. I wonder if this is genuinely productive or whether it is simply about a culture of being present at the office and perceived to be a hard worker. Are those working more civil hours any less productive?

While I do recognise there may be some lack of awareness about unconscious bias, I believe, it is the inability to incorporate the conceptual understanding into day to day business activity and routines that causes recurring problems of bias.  Training programmes and slick videos do raise awareness; however, real lasting impact can only happen if businesses progress beyond the training classroom incorporating insights about unconscious bias and the underlying rationale in their day to day business processes.

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Employee Engagement – ABC

After hearing my work was about helping clients achieve their workforce potential, a fellow participant at a recent CEO conference enquired, if it was “basically HR stuff”. I asked the CEO what he meant and he replied, “you know, hiring people, firing people, paying them on time; making sure grievances were heard; compliance with employment law and ensuring that there wasn’t any labour trouble”.

I explained that my work is quite different; it involved creating a canvas where employees were connected wholeheartedly with the business and performance far exceeded the formal requirements of their job descriptions and employment contracts. Elaborating further, I explained that my work was about ensuring employees remained engaged, felt trusted, performed their best, realised their career potential and reinforced the best interests of the business. My work helped clients create a workplace where goodwill and commitment ensured employees regularly went the extra mile. Releasing such ‘discretionary commitment’, I added, was neither a contractual obligation nor could it be mandated by a CEO. It always emerged from an organisation’s culture and ethos.

Genuinely interested, the CEO admitted his frustration at the wide variations in customer service at his retail outlets. He questioned the ability and efforts of his sales managers to improve their Net Promoter Scores and customer satisfaction metrics. He candidly expressed his disappointment at the unfolding of his company’s efforts on customer segmentation, marketing planning and product placement. Staff turnover remained a pressing issue and almost made a mockery of their sales and product training investments. Increasingly, he said, he had also been wondering if achieving staff engagement and improving retail performance were somehow connected; whether achieving engagement meant paying extravagant salaries, lucrative sales commissions and incentives. If so, he was concerned if his business would sustain the added costs.

I explained that there is a certain minimum threshold of competitiveness that the pay, benefits, employment terms and incentives at his business would need to exceed. Assuming that this was indeed the case, energies could be invested more constructively by creating a workplace culture where employee engagement is enabled and valued. Yes, there would be some short term expenditure to achieve this, but it would rapidly be recouped from improvements in customer service across the entire workforce.

Keen to assess how well the CEO understood his workforce, I enquired if he knew what brought his employees to work; whether they shared his ambition for the business and felt connected to it. Observing some hesitation, and keen to avoid any embarrassment, I explained that employee engagement was not about paying a lot of money; instead it was about creating the circumstances that would ensure Attitude, Behaviour and Consequences across the workforce. Attitude was about creating pride, loyalty, belongingness, responsibility and a feeling of ownership; Behaviour was about consistently delighting the customer, going the extra mile and bringing a smile while Consequences were about achieving business results, higher productivity, lower employee turnover, reduced absenteeism and fewer employee grievances and disputes.

This wasn’t as simple as it appeared, I hastily added, and it was also not a quick fix solution either. The efforts though are certainly worthwhile with tangible benefits to a business such as his, where its products were easily substitutable commodities.  Amongst other things it would involve creating a genuine understanding of different sections of the workforce: what motivates and excites them, what brings them to work, their career aspirations, their commitment to business strategy, their relationship with colleagues; it’s listening, understanding and creating relevant employer value propositions. It is also about training managers to understand that their primary role is to provide leadership; ensuring conditions at the workplace excite employees to go the extra mile and remain engaged. It is crucial that managers remember the adage; people join brands and companies but employees leave their managers.

The CEO invited me to meet with him and his management team after the conference to take our conversation forward. Following discussions my services were engaged to create a roadmap for employee engagement and train managers fulfil their role in ensuring Attitude, Behaviour and Consequences – the ABC of employee engagement.

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