Accountability: a dying concept?

Incredulity was followed quickly by speechlessness and then just good plain old frustration as I heard the invited guest on a Sky News programme prosecute with fervour the thought that bosses were not responsible for what their employees do.

I thought I must have misunderstood, but no, the case was made that for example, as a CEO, I cannot be held responsible for what my staff do.

I find frustration and anger quite useless emotions most of the time. They do little to advance a case, create collaboration or any vestige of lasting benefit. There are times, however, when I can’t help myself. This is one of those.

Let me make a statement and then prove it.

Accountability and responsibility

At each leadership transition point from managing ourselves to managing others to managing managers to managing a business to managing an entire enterprise, the leader is responsible for how they conduct their own role and accountable for how all the roles below them are conducted.

Let me define two terms first, to make prosecuting my argument easier.

The responsibilities you have in a role are those tasks or processes or outcomes over which you have direct input or control.

The accountabilities in a role are those outcomes over which you are the person that has the authority to change the process or task or environment to achieve the desired outcome.

Let me give examples to illustrate the point.

Call centre example

A call centre operator is responsible for how they conduct the call, the result they achieve and the time in which they take to achieve it. The operator is accountable for their attitude and any discretionary effort they may wish to apply to their role.

The call centre team leader to whom the operator reports is responsible for conducting training, enforcing standards, giving feedback and coaching their staff.

The call centre team leader is additionally accountable for creating the motivating team environment in which people wish to give higher degrees of discretionary effort. They are not totally accountable.

The manager of the call centre is responsible for creating and communicating the rosters and setting the standards within the boundaries advised by head office and training their team leaders in how to manage performance in accordance with the organisation’s policies and procedures. Additionally, the manager is accountable for the culture of the call centre, ensuring it is aligned with the culture the organisation wishes to have.

By the time we reach the leader of the enterprise, their responsibilities are more likely to do with informing the board, collaborating with the board on the development of strategy, executing the strategy and managing the risks delegated to them by the board. They are accountable for the capability and capacity of the teams that work for them. They are accountable for the culture of the organisation. They are accountable for its overall performance. And, when individuals behave poorly, they are accountable for that behaviour. So too are the leaders at each transition level.

They are just accountable for different processes or outcomes.

Personal example

Let me take a personal example, so that I cannot be seen to impugn anyone else.

In about 1999, a welder died in Tonga whilst cutting open an underground tank that had previously contained petrol. The tank had not been completely freed of petrol vapours and when he cut into the tank with an oxyacetylene torch, the petrol, trapped in the scale and rust at the bottom of the tank, vapourised, expanding and then exploding as it wafted up to meet the oxyacetylene flame.

The investigation revealed that the manager of the terminal had – despite my arrival that morning from Fiji to talk about a lost time injury we had in our Suva terminal a week before and its root causes – ignored all of my instructions on what they must do to eliminate the root causes in their terminal. Further, it revealed that very high profile safety processes for non-standard work known as a ‘safe work permit’ were ignored that day, and had been ignored on other occasions for some time.

On that day, the terminal manager – who was the only trained and authorised work permit signatory in the company in Tonga – took the afternoon off to be with his girlfriend and delegated the tasks of completing the checks required to his deputy, who was not trained or authorised.

The checks were insufficient and the explosion occurred and the welder died.

I was dumbfounded at first that the terminal manager, who was vastly experienced, could be so cavalier with what are regarded as highly important procedures in the oil industry, and also the fact that all my words that morning on the need to learn from our Fiji experience which had hurt someone had been totally ignored and someone had died as a result.

Teams which are focused on a goal are usually forgiving of mistakes and our team was no different. Our management team and other employees that routinely interacted with me and customers and vendors alike all were sympathetic to me as I was to that family of the welder and the staff member who was put in the position where they were managing a dangerous task with little or no training.

However, I could not be placated. I knew I was accountable for that death. The reasoning was rational, not emotional. I controlled the budgets and resources that were required to ensure that we had a safe operation in Tonga in both our day-to-day work and abnormal work such as cutting open an underground tank which had controlled petrol.

If the terminal manager was not following procedures, I should have known about it through audits. If my communication that morning did not get through, then that was not only my accountability but my responsibility.

Accountability and Responsibility – spot the difference

When I see issues where highly paid executives and board members do not take accountability for the actions, behaviours and culture of their organisation, I alternatively cringe, get frustrated or wish to make sure that as a consulting organisation, we don’t work for them.

I do truly wonder with what I observe, whether accountability is a dying concept amongst the commentariat and more worryingly amongst highly paid executives, who are paid the take accountability.

A small test now to see if you see what I see. My answers are in the right hand column.


Your answer Y/N?

My answer and explanation

Is Rupert Murdoch responsible for phone hacking in the UK? No. He did not participate in any phone hacking and through the known evidence, never instructed people to hack phones.
Is Rupert Murdoch accountable for phone hacking in the UK? Yes. He sets the tone of what is acceptable and unacceptable. He controls the risk management processes. He had the ability to stamp it out rather than have it covered up by others below him.
Is David Zahra responsible for David Jones’ underperformance? Yes. This is one of his core responsibilities.
Is Richard Fuld, who ran Lehman Brothers from 1994 until 2008, responsible for poor investment decisions that led to its collapse? Probably. He is likely to have been involved in some of the decisions.
Is Richard Fuld, who ran Lehman Brothers from 1994 until 2008, accountable for poor investment decisions that led to its collapse? Or was it bad luck with the GFC? Definitely, he was accountable. He oversaw the culture, strategy and risk management of the organisation. The GFC was not only a foreseeable risk for Lehman Brothers, they contributed to it.
Was I accountable for the welder’s death? Yes, I had all the resources and authority I needed to ensure it did not happen.


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