“Stop wasting time on politics and on what you think I want to hear!” the frustrated chairwoman begged my client CEO. He had been playing for weeks with his budget, wondering whether the board would fund the next stage of growth – and making up a lot of stories about the board’s intentions.
And then everything changed. Instead of talking about numbers, I had them discuss what was truly at stake: the CEO’s lack of trust in the board’s intentions toward funding needs. This was an uncomfortable conversation for both, but as soon as the air was cleared, the CEO stopped wasting his time and got back to being the productive CEO that he is.
Our teams waste a lot of time and energy pondering our intentions and avoiding painful conversations because of a lack of trust. Often we trust each other at a superficial level, without being genuinely vulnerable. How can you build the vulnerability-based trust that will make your team more productive and less political?
Vulnerability-based trust is the secret sauce of successful companies
Vulnerability-based trust makes you a more effective and inspiring leader, as you are more emotionally connected to your team. And it enables team members to act and speak freely so they can focus on what is essential – without worrying so much about putting the right spin on things.
A 5-year study on highly productive teams at Google demonstrated that “psychological safety (ie team members feeling safe to be vulnerable with each other) was far and away the most important dynamic that sets successful teams apart,” reports Brené Brown in Dare to Lead.
Employees at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 50% more productivity, and 76% more engagement – these companies “beat the average annualized returns of the S&P 500 by a factor of three”.
If you don’t trust these data, trust my experience as a hyper-rational master in vulnerability-avoidance. I first ran a business without vulnerability (didn’t work very well) and then with vulnerability. I found that vulnerability had the opposite effect than I would have thought: it helped me build credibility and helped my team focus on what truly mattered.
Vulnerability-based trust is deeper than experience-based trust
Trust is like a coral reef: the surface looks attractive, but its true value lies in the depth beneath. Similarly leaders often confuse superficial, experience-based trust (ie “I trust that you will deliver good results because you have always done so”) with deeper, much more valuable vulnerability-based trust.
Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team describes vulnerability-based trust as the “confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group.” When they feel safe enough to openly share their shortcomings, mistakes, and feedback, team members can focus their full attention on their job and on the higher interest of the company – which accelerates your business growth.
How do you know whether trust is deep enough in your team?
Team members in low vulnerability-based trust environments:
- Make assumptions about other people’s intentions and waste time interpreting facts to feed their mental stories (e.g. “My boss didn’t echo my remarks at the meeting because he thinks I am a fraud”).
- React defensively to feedback or avoid feedback altogether, because they doubt their boss’ intentions.
- Avoid open conversations about disagreements, leading your company to sub-optimal decisions.
- Hesitate to ask for help or to provide constructive feedback.
- Protect their own selfish interest and engage in office politics.
Do you notice any of these behaviors in your company? If so, you know that your team lacks vulnerability-based trust.
To be fair, your team has no reason to be vulnerable with you: their trust has likely been burnt in previous companies. “Eight out of ten executives feel they had trusted too much at least once in their career.” Why should they assume that you are better than their former bosses? In order to build vulnerability-based trust, only you can take the initiative.
How do you build vulnerability-based trust?
The good news is: there are techniques to nurture vulnerability-based trust in your team. The bad news is: it is uncomfortable – and it has to be: your own discomfort in front of your team will help them become more vulnerable.
Sharing personal stories is a powerful way to strengthen your emotional connection with your team. Here are a few exercises you can do at your next leadership team meeting or offsite, ranked by order of discomfort:
- Have each leader take 5 minutes to share how they got to where they are now in their professional life.
- Reveal your biggest failure(s) in life, and what you learned from them. Revealing your failures — rather than hiding them — makes you more approachable – more human.”
- Discuss each other’s personality / behavior profile (e.g. DISC) and trace back structural conflicts among team members to differences in behavior profiles.
- Have each leader share the 3 most important high points and low points in their life.
- Have each leader share one positive and one negative feedback about each other.
These exercises can be unbelievably powerful in gluing the team together if you lean into your own discomfort. Contact me to facilitate them in a safe space.
Becoming vulnerable is like humans first domesticating fire: it can help your organization achieve greater goals, but it requires you to overcome your fear of getting burned. What will you do to be more vulnerable to your team?
I work with growth-minded CEOs who are frustrated by the way their business is growing; often they spend their days fighting fires – typically a sign that their company has outgrown their management approach. I frequently notice that trust among leaders is fairly superficial, and they avoid painful conversations. In short, they feel stuck. I know the feeling: I have been in their shoes when I was running a business that we turned around from sales decline to double-digit business growth.
As a business coach my passion is to help leadership teams define their actionable business growth strategy, create a culture of accountability and effective strategy execution, and become better leaders – so they can grow faster and with less pain.
If you too want to grow faster and with less pain, contact me now: Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
“My company has lots of potential, but I just feel my employees are not engaged. If I don’t push, nothing seems to happen. I’m working night and day and we’re still missing 40% of our targets. I once dreamed of being a firefighter, I guess that dream has come true. All I do is put out fires, I have no time to focus on my business.”
Sound familiar? CEOs and leadership teams can change this picture, it’s all about accountability. Creating a fierce culture of accountability starts with the CEO and leadership team.
Why is accountability important?
Accountability is about owning a problem. You want employees to behave as if they own the piece of business that they are running. When you are accountable for a specific result, you will do whatever it takes to achieve it – and you would like your team to perform this way as well.
Carlos Brito, the CEO of brewing company AB Inbev, summarizes his views on accountability in these words: “We always compare that to a rental car: you drive a rental car in a different way than your own car. With a rental car someone else will live with the consequences of your driving. With your car, you know that it will be yours the next days, months, and years, and you know that you will be living with the consequences of your driving. Employees who behave like owners are here for the long term, and they will live with the consequences of their decisions – good or bad – and that builds a great company.”
Why am I having accountability issues?
Accountability issues are very common among growing companies. When you founded your company, you were personally accountable for everything. As your company grew you started delegating the responsibilities for some results – e.g. production, customer service, or sales. However, you may not have created the communication channels required to hold your teams accountable. Why would you? You didn’t need any of this yourself, and yet you grew your business successfully. Why would these smart managers need anything different?
For one, your employees are not you. If they were, they would not be working for you: they would start their own business. Second, your company is now more complex than we you started: it has more people involved, and all these people now need to be on the same page. Third, when you started your company with a few employees, you could be on top of each of them and had short communication lines: you knew what everybody was doing, all the time. Now that your company has more employees it is impossible for you to manage them the same way: this would soak up all your time. This is exactly why you need to put a system in place that will achieve what you want (ie create accountability), without you spending all your time on it.
In the book “Creating a Culture of Accountability” Gravitas Impact business coach Mark Green describes ways to increase your team’s accountability. This article outlines five of them
1. Lead by example
Like many aspects related to company culture, accountability starts with you and your leadership team. In order to create a culture of accountability you have to model the behaviors that you want to see in your organization. When it comes to accountability the rule is simple: when you make a commitment as a leader, you have to keep it. If you don’t, why should anyone else be interested in doing so? You can’t complain that employees miss their deadlines if you are occasionally late as well. As a CEO “all eyes and ears within your business are focused on you. What you say and what you do are invisibly and constantly observed, scrutinized and evaluated as your managers and employees are looking for clues as to how they should behave,” explains Mark Green.
Leading by example is not only about you sticking to your commitments, but also about your expectations from your team – and your behavior when your managers don’t meet your expectations. If your team members notice that there are no consequences for missing targets, why would they try their best? Similarly, if you tolerate one of your team members to produce poor results, why would other team members feel pressured to produce quality? When you hold your team to a higher standards, you are sending a strong signal across the organization.
2. Have the right people on the right seat
Without the right people on the right seat, nothing of what you can do will significantly increase accountability. The key question is: would you enthusiastically rehire everybody on your team? I advise my clients to assess employees on two dimensions; performance and adherence to company values. You will find more information on how to use this tool in this article.
Once you have the right people on your team you need to clarify their area of accountability. This is less obvious than it looks. The key question is: Who is accountable for each of the key functions in your company? As Mark Green explains “the exercise often reveals that there isn’t a single individual accountable for each function. When more than one person is “accountable”, nobody is accountable. It is easy to make assumptions that things will get done, but when there is not a designated person to account for a particular result, chances are, it is not going to happen. In this kind of environment, it is also easy to point fingers – Bob thought Mary would handle it, and vice versa. Other times, you’ll discover that a particular role hasn’t been filled by anyone at all; it is just implied that it will somehow be handled. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t!”
3. Clarify priorities
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” wrote best-selling author Stephen Covey. “Individuals or organizations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance,” says Verne Harnish in his book “Scaling Up.” Focus on a small number of priorities that will have the biggest impact on your goals, make sure that everyone on your leadership team is aligned on them – and communicate them broadly.
When employees understand where your organization is going and which role they play in it, they work less selfishly and they tend to make better business decisions on behalf of the company – simply because they can see the impact of their decisions and how they impact overall results.
4. Define clear action plans and metrics
Once you have identified who on the leadership team is accountable for each function and what your top priorities are, the next step is for each of your leaders to answer Mark Green’s key question: “What are the 3 most important results the company expects you deliver in exchange for paying your salary – and how should these results be measured? This step determines the results and metrics for each of your leadership functions. As we all know, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you want to increase the speed and quality of a particular service you offer, you should establish specific metrics to gauge those factors and identify metrics and targets for them. You may determine if you reach or surpass a target for three months in a row, you have achieved that objective.” Pick specific metrics, make sure that your leadership team is on the same page and that everybody aims for the clearly defined results – so that the rest of your organization can follow your lead.
Similarly, once you have defined top quarterly priorities, the question becomes: what do you and your team need to do in each of the next 13 weeks in order to achieve priorities? There are only 13 weeks in a quarter – if you do NOT view your quarter as a 13-week race, you will lose weeks and time which you will NOT get back. A weekly plan clarifies what can be expected every week, in order to meet expectations at the end of the quarter. It also makes it much easier for your leadership team to hold people accountable to their own 13-week plan.
5. Establish a metronome-like meeting rhythm
Just as a metronome calls time and sets tempo in a musical performance, so do a small set of consistently executed meetings to hold you and your team accountable, and keep everyone on the same page. The essential regular meetings are:
- Daily huddles (no more than 10 to 15 minutes) to evaluate progress on the very short-term priorities and identify any blocking issues.
- Weekly huddles (no more than 90 minutes) to review the status of the 13-week plan and course-correct if needed.
- Monthly and quarterly meetings to review progress on the priorities, take corrective actions when needed, and identify new priorities for the upcoming quarter.
I often notice that the most impactful meetings to drive accountability are the daily and weekly huddles: they create peer pressure and hence take the heat off your shoulders as the leader. They also improve communication: You won’t need to have the same water-cooler conversation three of four times, as is the case when you rely on chance hallway meetings for communication. And finally they enable collective intelligence to solve problems.
In the end, how much difference do these tools make on accountability? Pretty big, as this example from another Gravitas Impact business coach, Glen Dall, demonstrates in Mark Green’s book “Creating a Culture of Accountability”: “I worked with the CEO of a multi-location dental practice. The CEO had started with one practice that they grew very successfully – and then began expanding. At one point employee turnover rates increased to 200%. The leadership team would plan and set goals, but frequently failed to achieve them. The growth rate was declining. The CEO felt over-extended, frustrated and stressed.”
With the leadership team Glen Dall leveraged these tools to have the right people on the right seat, set priorities and targets, as well as establish a proven system to follow up on them. The result? “After our first 6 months of working together, the CEO told me, “You should be proud of how far you’ve brought the team. I feel that we have accomplished more in the past 6 months than we were able in the last 7 years.” That is the power of accountability.”
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Often their roadblocks include a lack of accountability: they have no system in place to regularly follow up on their team’s many commitments, or their teams don’t have clear priorities and metrics. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
What about you? How accountable is your team? How has Covid impacted accountability? Over the past couple of years, how many quarters has your company reached and missed their targets? What were the consequences of hitting targets, and what were the consequences of missing them? Do you have clear metrics and regular meetings in place to follow up on each of your priorities?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.