A few months ago, I was having coffee with Carson (fictitious name for confidentiality) who is the CEO of a small 300-person organization when he brought up the fact that he was frustrated with the performance of his company. Carson told me he felt the company was not only underperforming but that there seemed to be a sense of apathy and lack of ownership because the company had been struggling for some time. His team did not have the same sense of urgency that he had and this was troubling him, causing him to lose sleep at night. Several key projects had slipped in the past few months and Carson was searching for answers.
He wasn't sure if it was his communication or perhaps his leadership that was an issue. He also wondered if perhaps he needed to change some members of his Exec team because he had hit an inflection point where failure to execute on time was no longer an option. He was really at a loss as to why the team was not succeeding and was looking at every angle.
As we talked more, I asked Carson to tell me what steps he had taken to try and narrow down the sources of underperformance. Among the things, I wanted to know from Carson how often the Exec team met and how often the company met to review progress. Carson said that the Exec team met once a month and that each quarter or at least every 6 months, they would hold a company meeting to provide updates on key initiatives.
We then walked through his views on each member of the team and how he viewed their performance. As we talked about his team, what started to become clear is that out of frustration and desperation, Carson was actually doing the job of several direct reports instead of holding them accountable to do their job. This is a classic pitfall for many CEOs when faced with a crisis or a massive obstacle--they grab the wheel and take over driving the parts of the company where there is an issue--because there is great pressure to perform NOW.
As Carson revealed more to me, it became clear that he was spending more time telling his direct reports what to do rather then help them learn how to solve their problems and that over the course of several months, or so this had increased to the point that his team was coming to him to ask what to do rather than bring options or ideas on how to solve their issues and challenges. While he knew that long term, this was not a healthy way to lead, he felt he'd been left with no choice and was forced into a position of making "battlefield decisions": urgent critical decisions due to the circumstances and the high stakes.
Despite the circumstances, having worked with Carson for many years, I knew that he was not the greatest at giving pointed feedback to people; that he was more comfortable telling them what to do than he was confronting them with his concerns and/or frustrations. I knew that if I told Carson he needed to be more direct or firmer with his direct reports he would probably agree and then go back to his office and likely not act on my feedback, so I offered him an approach that I thought might fit his style.
I thus suggested to Carson that he consider increasing the public accountability in his organization and shifting his focus on making his team more accountable more often to both the company and to each other.
I have seen this approach work in several organizations--where rather than raise the volume or intensity of feedback in a 1-1 setting, you put the owners of the under-performing teams and make them stand in front of their peers and the organization and provide frequent progress reports. I have found that when you do this, several interesting things often result--awareness of problems increase in the organization, sense of urgency grows, ownership increases, and people engage more in helping one another. In some cases the opposite happens, and you become more clear that you have a leadership issue you need to fix.
In this situation, I suggested that he have his exec team meet once per week and that this meeting be all about the key deliverables--that each owner of the key deliverable would present the status to the team, ask for help if appropriate, commit to key dates and explain to the team why dates were not being met and what they were doing to fix it. Then I suggested that instead of meeting once a quarter as a company, that he have a company meeting every other week and in this meeting, rather than have him be the person presenting to the company--he should get each one of the Exec team to present to the company on their progress report on key deliverables.
If you are faced with a low amount of energy on your Exec team or if you are concerned about a lack of accountability--consider meeting more frequently and having the owners of key projects get in front of the whole team. I have seen this help so many times. The more transparent the challenges are to an organization the more likely the organization will find a way to solve them.