Founders: How to build shared responsibility and accountability in your team
Your anxiety is building as fast as your team is growing. Good leaders always know what each member of their team is working on.
Or do they?
At first your team was 3 people, then 7… then 12… 18… 26. Soon it will be in the 40s. Monthly payroll has ballooned. Work is getting done. Things are moving fast forward. But is it enough?
You wonder about the team’s ROI. You worry excellent performance is going unnoticed. Someone on the team must need extra support but you aren’t sure who.
Answering these questions was easy when lunch for the team was a one or two pizza affair. Now? Not so much.
If you’ve opted for a traditional management style, endless books and blogs exist to help answer these questions. Performance Management. Quarterly meetings. Stack-ranking. Development plans. But what if, instead, you’ve chosen the bolder, braver path of nurturing a system of shared responsibility and accountability… of leading together? Then what?
By choosing to lead together, we are also choosing…
…to build a culture based on transparency, trust and agency. Without these elements, we cannot lead together.
…to believe people are fundamentally good and aim to do great work. The alternative is to believe people generally put themselves first, prioritizing personal gain over what’s best for the team.
…to practice working through the messiness of complex problems and relationship dynamics as a way of enhancing our “being human” skills. In doing so, we replace the adult-child relationships of traditional hierarchies. Instead, we build a strong foundation of healthy adult-to-adult interactions.
By moving away from traditional management practices we are not choosing chaos. Nor are we choosing subpar individual contributions or poor team performance. Quite the opposite. When done well, your team will thrive.
One big question still remains. How exactly do we lead together without leveraging the old systems so familiar to us? And how do we silence the voice in our head telling us that–as a leader–we need to know more… be more on top of things?
Leading together is not a subtle change… it’s a paradigm shift. We’re doing more sensing and responding rather than predicting and controlling. Here are four common challenges you may face and what to try instead.
Common Leadership Response: Put in place time consuming performance management tools.
Consider instead: Building a culture of transparency and trust.
“If you want people to make the same decisions that you would make, but in a more scalable way, you have to give them the same information you have.”
– Keith Rabois
When leading together, transparency is critical. Tools like Kanban boards, daily stand ups and asynchronous check-ins replace manager oversight. Build a culture of working out loud–making visible otherwise hidden work. Likewise acknowledge information shared by others to close the loop. Need more transparency? Experiment with boosting the flow of critical information throughout the business. Share your need for more transparency and invite ideas from others.
As a leader, increase how often you communicate (and re-communicate) your team’s purpose, values and objectives. You’ll need to do this much more often than you think. See Why Being mocked by my team should be a leadership priority.
“Trust, but verify,” is a saying made popular by Ronald Reagan during the Cold War. It was a fair statement given the context. As a standard leadership practice, its most often detrimental. It breaks rather than builds trust. When transparency gets done well, verification is a natural outcome.
The team at The TrustedAdvisor provides an equation as a measure of trust. When trust lacks, reflect on what’s out of balance. Credibility, reliability, intimacy or self-orientation?
Common Leadership Response: Consolidate decision making and direction giving with a small number of trusted leaders.
Consider instead: Taking a closer look at your team’s structure & processes.
To an outsider, a lead together organization can appear chaotic. Gone are the org charts of the past replaced by collections of roles. When we move away from management structures, chaos is a risk. Three alternatives to the traditional hierarchy exist. Parallel teams are small, independent, self-contained teams that resemble each other. Webs of individual contracting consist of specialized teams that agree to deliver on commitments to other teams. Nested teams are collections of sub-teams (usually called circles) each with a purpose aligned with–and supporting–the circle in which its nested.
Whatever structure your team chooses, everyone needs to understand how the structure works. Who is accountable for what? Who’s leading on the delivery of any given team, purpose, project or commitment? Who’s supporting? How will decisions get made? Is your team clear? If you’re not sure, ask.
When things don’t go well, start by being hard on the process, not the people. Assume that, if another person or group was put in the same system using the same processes, results would be the same. What processes–or lack thereof–are leading to the current results? Does everyone understand the process? Complete a retrospective to uncover areas for improvement. Prototype something new.
Common Leadership Response: Push the concern off to another day or replace team members.
Consider instead: Building a development culture and providing individuals with agency.
Do you have an expectation that everyone on your team–yourself included–is in constant development mode? Do you see learning opportunities everywhere you turn? Deliberately Developmental Organizations (DDOs) focus on developing the capacities of all team members. They use the culture and operations of the business as a classroom. In these organizations developmental principles are ever present in the day-to-day. An example principle could be: “It’s okay to make a mistake here, but unacceptable not to identify, analyze and learn from it”; or “Everyone on our team always has a stated development goal that gets worked daily.”
Peer development triads offer a simple way of working on our own development. A group of three commit to supporting each other’s development. The process begins with a round of the question “What are you noticing in the system?” to de-personalize feedback loops and practice scanning the broader environment as a team. In a second round, each person shares one thing they’ve been working on improving. The individual then shares what they have been trying and asks the other participants for ideas or advice. Doing so illuminates opportunities not yet seen.
To enhance our skills of “being human” while building healthy adult-to-adult relationships, we each need agency. Agency is the opportunity to act for oneself. In the words of Simon Wakeman, managing director at UK-based digital agency Deeson, “If you try to be a very directive leader [and take agency away], you can break the system very quickly. But there are times when you have to be directive because you need to stop something from going off the cliff.” As leaders, we can fall into the trap of taking agency away with every pothole. When a team hits a pothole, it learns. When it drives off a cliff, it dies.
Common Leadership Response: Stepping in and taking over.
Consider instead: Modelling the identification of tensions and the taking of radical responsibility.
In leading together we’re called upon to strengthen our ability to sense tensions. As leaders we are familiar with how traditional management structures work. When problems arise, it’s easy to slip into autopilot, moving into solution mode. We are much less skilled at acknowledging and naming the tension messages our bodies are sending us. Next time you find yourself concerned about the performance of a colleague or team, start by asking yourself, “What specifically is my tension?” Is it frustration? Anger? Worry? Sadness? Fear? Discomfort? Start with the tension, not with a solution.
Leading together requires everyone to step into a mindset of radical responsibility. As a leader in your team, you likely do this with ease. When it comes to building a culture of radical responsibility, many of our colleagues suffer from learned helplessness–a real or perceived lack of control. Leaders can inadvertently keep their colleagues trapped in a self-perpetuating pattern of deflecting responsibility. Step one is helping those individuals state and document their responsibilities.
Calling out your colleagues when they have not met their responsibilities is hard. Doing so is at the heart of radical responsibility. When we’re part of a team that is building trust, we are much more reluctant to be perceived as tough by demanding our peers keep commitments. Developing a practice of accountability partnerships helps. In a team without a boss, encourage everyone to invite another team member to be an accountability partner… and to practice having the tough conversations when necessary.
Does this sound hard? Leading together requires intention and effort. Sure, traditional management approaches are easier. They’ve been around for eons. They’re sterile, clean cut and super-efficient, aren’t they? So why are 85% of employees in those systems are disengaged? Because traditional management systems are not catalysts for developing self-managing, flexible and divergent thinkers.
Building shared responsibility and accountability in your team can be messy, but ultimately beautiful – with measurable business benefits. Thinking differently and pushing boundaries got you this far, didn’t it? Why not take the next bold step with your team and lead together.
I help Founder CEOs of companies between 5 and 40 people who are experiencing early-stage success and ready to scale – especially those wanting to build shared responsibility and accountability within their team.
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