I have been working with a young CEO who recently acceded to her company’s leadership.
She was the successor to a more authoritarian regime and found herself working overtime to establish a more collaborative and less hierarchical environment.
She wanted to bring people to the table, encourage a stronger cultural bond among her employees and build a more inclusive culture that valued the contribution of each individual.
People welcomed those changes with open arms, eager to embrace a culture they much preferred.
What emerged along with a more engaging and transparent culture, however, was a cadre of executives so eager to please their new leader, and to be a part of her leadership team, that they acquiesced to every idea and plan.
In turn, the CEO gushed over their support, confusing their affection for the new regime with the wisdom of her plans and strategies.
Soon enough, everyone was skipping down the hall holding hands and singing “kumbaya”.
But, the honeymoon soon ended, and what was perceived as a lovefest soon became a hornet’s nest of uncertainty, confusion and unclear expectations.
The new CEO realized that while consensus feels good, it’s not the same thing as collaboration or accountability.
When people aren’t executing the plans, no amount of cultural affection will overcome those failures.
At the same time, she struggled with how to hold people accountable for their individual performance without unraveling her genuine efforts to change the culture.
What I was able to help her see is that building a more collaborative culture can still be accomplished as long as her team members understand that collaboration … sharing ideas to reach the best answer … is not the same as consensus management.
Neither is it a substitute for the accountability that is essential to getting things done.
So, we talked about SMART goals, an ARCI chart setting out accountability and responsibility expectations, and even Apple’s renowned reliance on “Who’s the DRI?” — the “directly responsible individual” for every project and task.
Remember … you won’t BECOME a better leader until you start BEING a better leader. Start by making sure you’re not creating your own distractions and you know where you’re pointing that finger … and don’t forget that it’s impossible to fake authenticity.
We also went over the three most important words required to establish an accountable organization: “Set Clear Expectations”.
There’s no shortcut for this, nor a substitute for making sure that the people on your team are absolutely clear about what’s expected of them, with both desired outcomes and appropriate timelines.
Consensus management can be the enemy of accountability and will lead to a dysfunctional leadership team if you cannot ensure that all of your leaders are carrying out their duties and responsibilities.
Soon enough, she began to understand that leadership isn’t about achieving consensus after all, but about achieving the goals and objectives that will both advance the company’s strategy and fulfill the fiduciary obligations to shareholders and stakeholders alike.
Working hard to get everyone to agree with every decision is exhausting but it’s a poor substitute for getting things done.
That’s why accountability starts at the top in vibrant organizations and requires candid conversations and honest feedback.
In addition to collaborating to find realistic solutions, clear expectations are essential so that each member of your leadership team understands that the value of a more open and egalitarian culture is not consensus.
Rather, it is inclusiveness, team-building and above all, superior performance. Every team member must be committed to her individual goals and be prepared to openly address issues of non-performance by referring to a clearly articulated and mutually agreeable blueprint.
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While building a culture of collaboration and transparency, leaders should welcome and encourage vigorous debate and develop a team around them who will challenge each other and fight for their ideas and beliefs.
Ideas that go unchallenged are unlikely to be the best ideas because great ideas invariably emerge from a kernel of truth, enhanced by a rigorous process that tests the theories, anticipates obstacles and celebrates the flexibility that all enduring concepts must possess.
As a leader, the last thing you want is a group of leaders surrounding you that will tell you only what you want to hear, agree with you at every turn and refuse to challenge your ideas and strategy.
You can achieve collaboration without consensus.
Strive for superior performance as a business strategy and hold everyone accountable for their individual performance to build a successful business.
That’s hard to do while you’re holding hands around the coffee urn.
This article was published in the October 15, 2012 edition of the North Bay Business Journal, a publication of the New York Times, and a weekly business newspaper which I have served as a regular columnist for over four years. The Business Journal covers the North Bay area of San Francisco – from the Golden Gate bridge north, including the Wine Country of Sonoma and Napa counties. The electronic version of this article, as published by the North Bay Business Journal, may be found here.