To Whom are You Accountable?

You and i need to be able to answer three questions.  First, to whom am I accountable for the quality and character of my work?  Second, how does this accountability actually happen – is there an effective mechanism by which this accountability is exercised? And, third, for what am I accountable?   I am suggesting that these three questions are fundamental to our capacity to be effective within an organization   And the three questions apply to all of us. 

All of this assumes that we in humility and grace actually want to be accountable and will even insist on this.     Accountability is basic to leadership; it is fundament spiritual practice; it is essential to genuinely wanting the best for the organizations of which we are a part.   Only hubris and sheer presumption would lead anyone to think they are somehow above it all. 

Then with that in place, to answer the first question.   To whom am I accountable for the quality and character of my work?  To whom do I report on what I am doing and how this contributes to the effectiveness, viability and sustainability of the organization?   For the senior pastor of a church or for the president of a non-profit, the answer is typically that it is the board of the church – the church council – or the board of trustees of the non-profit, be that a development agency or a college or university that is the one to whom we are accountable.  Yes, of course, the board are there to empower and encourage; and yes, they are and should be a source of counsel and wisdom.   But it is also equally imperative that they view themselves as a source of accountability and are accepted as such. 

This does not mean that the relationship with the senior executive is adversarial.  That gains no one anything; a president or a senior pastor cannot function effectively in such a climate.   But it does mean good conversation that basically comes down to:  is this working and is it working effectively? 

I am going to speak about “mechanisms” for in an upcoming blog; and I will speak in yet another posting to the “what” for which we are accountable.   But for now, I want to focus on the “who” though these comments will spill over to the how.  And this is because as soon as a group has any size, the capacity for genuine accountability soon drops. 

In my case, I am accountable to a board of 15 persons.   And I am very glad that it is no larger; larger is merely more cumbersome and definitely not more effective.   But more, it would have to be a lot smaller for there to be genuine accountability. Thus I find that this only works if there is a subcommittee of 4 – the chair and vice chair and two more – who have it as their responsibility to monitor the well being and effectiveness of the president.  And I provide them a confidential higher level of communication and disclosure and invite their input if there is anything of concern from them regarding the quality of my work.  They discuss between themselves any concerns they might have and these are communicated to me through the board chair. 

And then the board chair is for me an immediate and regular accountability.  We meet monthly; I provide updates; I get input and suggestions.   And I respond to questions he might have.   My meetings also include updates on any concerns I might have with my direct reports.  And something noteworthy happened earlier this year.   At a meeting I expressed concern about the effectiveness of one of our vice presidents.  The chair asking probing questions – wondering how I would handle the situation and suggesting that if things did not improve, I might have to initiate a job termination.  I agreed, but over the next few months even though there was no real improvement, I kept putting off the deeply awkward and uncomfortable action that needed to be taken.  I needed the accountability to do what I know needed to be done.   

Now crucial here is the following:  the board chair was not telling me what to do; the board chair was not doing my job for me.  And if I had not acted, he would not have presumed to tell me I had done the wrong thing.  I have no doubt that he might well sometimes have significant points of difference with me.   But he does not presume to lead through me; and he does not presume the run the organization.  He lets me be the president; that is what I was hired to do.   And yet, he will hold be accountable to do what I fully acknowledge should be done.  And eventually I did do what needed to be done. 

Let me add this:  the relationship needs to be cordial, civil, gracious and empowering.  But the board chair is not a “best friend”; the board chair cannot be an enabler of dysfunction.   Too many board chairs are so much in the court of the president or senior pastor that they have lost all capacity for genuine accountability.     The board have to have the confidence that the chair is monitoring effectiveness. 

But most of all, accountability like this only happens with I want to be held accountable – when those of us in senior level positions insist that for our own well-being and our own effectiveness, we will live and function with intentional accountability.  

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.