With Martin G. Moore

Episode #163

Communicating Value and Acing Accountability: Q&A with Marty & Em

In this episode, Em and I cover three brilliant questions from past Leadership Beyond the Theory students! These questions are taken from the Deliver Value, Work at Level and Drive Accountability modules – three of our favourites.

Every week during the program, at the end of the weekly module, we run two live webinars. In these sessions, Em and I answer questions from the cohort so that each individual can put the learnings into their specific context.

One of the key benefits to joining the international cohort is that every week you hear questions from leaders of all different levels, industries, backgrounds, and cultures, which makes for an incredibly rich learning experience for everyone.

This episode highlights the types of questions we get!

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Episode #163 Communicating Value and Acing Accountability: Q&A with Marty & Em

We’re closing doors for enrolment into the next cohort of Leadership Beyond the Theory at the end of this week, so I thought on the podcast today, we’d showcase one of my favourite parts of the program to give you some insight into what it’s like when you join LBT, as we call it.

Every week during the program at the end of the weekly module, we run two live webinars. In these sessions, Em and I answer questions from the cohorts so that each individual can put the learnings into their specific context. Every person goes through the material and makes notes in their implementation playbook about where their gaps in execution might be or where they’re struggling to perform as strong capable leaders.

Now obviously, there’s only so many questions you can get through in two hours, so any questions that I don’t cover in the webinar, particularly if they’re more complex or context dependent, I answer in a one-on-one video which I send to that individual the following week.

What I want to highlight in this episode is some of the types of questions we get each week. One of the key benefits to joining the international cohort is that every week you hear questions from leaders of all different levels, industries, backgrounds, and cultures, which makes for an incredibly rich learning experience for everyone.

So today, Em and I have chosen three questions asked by past students from our three favourite modules. Of course Em and I run the webinars together each week so I couldn’t do this episode without her.

Marty: Welcome back to the podcast Em. How are you doing?

Em: Hello, I am a bit knackered this week. We’ve had a few pretty big weeks. The book was published on the 28th of September, and then we opened the doors for Leadership Beyond the Theory one day after that. And I think there’s something else exciting that happened, which I can’t quite…Oh, yes. The book hit number two on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list. A huge congratulations to Marty. Has it sunk in yet?

Marty: Well, yes it has actually, but that was last week right? Now you know me, when we hit a really big goal, we celebrate for a minute and then the next words out of my mouth are “Okay Em, what’s next?” And I think unfortunately, I passed that gene onto you too.

Em: Yeah. Thanks a lot for that one. That’s probably one that I didn’t need, but I am getting better at celebrating the wins that’s for sure.

Marty: Yeah. Well look, we did celebrate on zoom, and the best thing is that it gives us an even stronger platform to build on to achieve our purpose. Now, as nice as it is to hit the Wall Street Journal bestseller list, my real satisfaction comes when the people I most respect in business and leadership read the book and they say, “Wow, that book is awesome”. And we’ve already had so many fantastic bits of feedback from our community.

Em: Yeah, I’m super proud of you. And this is just the beginning for the book. You’ve already had quite a big increase in speaking engagement requests, so I’m excited to see how you can take the book and that impact to even more leaders over the next 12 months.

Marty: All right, let’s get onto the episode. I absolutely love this concept because as you said in the intro, the webinars are our favourite part of Leadership Beyond the Theory. They’re so much fun and so energising. If you want more information on the program, or you want to enrol, head to leadershipbeyondthetheory.com.

Question 1: From ‘Deliver Value’ module

Marty: All right. So we’ve picked three questions from our three favourite modules. Do you want to kick it off with question one, Em?

Em: Yes, absolutely. So this one is from Jessica. “I’m interested to know the technique for relaying the value message through the business, particularly for a smallish operation where we don’t yet have a formally defined leadership team, other than the two directors. The value messages at this stage are repeated in team discussions or in lunch workshops from the two directors. Although we get good feedback from the team on our discussions, we sometimes wonder, if the message is clear enough to drive action.”

Marty: Ooh, okay, good question. I actually remember this one, because the first thing out of my mouth was size shouldn’t matter because the principles are identical. But when you’re in a smaller business, it’s generally even easier because you don’t get that dilution effect as you’re trying to push messages down through different layers of leadership. But the objective in the value discussion, and the process of communicating it is identical regardless of industry or company size.

So the first thing is to know what creates value. What’s the highest value generator for your business, and what are the biggest value levers that you can pull?

Now, this means you have to do the work in defining the organization’s purpose, and then coming up with a plausible and executable strategy. And quite often, that’s the work that hasn’t been done thoroughly. It hasn’t been done properly enough to enable really clear communication.

I think it was Albert Einstein said, “if you can’t explain something complex in simple terms, you simply don’t understand it well enough yourself”.

So when we talk about strategy, I think I say this all the time, go back to Ep.85. This will take you through the types of questions you need to ask to establish a strategy. It doesn’t have to be hard, it just has to be the right questions answered sensibly.

All of this stuff comes to life in your work programs and plans. Making sure you’re executing on the key elements of the strategy that lead to tangible value creation is the way to go. If those plans are rational and targeted, then communication can happen in many different ways. You of course communicate the “why”, and as leaders you’ll communicate the tone, the pace and the standard, because that’s what you do.

You communicate when things work, and you also communicate when things don’t work. Because you’re trying to give people those live examples of what you’re trying to achieve. And so that’s gotta be that really close contact that, that hand-to-hand combat you have in a run of play. When things change, you recalibrate and you shift, when the environment around you is morphing.

Trace the value and make sure you hear the sound of the coin dropping in the tin. You need to tell stories of when it’s happened and when it hasn’t and constantly adjust and reassess to ensure that value comes through. It’s all about understanding where the value is and reinforcing it when you get it.

Em: Yeah. I can see how it would be much easier in smaller businesses. I know for us, it’s a lot easier to make sure that everyone is on the same page with the value stuff. You mentioned, dilution of message at the start of your answer–how can you check if the message has been diluted through the layers or if it’s actually on point?

Marty: It’s a good question, Em. I think there’s two things in particular. The first one is, make sure that you don’t believe your own bullsh!t. I see a lot of executives and senior people issue some emails and approve a work program, and then they believe that this is actually making a difference without ever checking.

So they’ll kick off a few programs, allocate some money, get some resources in place and sit back and just go “look, I’ve made a real difference to the organisation” without ever verifying that that value comes through. So the first thing is don’t believe your own bullsh!t.

The second thing is, no matter what level you’re at, you’ve got to be talking to people right through the layers in your organisation. I used to get some of my most informative conversations with tradespeople working on the front line or with middle managers in far off locations, away from head office. That’s where you find out what’s really going on, what people are really doing, and you’re listening for those echoes. If you can hear the echoes coming out of the mouths of the leaders at lower levels, that’s a pretty good sign. But quite often you can’t hear that.

Em:  Okay, cool. That totally makes sense. Obviously, we dig into DELIVER VALUE a lot more in the program, but that is a really good example of an actual question that we would get from a student.

Marty: Yeah. And it’s actually a pretty common one that seems to come up pretty much in every cohort in some way, shape or form.

Question 2: From ‘WORK AT LEVEL’ module

Em: All right, let’s go on to the second question. We took this one from “Work at Level”, which is my favourite module — Module #4.

This one is from Pete: “To remain financially viable, my organisation trimmed resources to reduce costs over the past two years. This approach necessitated that leaders dip down to deliver outcomes. However, this has resulted in compromising clinical excellence and our ability to deliver services. Do you have any additional tips for reversing this strategy to ensure that me and my team can work at the right level?”

Marty: Yes. Well, without getting too specific about the clinical excellence mentioned in Pete’s question, I just want to generically talk about cost cutting and the role that plays and why sometimes an organisation will cut off its nose to spite its face.

When the pressure is on the first instinct of most leaders is to cut costs and they do this in a number of ways. You see the really ridiculous cost cutting stuff like no more free newspapers in the foyer, and that sort of stuff makes almost no material difference to what’s going on. It just sends some sort of signal about cost consciousness, but quite often they’ll have redundancies and let staff go.

Now I’ve seen over the years, many of these types of programs, where in tough times, organisations cut costs. They pay a lot of money to individuals in redundancy payments to free them up to go to another organisation.

They find that they’ve cut themselves too thin and can’t do all the work. And within two years they’re rehiring a lot of employees. It’s a highly cost-intensive exercise, and you don’t see the value from it unless you have a long-term strategy for how to reshape your organisation and change the business model.

So in cutting costs, you can actually destroy value that is possible because value destruction is a measure of long-term financial outcomes, not short-term. And cutting costs often just isn’t the smartest way to do things. So I find here, go back to the value conversation every time, everything leads back to value, all roads lead to Rome.

When we talk about cutting costs and then having managers do the work of their people, it seems to miss the point. Why would you pay someone $100,000 a year to do a $50,000 a year job? So the knee jerking that goes on with this sort of stuff creates casualties.

What you’re looking for is the greatest value outcomes. Your first port of call is cutting, not costs, but activity.

This is a subtle distinction and it may or may not equate to cutting some jobs. You’ll almost always see that some costs are going to be reduced, but you’re coming from the right angle, which is the value question.

So what you’re trying to do is do more of the things that create really high value and stop the other stuff. Now, often this is of course easier said than done, but one of the serendipities of this is that your focus improves. So your best people work on the most value-accretive tasks. That make sense, right?

Em: Yeah, it absolutely does Marty. So I guess my next question is how do we transition out of doing that busy work, doing all that activity and actually move back into doing the work of leadership, the work that we’re paid to do?

Marty: When you think about the impact on leadership, now, if you’re going to take a value approach and see what the highest value things are, and then direct resources towards it, it requires leadership to do that. It requires leadership to uncover what those high value things are, to make the decisions about resourcing and work programs, and then to execute on those.

So in other words, you need leaders doing the work of leadership: define what should be done and manage the consequences of that.

So simply increasing the leader’s workload, while cutting the resources, they rely on to get the job done? That’s just dumb, right!?

But I see it all the time and it’s made worse because often the market, if you’re talking about publicly listed companies, rewards companies that can cut costs to create short-term impacts, like a short term kick to the EBITDA or the EBIT, even if it is irrational, and even if it has terrible long-term side effects.

So, if I was going to talk about what to focus on in a business that’s maybe even potentially struggling to survive, I’d say start by doing what you need to do to keep the business alive.

You can’t let the patient bleed out on the table while you’re thinking about your long-term plan. You’ve got to think of it like a patient in the ICU. Sometimes you just need to put fingers on arteries to stop the patient from bleeding out.

Once you’re out of the woods, work out the long-term business plan, and that requires you to keep your leaders operating at their right level. They need to root out all the shit that’s marginal and stop it. Even if it means, particularly in smaller businesses, that you have to change the fundamental nature of what you do.

Leaders should be doing leadership work. And if there’s something that you don’t need a leader for, then the leader and their function needs to disappear, if it’s low value work.

Question 3: FROM ‘Drive Accountability’ module

Em: Great answer Marty, really comprehensive. All right. Can we get onto a third question? “Drive Accountability”, your favourite module.

Marty: Sure. It is indeed. Yeah.

Em: This one is from Fiona. “People love to talk about a “safe to fail” environment. I sometimes struggle to work out when support ends and holding someone to account begins. You make a clear point in saying that accountability is not about punishment or blame, but when someone fails to deliver an outcome it’s rarely black and white. Often, they’re impacted by external dependencies or other issues that they have a little control over. How do you, as a leader, strike the balance between providing support and holding them to account and how is holding them to account different from blaming them for not delivering the outcome?” And I’m pretty sure Marty, when this question was asked, you said, this is the question of the module.

Marty: I think it was the question of the whole program that time. I mean, this is a great question because it’s all very well to talk about accountability and empowerment, but there’s always this balance that has to be struck. And it’s basically a case by case basis.

It’s really hard to work out what to do in any given situation. There’s no standard recipe or formula you can apply.

Let’s go back to the basics, right? The object of the exercise, and what you’re trying to do as a leader is to create a constructive high-performance culture. And you can describe that as the “no blame, no excuses” culture. This means you’ve got to set really clear expectations and hold people to account for their choices. A lot of people have trouble understanding this distinction.

I guess many people think that constructive means permissive and soft and it’s anything but that. So this stuff’s never black and white, there are some subtleties.

I always ask one question, of course, upfront: “Any failure that’s occurred–is it a pre or post deadline failure?”

This actually makes a difference. A good leader will proactively manage issues and problems as they arise, and when they can materially impact an outcome to push that information upwards and communicate.

You’ve heard me say before, I call this ‘being adult’ in your approach to leadership, but when failure comes after the deadline has passed, when someone hasn’t delivered something they’re accountable for, then that’s just an excuse. And you know Em, to me, every single excuse just sounds like “the dog ate my homework”… that’s it! Right? That’s all there is.

So I asked myself questions. Did the accountable person anticipate the issues, risks, and problems? Did they work constructively with their peers? What did they do when they found problems? Did they escalate them? Did they solve them or did they sit back and avoid them and hope things would improve by sticking their head in the sand? Did they show innovation? Did they show adaptation? So I just want to see what’s behind this?

It’s not just a matter of “you delivered it or you didn’t”… the “how” is very, very important here. And then the type of failure is important because there’s a big difference between the negligence of, for example, a budget overrun that’s occurred without notice, and being blindsided by an event that’s completely beyond someone’s control.

Em: What about the really big problems that happen, like whose accountability is that we often hear the accountability sits with the CEO. What do you do when there’s something that’s massive that’s happened?

Marty: Well, I think every accountable person still has to navigate their way through their problems, no matter how big they are. And it makes it a little bit easier to have something that’s big enough that it has organisational awareness, because then no one questions whether or not the problem is a problem. They know it’s a problem and they just want to see how every individual person is going to deal with it. And they can get some direction from above as well, if it’s a really big one. But if you’re accountable for something, you still have the accountability to manage through any issues. And the question I always ask is, “When this person came up against the inevitable problems that were going to arise, how well did they do? How did they approach it and what did they do to mitigate the problems?”

And of course, you’ve got to look at what we call form. What’s someone’s natural track record with this stuff. This is course of conduct, right? Is a failure unusual for them, or is it a repeated pattern? There’s whole range of things that you assess to work out when to be supportive and when to hold someone to account by bringing consequences for their choices.

Ultimately, once again, what’s the object of the exercise? You want people to be successful. You want them to deliver and to stretch and to grow their capability. So you should be in there all the time, giving them coaching and the mentoring they need. Sometimes you’re gonna have conversations that are really supportive, and sometimes you’re going to have conversations that bring the weight of consequences.

In fact, sometimes you’ll have both consequences and support in exactly the same conversation. So as I said, it’s subtle, it’s a little tricky.

Em: Very, very tricky. Now, Marty, I know the answer to this one, but I would love for you to share it with our listeners. What is your biggest repeated mistake as an exec when it comes to accountability?

Marty: Oh, this is such a Dorothy Dixer, you already know this!

Look, this is in fact my biggest and most often repeated mistake as an executive. Often, I would provide support and a lot of support, but I wouldn’t inspect the outputs closely enough. Then I’d find that the outcomes that arrived didn’t materialise the way they should have or when they should have or to the the quality they should have. And I hadn’t picked it up early enough.

This is why I’ve now been able to construct the definitive model for balancing accountability and empowerment, and balancing consequences and support. This is basically Module #6 of Leadership Beyond the Theory: that’s where it all sort of lands. That’s why it’s my favourite module, because this was something that I was not good at earlier on. I thought I was, but I actually wasn’t, and so learning how to do this really, really well took time and energy and a lot of mistakes. I’ve got to tell you.

Em: Mm, I love that. And we do really dig into this. I think the questions that we get from the LBTers every week, allow us to get further and further into all the nuances of accountability, and working at level, and delivering value and all the lessons that we cover in Leadership Beyond the Theory. So I hope this was a really good little intro into what we actually do every single week in the program.

Marty: Yeah. And it sort of runs just like this. It’s pretty conversational and we do have a lot of fun and we have this massive chat channel going where everyone in the cohort is swapping ideas and making comments and interacting with each other. It’s just a lot of fun. So it’s a really good part of the program. I’m glad you decided to do that, Emma, it’s a great one.

Leadership Beyond the Theory closes doors for enrolment this Friday, so if you want to join us every week for seven weeks in Marty’s live Q&A sessions, click on the link below to enrol.

We’re really looking forward to having you in the October, 2021 cohort.


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