The Buck Stops Here and Here and Here

by Bill Granda

Since 1991, as consultant, business coach, and advisor with Paradigm Associates, Bill Granda has been helping businesses and individuals improve their ability to overcome obstacles and get results. He engages with key players and teams, particularly those in or approaching important transitions, to develop and execute practical business and transition strategies. Clients have found him especially helpful when they recognize they have to do something different, but don't know exactly what that is, or they know what is needed but aren't sure how to best get it done. Many of his clients are closely-held and family businesses, non-profits, and professional firm owners who put a premium on professional competence and really helping their clients.

Ask anybody in any organization where the buck stops, and it's a rare organization where you'd find someone answering anywhere other than the CEO's office. It seems logical; it's certainly a long held belief. But is it really functional in today's business environment? If the buck stops in the CEO's office, isn't the corollary that it doesn't stop with any other senior managers, or middle managers, or supervisors, or anyone else in the organization?

If empowerment is taken seriously and you really want everyone in your company to take "ownership" in it, doesn't that mean the buck has to stop with each and every person in the company? Yes, everyone brings different talents and experiences to their job. Yes, a breakdown in some jobs may have a more immediate and visible impact than in others. But in the context of winning games or of having a highly successful business, can the tackle be any less important or responsible than the quarterback? In other words, does division of labor allow some to wash their hands of a breakdown in performance and results?

I haven't found that, vertically or horizontally in an organization, any one group or groups have a monopoly on abdicating responsibility or hand-washing. But it does seem, as in the cases described in the HBR article, that when employees abdicate responsibility, it's because managers let them, or in some cases don't allow them to take responsibility.

So what does that say for the role of managers at any level? How do you lead and manage in a way that everyone takes responsibility for their jobs and the success of the business? Here are some suggestions.

Constant, gentle pressure - The original manager of Sparks Steakhouse in NY demonstrated his very high standards for table settings by placing a salt shaker at the exact center of the table and always moving it back when he saw it out of place. It didn't take staff long to learn where the salt shaker belonged. High standards constantly, consistently, and gently maintained. No one is diminished, but lowered standards are not accepted.

Pass problems down and solutions up - When I was a Boy Scout leader, our troop took the idea of being a boy-run organization seriously; developing boys into young men was a major goal. So our response to any non-emergency request for help that a boy made to an adult was, "Do I look like your Patrol Leader?" That's all it took for the boy to go solve the problem among the other Scouts. Our realization was that every time adults intervene, fix things, or solve problems for the boys, we rob them of positive learning opportunities. The lesson they do learn when adults intervene is that they can depend on adults to fix things, take care of them, etc. In other words they don't have to do it themselves; it's not their responsibility.

Dan Pink provides insight on three motivators of high performance:

Self-direction - Especially in a fast-paced business environment where it's critical that people act and react quickly, make sure people understand the contribution that's needed from them, and give them the autonomy to do it. Kimberle Levin, an entrepreneur who built and sold four businesses (she was currently on her fifth) told us the key to her success was, "I hire the right people. And I spend a lot of time making sure they know what done looks like. Then I turn them loose to do their jobs." Initiative and creativity emerge that may have otherwise never seen the light of day.

Mastery - Most people have an urge to get better at things they do. Allow and expect them to do that. Whether through appropriate challenges, training and development opportunities, frequent feedback and discussion, providing the right tools to do their work, give people an opportunity to excel. A question in one of the Gallup surveys of the links between employee opinions and business results was, "Do I have the opportunity to do my best every day at work?"

Meaningfulness - People need to know that there is purpose or significance in what they do beyond making a profit. That doesn't mean profit isn't important or that employees are averse to the company's making a profit. It does mean that people are motivated to perform better when there's significance beyond the profit. Several years ago at the conclusion of my presentation at a conference at the Bellagio, I thanked the staff people who were rearranging tables and chairs, refilling water pitchers, and replacing pads and pens for making it so easy for me to conduct the workshop. One of them replied, "That's why we're a five-star hotel." There was something about her job and her employer that she could be proud of, and she was.

Ask questions - As with passing problems down and solutions up, don't give answers, ask questions. What do people learn when they don't have to think? How can you get them to think, to contribute their ideas, to come up with new or better solutions, to take responsibility for the results?