How to Hold C-level Executives Accountable for Culture

It’s common today to see conversations about culture as nothing more than silly perks and open office floor plans. However, the reality is that culture is more than that. It’s based on the shared values and beliefs of the workforce, and the leaders at the top set a very real standard that carries through the organization. What leaders do personally or allow others to do modifies the culture with every decision.

The HR leadership at any organization is tasked with the difficult job of balancing the needs of the employees and the business, but it’s also true that these leaders must sometimes intervene when executives stray from the core values of the business. In those times, accountability is critical. The hope is that leaders will accept accountability for results, but as we know, that’s not always the case.

HOW LEADERS INFLUENCE CULTURE

Bernard was a charismatic leader. He was generous in his community, shrewd in business and pushed his team to perform. He ran one of the nation’s largest fiber optic networks, and his company was known for its breakneck operational pace. Through his leadership qualities, he influenced his team and employees to engage in a variety of behaviors.

However, things weren’t always perfect. Bernard was known to tout the company’s questionable successes in order to inflate the stock price. He encouraged acquisitions at an ever-increasing pace, never slowing to incorporate and merge the firms operationally or culturally. In addition, he would lend money to his executive team for stock purchases as a way to maintain leverage over them in the future, often encouraging them to make false statements to support the company’s image.

As you might imagine, this story doesn’t turn out well. This is based on the true story of Bernard Ebbers, the former CEO of WorldCom. The ultimate ending for the company was bankruptcy and continued scandal following Ebbers and his executive team’s practices. This is just one of many examples of how a leader can influence others down the wrong path through position power and likability, and it also depicts the worst possible scenario when nobody around the CEO is able to make him accountable for his actions.

At the same time, Uber provides a recent example of how a company can work to make things right by accepting responsibility and moving toward resolving the issue.

FACING THE MUSIC

We have extensively explored the Uber discrimination saga, from highlighting the initial complaints all the way to an analysis of the recent Holder report recommendations. The thing that separates Uber from the WorldCom example is that the company eventually took action on the issues in an attempt to rectify them before everything came crashing down.

This requirement that business leaders should “face the music” when bad turns to worse is not just a pipe dream. It’s critical to long-term trust, credibility and performance. In an article for Harvard Business Review, business leader Peter Bregman pointed out this truth:

Accountability is not simply taking the blame when something goes wrong. It’s not a confession. Accountability is about delivering on a commitment. It’s responsibility to an outcome, not just a set of tasks. It’s taking initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.

This is a very clear definition of accountability, and it’s one that any leader can understand and accept. However, the challenge with accountability isn’t when things are going right — it’s when things are going wrong, such as in the Uber example.

THE KEYS TO ACCOUNTABILITY

In those instances when things go wrong, there are a few keys to ensuring accountability that sticks: clearly defined expectations, honest feedback and relevant consequences.

Setting clear expectations up front ensures that there is no wiggle room or gray area for delivering on results. In the case of executives, HR leaders should focus on how behaviors and decisions impact the culture and be sure to highlight behaviors that strengthen it, not tear it down.

Giving honest feedback is a challenge in many instances, but it’s even harder when it’s an executive on the receiving end. However, as this article in The Economic Times points out, HR is a trusted leader and adviser to the executive team, so there should be some goodwill there to build feedback upon.

Finally, in the perfect world there are relevant consequences for failing to meet objectives. In most situations, this is applicable, but it’s challenging when discussing executives. In some businesses, HR has the opportunity to connect with someone higher than the executive team in times of crisis, such as owners, investors or a board of directors. Those avenues are reserved only for the most dire of circumstances, but it should be very clear to executives what necessitates that kind of reaction by a company’s HR leaders.

While always needing to play in the middle of the field by balancing the needs of the business with the needs of the workforce, HR is ideally positioned to help ensure accountability for executives, especially when it comes to issues of culture and values.

Ben Eubanks
Ben Eubanks

Ben Eubanks is the Principal Analyst at Lighthouse Research. He also founded upstartHR.com and hosts We're Only Human, a podcast focused on the intersection of people and technology in the workplace.