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How to Get Senior Leaders to Do Their Jobs (and keep accountability where it belongs)

Tom Moriarty provides approaches and tips for ensuring accountability stays with senior leaders where it belongs.
Tom Moriarty provides approaches and tips for ensuring accountability stays with senior leaders where it belongs.

One of the questions I get when people learn that I’ve written a book on leadership is “How can I get senior leaders to do their job?” It’s hard to give a short answer to that question. That’s because everyone’s circumstances are different.

What I can do is lay out the way I think about that problem. With that thought process you should be able to diagnose and work to improve your situation, if you’re in the same boat.

Every Organization Needs Accountability

The most important thing that any organization needs is accountability. Accountability means having ultimate responsibility. The buck stops with the accountable person. Responsibility to carry out an accountability can be delegated. Accountability cannot. That is a primary means of training or developing a person for higher responsibilities.

Let’s talk about why accountability is so important. At each level of an organization, a senior person is accountable to provide guidance, assets, and training to their direct reports. Guidance includes policies, plans, processes, procedures and measures; what needs to be done, how, when, why, etc. Assets are the resources needed to carry out guidance, personnel, budget, utilities, equipment, tools, software, etc. Training includes the coaching and support needed to create proficiency. The senior person is accountable to establish initial guidance, assets and training and to be attentive and assertive to make changes to guidance, assets and training.

Direct Reports and Accountability

Direct reports at each leadership level are accountable to execute current guidance with current assets. There are often differences between authorized guidance and authorized assets, and current guidance and current assets. Therefore, direct reports are also accountable to notify their senior leader when there are deficiencies in guidance or assets.

An example of how these accountabilities work would be having guidance that assigns duties for a ten-person authorized team when only seven people are the team currently. The direct report is accountable to notify the senior person of the personnel deficiency. The senior person is accountable to resolve the deficiency.

This discussion on accountability is critical to understanding how to get senior persons to do their job. A subordinate trying to get an issue resolved must understand where accountabilities lie. If the issue to be resolved is clearly the senior person’s accountability the accountability must remain with that senior person.

Trust and Respect

When a senior person seems to not be doing their job there are two dimensions to consider. First, whether the senior person has trust and respect for the junior person. The second dimension is whether the senior person is responsive or not.

Trust and respect can be lacking for multiple reasons. It could be that the senior person and junior person just have not had enough time together. Or it could be that there was some issue or series of issues that caused distrust or disrespect. In the first case, when something needs to be done always bring a description of the problem as you see it, and a set of solutions with your specific recommended solution. This will help the senior person gets to know your depth of knowledge and thought process. With each scenario there is an opportunity to build trust and respect.

In the second case, I recommend you schedule some time with the senior person and hash out the past issues. Perhaps one or both of you didn’t have full information or were frustrated and unprofessional. An earnest conversation to clear the air is perhaps the best approach. If it can’t be fully resolved, at least agree to a professional relationship. It will take time and patience to heal past wounds, but the time to start is now.

Responsiveness issues with senior persons can be due to many reasons as well. Perhaps they are overworked/overstressed, or they may be ‘in over their head’, or they may simply be uncomfortable with risk. In each of these scenarios the answer is similar.

Ensure Accountability Stays with the Senior Person

Ensure accountability stays with senior person. Make sure you are doing your part by clearly informing them of the issues that need their attention and your recommended solution. For non-emergency situations, communicate via Email, memo, in front of witnesses or some other way such that there is verifiable date and time of the notification. Repeat the communication in a verifiable manner once or twice more after an appropriate response time elapses.

If no adequate response has been received, send another verifiable communication that states “Unless otherwise directed by [insert date and time], I am going to resolve this issue by [insert action you will take] as outlined in my previous communications.” If the senior person responds you’ve gotten your answer and they have retained accountability. If they don’t respond by the stated date and time, the senior person is delegating responsibility but keeping accountability because by not interceding they are giving their approval.

Go forth and do great things.


Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Lt. Commander in the US Coast Guard, a mechanical engineer, and a successful consultant. His company, Alidade MER, performs discrete projects such as assessments, Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM), PM Optimization, Root Cause Analysis (RCA), work management process designs, planning and scheduling, Productive Leadership workshops, etc. Alidade MER performs strategic projects that include assessment, strategic plans, and implementation of initiatives to close the gap between current performance and goals.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP President, Alidade MER, Inc. Author: The Productive Leadership System Mobile: (321) 961-4306 Email: LinkedIn: Twitter: @AlidadeMer


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