Loyalty & Accountability: Can you have both at the Executive Level?

By Chris Bachinski written about 8 months ago

In my own business experience as well as in my role as a consultant, I have had opportunity to observe how different types of executive teams operate. And I have begun to detect a pattern, particularly in smaller leadership teams – those with five or fewer executives.

I’ve noticed that loyalty overrides accountability.

In these blog posts, I often pose unanswered questions in the hopes of soliciting your feedback. Today’s topic about loyalty and accountability in the executive team is one I’d encourage you to weigh in on. 

Typically these leadership teams have been together for a few years and are led by the founder of the company, who is now CEO. These team members have stood side-by-side through the many ups and downs of the business, especially in its early days, and they now find themselves operating at a much higher level. They have weathered difficult days together, and have also shared in the celebration of success. They have each given of themselves and have watched the others make similar sacrifices. Without realizing it they have kept an unwritten ledger, a record of past contributions and missteps. They can easily call to mind times when one of their team royally messed up, and when another helped completely turn a situation around. Thanks to their combined efforts, the company has grown. They can look back proudly and see they’ve come a long way from where they started.

The question is this: Can (and should) loyalty and accountability co-exist in this kind of environment? 

Loyalty is showing someone complete and constant support, unwavering – and sometimes irrational – allegiance.

Loyalty is built over time through working together. If you have worked with your team members for any period of time, no doubt they have gone above and beyond for you many times. Sacrificed personal time, energy and even their own well-being for the needs of the company. Should that be recognized with loyalty? Or is that unwritten balance sheet settled each time you cut the paycheck for them?

In contrast, accountability is (as leadership writer Patrick Lencioni puts it) “the courage to confront someone, stand in the moment and deal with their reaction.”

It means holding someone to what they said they would do. It means not letting them off the hook for the results of their actions. It requires speaking up when something is wrong for the company. We all like to think we’re this brave. But while it’s easy to talk about, it is much harder to do among your peers, your work friends and within the executive.

Let’s look at accountability at the executive level. Most companies preach leadership and accountability. “We need more accountability,” the CEO preaches, and 99% of the time he or she is right. Prescribing the need for more accountability is like your doctor saying you need to exercise and eat healthy: it applies to everyone. And it should start at the top among the executive.

If you want a culture of accountability to permeate your organization, your employees need to see each executive holding the others accountable.

What if one executive is under performing? What if there are decisions being made by the CEO that damage the organization? A closely-knit executive team runs the challenge of loyalty, often raising the level of evidence required to speak up and hold the executive accountable. Is that the right approach?

You might argue the executive needs to stick together and show alignment, a united front. What if their failures are publicly known? Wouldn’t that threaten their credibility with the employees? Should the executive refrain from calling out the mistakes? If they do not, are they practicing loyalty? Does that then create an additional level of accountability: one for the executive and one for everyone else?

Think Shift’s chairman, Dr. Balaji Krishnamurthy, writes that loyalty does not scale. He says, “Pretty soon what started out as a balanced sheet of IOUs fails to be balanced anymore. Loyalty neither scales with size nor weathers time. As the company grows you have to move on to something beyond loyalty. It is fantastic while it lasts, but don't get too attached to it if you want to grow. One day you will have to settle up and move on.” Does that mean loyalty cannot exist at the executive?

This was a hard blog for me to write, as the “logic” part of me says loyalty should not exist in the executive. Rather, senior leadership should maintain a higher level of accountability than everyone else in the company. But the little piece of “heart” I have argues; loyalty needs to be recognized. The best advice I have tried to adhere to comes from Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup. He says:

“You have to be incredibly tough-minded about standards of performance, but you also have to be incredibly tender-hearted with the people you’re working with. They have to feel like you have their back.”

My conclusion: loyalty and accountability both need to exist in the executive. As a senior leadership team, you must be accountable to the organization first, tough-minded on performance, but then tender-hearted to your fellow executives.

Please reach out with your comments and critiques. I look forward to continuing this conversation. [email protected].