Accountability, authority, ability

The Triple A

If you want a leader to succeed – at any level from supervisor to chief executive – there are three ingredients you must build into any management role.

They need the ability to do it. They need the authority to act and they need accountability for results. The triple A. Leaders and managers cannot truly succeed or thrive without all three.

By ability I mean the capabilities and resources necessary to deliver. This could be money, time, personnel, knowledge, skills, attributes, advice, etc. By authority, I mean real freedom to make decisions and choose what to do. By accountability I mean, bluntly, who gets blamed when things go wrong and, sadly more rarely, rewarded when things go well.

It is not uncommon to give accountability without either of the other two. This is a recipe for a failure. It is little more than passing the buck or nominating scapegoats. Do not hold people accountable unless you have also ensured they have the ability and authority to meet that accountability. It is a fundamental rule: do not hold people accountable for results outside their control. It is pointless, toxic, dishonest and all too common.

It is fun to explore combinations of ‘two out of three’ of the triple A recipe as a guide to everyday dysfunctions of management roles. With apologies to Meatloaf, who readers of this blog may know is an inspiration to me, this is a case where two out of three is bad.

Imagine you have given someone the authority to do their work and accountability for the results, but they lack the ability. This is a classic ‘set up to fail’ scenario. They are out of their depth.

Imagine you have given someone accountability and ability but not the authority to act. This a classic ‘second guessed’ or undermined scenario. They give the instructions but all eyes flick to someone behind them to see if they should obey. To be in this situation is soul destroying to anyone of talent and ambition.

Finally, imagine you have given someone ability and authority, but do not hold them accountable. In fact, I suspect you are most likely to imagine that it is you in that scenario. Authority and ability without blame or risk. This is the classic ‘power behind the throne’ or eminence grise scenario. It probably not too unpleasant for the individual in question. It is probably not too healthy for the organisation they serve. Too much accountability is toxic, but so is none at all. It may be plausible to see a few advisers and assistants or policy makers in such a position, but in a line manager this is rogue territory.

A viable management role has all three elements and a well designed one keeps them in rough proportion. If you have a manager who is failing there may be many reasons, but I think it is worth running a ‘triple A’ diagnostic before taking more drastic action. Have you given them a role in which they can succeed?

Obviously it’s difficult if, in identifying the the root cause as lack of ability, you attribute it to their lack of skill, knowledge or competence. As well as role design, a manager brings elements of the triple A themselves – their own abilities, their willingness to exert their will and the way they rise to accountability. You should try to be clear before you appoint someone that they have the ability to do the job but that is very hard. The past is not always a predictor of future performance when you promote someone into a significantly different role. You need to monitor early performance closely, offer feedback and coaching and move decisively if it becomes clear that they have a personal deficit.

But make sure you look in the mirror too. There are aspects of ability that can be given – time and money and training for example. And both authority and accountability are in your gift. Try not to set your managers up to fail by designing impossible jobs.

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