Category: Breakthroughs

What Henry Cavendish Can Teach Us About Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is one of the most important and yet misunderstood aspects in business today. Culture has profound impact on a business organization’s performance. For example, a Harvard Business School study documented the significant impact of culture on performance. Heskett and Kotter documented the dramatic differences between companies with good cultures vs those with poor cultures on key performance measures. For example, the companies with good cultures achieved 756% growth in net income during the same time period that companies with poor performing culture saw just 1% net income growth.

Given the importance of culture on performance, one would assume that those of us in business would have an excellent understanding of what culture is. While this seems obvious, it is not the case. Most of us have an incomplete understanding of organizational culture. We assume that culture is:

  • The artifacts which can be seen in the organization. These artifacts include the behaviors which can be seen. It also includes how communication is delivered, the workplace is organized as well as how practices and processes deployed. While declaration is given that those artifacts are the culture, less consideration is given as to why those artifacts occur. Said differently, identifying what the cultural artifacts are is useful, however, meaningful change can occur only after determining why that culture occurs.
  • The values of the organization. It is common practice for executives who seek to change or improve their organization’s culture to use exercises to develop the exact wording for the desired values and principles of the organization. The assumption is that by identifying and claiming these new values that they will now occur in the culture. While this is a popular approach to culture change, it seldom works out for any length of time.

So, the state of play is that we have strong evidence that culture has significant impact on an organization’s performance, yet we do not have a good understanding of what or why a culture is or how to improve it. This is startling given that we have spent most of our lives in some form of organization, each of which had unique cultures. Think about it, most of us went to kindergarten or preschool before we were age six and have been in various organizations ever since. Each of these organizations had distinct cultures which impacted our experience, yet we do not have a good understanding of organizational cultures. This is because the culture of the organization was established before we arrived in that organization and functioned so much in the background that we could not see it. Chances are we felt the impacts of the culture from time to time, but never were able to see the entire culture nor understand the origins of the culture.

Who Discovered Water?

This reminds me of one of my favorite rhetorical questions that I use in helping others understand culture. The question is “who discovered water?” Think about it. We take water so much for granted that at first the question seems daft or stupid. Yet thinking provides an important clue in understanding organizational culture.

One response to this question that I like is “I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the fish.” This response has an interesting parallel to our experience with cultures. The fish spends all its entire life in water and yet it has no concept of water. The fish begins to experience water only when it is pulled out of the water; that is, when some fundamental change occurs. Often that is how we first begin to encounter culture -when some fundamental changes occur.

The question remains “Who invented water?” This question brings us to the title of this blog: What Henry Cavendish Can Teach Us About Organizational Culture? If you do a search for the question “Who invented water?”, the most common answer is Henry Cavendish. A sample response is:

Henry Cavendish. (1731 – 1810) was a chemist, who discovered the composition of water, when he experimented with hydrogen and oxygen and mixed these elements together to create an explosion (oxyhydrogen effect).

Consequently, Cavendish is generally credited with discovering water. A more thorough description of Cavendish’s is:

A natural philosopher, the greatest experimental and theoretical English chemist and physicist of his age, Henry Cavendish (10 Oct. 1731 – 24 Feb. 1810) was distinguished for great accuracy and precision in researches into the composition of atmospheric air, the properties of different gases, the synthesis of water, the law governing electrical attraction and repulsion, and calculations of the density (and hence the weight) of the Earth.

The story of Henry Cavendish is fascinating. He was born into English aristocracy. His father, Lord Charles Cavendish, was active in politics and science. Henry was painfully shy and had no interest in politics, however, he did share his father’s passion for science. His father introduced Henry to the Royal Society, where he became an active member. He spent his life involved in a wide range of problem solving and research. He was a pioneer in scientific research and discovery. So, what can we learn from Henry Cavendish that helps us understand organizational culture?

Lessons on Organizational Culture from Cavendish

The statement “Cavendish was distinguished for great accuracy and precision in researches” gives us a clue and says much about his approach to problem solving. Cavendish experimented to increase the understanding of complex phenomenon. He was also noted for his great accuracy and precision. Perhaps the first lesson from Cavendish for us about culture is experimentation. I frequently encounter executives who think they know culture and consequently have closed off inquiry and thinking strategically about culture. I use this expression know culture to describe a mindset which I frequently encounter that executives have:

  • Read articles about culture
  • Been involved in processes to identify the organization’s values
  • Can talk convincingly about the importance of culture to performance of business

Unfortunately, this is based on surface level understanding of culture which in turn provides little access to action. What most of us miss is that there is a third level of culture which determines how the organization functions.

The Third Level of Culture

Edgar Schein first identified this third level which he called Basic or Tacit Assumptions. This third level is based on the shared learning of the group which is used in orienting new people to the organization and has over time become so taken for granted that it is no longer visible to participants in the organization. It becomes the context for that organization.

To deepen our understanding of culture, let’s think about how this context based on tacit assumptions is formed. An organization’s culture begins forming as soon as people come together as a group to address a common opportunity or problem. The culture begins being shaped by the attitudes, decisions and learning of this group. Cultures are built on shared learning by the group as to what works and what produces success and/or avoids failure. Each culture is unique since it is shaped by the nationalities of people involved, personalities of early leaders, professional backgrounds, technologies with which working, etc. Over time there is additional experiences and shared learning by the group which modify and refine the culture. Once we understand how culture is created, we realize that every organization’s culture is unique and so complex that it is virtually impossible to completely know or understand. The most we can hope to achieve is learning enough about how a culture functions that we can develop possible interventions.

Edgar Schein uses the concept of human personality as an analogy to demonstrate that culture is way too complex to understand. He says, “Culture in that sense is like personality or character for an individual, once you’ve learned to be a certain kind of person that is you in all aspects of your functioning and you don’t want to be any different. Which is why culture is hard to change.

Schein advocates identifying a specific problem or issue that needs to be addressed, and then begins inquiring into the nature of that problem. The assertion is that the presenting problem will likely reflect deeper issues in the organization which can only be identified and addressed through this inquiry. This is where Henry Cavendish can teach us about great accuracy and precision. Cavendish discovered water by identifying the component parts and seeing how these parts interact with each other. As we start to examine a particular problem or opportunity to identify how the culture is influencing it, we want to avoid introducing our favorite explanations or theories. Instead we want to use “great accuracy and precision” which was the hallmark of Cavendish’s career. We want to examine and observe based on what presents itself, rather than our opinions about what is being seen.


At KingChapman we assist clients to develop strategies to change their culture and transform their organization. This intervention begins with identifying the Default Future of their organization. The Default Future is what is going to happen if nothing dramatically changes. That is, if the organization continues on auto pilot what will probably occur. This Default Future is based on the current context and is business as usual. Once the Default Future is identified, the question is “Do you want it?” If the answer is yes, then no further changes are needed.

If the answer is a rousing no (often expressed as “Hell No!”), then the next step is to design a new future which is more attractive and robust for the organization. The next step is to create a new future in which dramatic cultural change and performance improvements occurs. We call this the Invented Future since it is created or literally made up. The Invented Future provides a platform from which clients can see the existing culture as well as design changes in the culture which will enable the organization to make dramatic improvements.

In order to determine areas of the culture which need to be changed, we at KingChapman use our Breakdown Methods. We say that a breakdown is an interruption of a commitment. That is, a group of people are committed to something and for whatever reason that commitment is not kept. This lack of keeping a commitment provides a view for our clients to inquire into the bedrock of their culture, which is the tacit assumptions. Using the Breakdown Methods as a tool, clients are able to separate the observable facts from the opinions and stories which invariably accompany any perceived problem. This separating of observable facts from opinions allows our clients to clearly see a specific part of their culture that is causing problems and interfering with improvements. And with this clear vision of it, clients can see and address the underlying implicit assumptions to implement changes which will improve organizational performance.

What our clients find when they declare a breakdown and begin inquiring into the breakdown is that an unexpected element of the culture has shown itself and caused unexpected behavior by people in the organization. Something surprising occurs. When our methodology is used to identify and inquire into problems which are a reflection of commitments being kept, our clients see specific examples of how a culture is impacting performance. With these insights, our clients can create new ways of thinking and approaching understanding the culture and ultimately making the desired changes.


Who discovered water? Henry Cavendish. What can he teach us about organizational culture? To inquire and observe using great accuracy and precision about how the context and tacit assumptions shape how an organizational culture perceives situations and elicits specific actions. Through great accuracy and precision, we are able to discover the third level of culture which will allow us to be successful in making  changes in organizational culture.

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Charters Are an Essential Tool in Post-Acquisition Integration Success

Seventy percent (70%) of change efforts fail to deliver the expected results, according to Changing Change Management in the July 2015 issue of McKinsey Quarterly. The low success rate is attributed in part to the limited scope of most change management techniques, which focus on control and minimizing distractions. Change management is appropriate for small, contained changes such as updating the software in an accounting department. It is not appropriate for change efforts as complicated as post-acquisition integrations, in which case change leadership techniques are required. John Kotter describes the differences in change management and change leadership as:

Change management, which is the term most everyone uses, refers to a set of basic tools or structures intended to keep any change effort under control. The goal is often to minimize the distractions and impacts of the change. Change leadership, on the other hand, concerns the driving forces, visions and processes that fuel large-scale transformation.

Post-acquisition integration is a complicated form of strategic execution that requires breakthrough designs and unique organizational accountability during implementation. We think that organizing the integration as a series of well-orchestrated breakthrough projects is the optimal means of:

  • Accelerating employee engagement
  • Aligning product and service offering to capture additional customers and geographies
  • Developing additional leadership capabilities
  • Establishing new levels of organizational accountability
  • Achieving the expected financial results and value capture

The cornerstone for creating Breakthrough Projects is the Charter. The Charter provides authorization and direction for the project and the people involved. The essence of a Breakthrough Project is that it is a commitment to accomplish what is possible, but not predictable given the current circumstances. Accomplishing the Breakthroughs will demonstrate that the people in the organization as capable of accomplishing more than they, and others, previously thought they could. The accomplishments achieved by the Breakthrough Project lay the foundation for transforming the organizational culture during the midst of post-acquisition integration.

A Compelling Future is Essential

While creation of a compelling future was hopefully the basis for the acquisition, it is wise to assume that the ability to comprehend or “see” that future quickly dissipates in all the chaos surrounding closing to the transaction. A Charter for Breakthrough Projects provides a new means of seeing that future. The context for writing the Charter is from the future. The Charter authorizes and creates a project which will provide, at least in part, the path from the present to the future.

Give Them a Bigger Problem

Creating a Charter for a Breakthrough Project during post-acquisition integration also has a particularly therapeutic effect. Anxiety and uncertainty are normal during an integration, since employees from both sides are unsure of what will transpire. Creating a Charter which requires Breakthroughs serves to give this group of employees and these parts of the organizations a “bigger problem to solve”. This is one of the change leadership techniques we discovered long ago. During times of transformation, assigning a group of employees a bigger problem to solve serves to enable and engage them in a powerful way. In a typical change management approach, the focus would be on providing reassurance and attempting to control their anxiety. In change leadership, we seek to deploy their anxiety and energy in addressing big challenges which if addressed will make major contribution to the newly combined organizations.

Identify the Outcomes to be Achieved

Charters are written from perspective of a future which is completely successful. That includes success in the improved offerings to customers, organizational integration, transformed organization culture, and value capture at or beyond the expected levels. Success in acquisitions requires creating clarity of outcomes which cut across functional lines. These outcomes should be thought of as a tapestry which involves all of the organization. These outcomes identify areas that are important for the long run, such as expanding the customer base not shrinking it, expanding geographies, innovating in product and service lines, and increasing market share in areas which are growing and have higher value rather than those which are shrinking.


Most acquisitions fail to achieve the expected financial results and value capture, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If a post-acquisition integration is approached as strategic execution with key actions framed as Breakthrough Projects, the rate of success dramatically increases from the predicted 30% rate.


To learn more about how to plan breakthrough projects, download our white paper, “7 Elements for Chartering a Breakthrough Project”.

In it you will learn:

  • what a ‘Breakthrough Project’ is and why it’s critical to organizational transformation
  • why creating a ‘charter’ is a critical step in the process
  • the critical roles that key people must play in the project to enhance success

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Leadership Commitment to Charters Key to Transformational Change

There is an ever-increasing demand today for transformational leaders. The rapid evolution of disruptive business models and technologies combined with intense global competition is producing this demand. The need for transformational change leaders who can use breakthrough designs to create sustainable growth strategies and execute transformational change is much larger than the supply. This has created a “gap” inside many organizations which requires leadership commitment to fill. Boards of Directors and executives are looking for ways to develop transformational change leaders within their companies like never before.

We at KingChapman have demonstrated methods for rapidly developing transformational leaders at many levels of an organization. We find that the best approach to developing these leaders combines creating and leading a Breakthrough Project in their organization with active participation in courses on Transformational Leadership. The act of creating the Charter for the Breakthrough Project is often the pivotal moment, both in forming the project and in participation in the leadership course.

Change Leaders vs. Change Managers

Most companies have change managers, who have been trained in using change management techniques. John Kotter says that the basic design of change management to control change initiatives. Change leadership is designed to create fundamental changes, which produce extraordinary results and transforms organizational culture. Change management methods are appropriate for incremental changes in one function or group in which the primary concern is maintaining control and stability. Change management methods are not appropriate for the bolder, bigger changes which many organizations today must implement, whether they are ready or not. The training and tools in change management were simply not designed for use in transformational change. The lack of appreciation for the differences in change leadership and change management is a key factor in the high failure rate of strategic execution and organizational transformations projects.

Change Leaders have quite different skill sets, which are designed to accelerate organizational accountability while implementing projects based on breakthrough designs. These actions produce extraordinary business results, intense employee engagement and transforms the organizational culture. Developing change leaders is a huge challenge facing companies today. The exponential expansion and growth of organizations has contributed to this. This growth has seemingly taken place so quickly that it has surpassed the organization’s ability to look within its ranks and develop potential leaders from within as the organization grows.

Charters & Developing Transformational Change Leadership

We believe the best approach for accelerated leadership development is the blend of active leadership of a breakthrough project with course work on leadership in organizational transformation. This blend makes the experience powerful, as the person learns what is required to create breakthroughs inside her or his company. An important building block in learning to lead transformation is the creation of a Charter for breakthrough projects, which is used as part of the coursework and leadership development. The Charter creates the breakthrough project(s). The Charter is written from the perspective of a future in which extraordinary results have been achieved. Success in accomplishing these results is the foundation of the Charter. The Charter articulates what shall be, and is comprised of a statement of purpose, outcomes, scope, constraints, key people, key processes and milestones.

Let’s look at how Charters play an important role in what we consider to be the six components of transformational leadership:

  1. Personal commitment to be a transformational change leader – Being a leader in transformational change is challenging, hard work. The process of creating the Charter for the transformation bring additional clarity to the leader regarding her/his personal commitment. This is important since personal commitment is the bedrock for organizational transformation. When the change leader’s commitments are clearly expressed, it provides a platform for dealing with the predictable complaints, criticism, and negative reactions from colleagues and others in the organization. The leader’s personal commitments must be bigger than the resistance if transformation is to be achieved
  2. Creating a Compelling Future – Transformational Leaders invent a compelling future which will replace the existing default future, since the default future is based in the past. Success in transformational change requires a new, future which is compelling and will inspire the creative energy of many in the organization. A well written Charter usually takes multiple iterations. Each interaction brings clarity on a future which is invented, rather than extension of the past. Often the initial attempts at crafting a compelling future fall into dealing with issues and problems from the past, rather than the future.
  3. Setting aspirational goals and strategies based on the compelling future – Once a future is established, then the strategic thinking required to envision breakthrough projects is possible. Leaders establish aspirational goals which can be seen to emanate from the Invented Future. These goals, if attained, will indicate success in achieving the Invented Future. Even better, these aspirational goals inspire people to seek breakthroughs and transformation. From this point, developing the Charter is readily done.
  4. Execution of strategies – They create a strong sense of urgency and engage a core of leaders in execution of initiatives which engages large numbers of employees in breakthrough and organizational transformation.
  5. Engaging hearts and minds during execution – Transforming organizations depends on winning the hearts and minds of employees and other stakeholders. Winning the hearts is often based on articulating values which are the basis for transformation. In addition, transformational change leaders act in ways which infuses the organizations values into heart of the culture. The values guide decisions and actions. The culture continues to evolve in ways which supports agility, creativity, continuous improvement and extraordinary products and services for customers
  6. Inspiration followed by more inspiration – There will be failures, let downs and mistakes along the way, which are essential for success in transformation. Maintaining focus and sustaining momentum toward completing the transformational changes required ongoing inspiration of people throughout the organization.

Charters are an important tool for change leaders engaged in strategic execution and organizational transformation. Developing Charters assists leaders in clarifying strategic thinking and establishing breakthrough projects as the core of strategic execution. When this practical experience is combined with coursework on organizational transformation, rapid development of change leaders occurs.


Is your organization seeking ways to rapidly develop change leaders? Using Charters to create breakthrough projects is an excellent tool in an overall leadership development effort. 

Leadership experiments can lead to breakthroughs in your organization. To learn how to plan breakthrough projects, download our white paper “7 Elements for Chartering a Breakthrough Project”.

In it you will learn:

  • what a ‘Breakthrough Project’ is and why it’s critical to organizational transformation
  • why creating a ‘charter’ is a critical step in the process
  • the critical roles that key people must play in the project to enhance success

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Leadership Development Should Focus On Experiments

This article was previously published in Harvard Business Review on April 12, 2016. It was co-authored by Ron Ashkenas, Partner Emeritus at Schaffer Consulting.


Leadership development represents a huge and growing investment for most organizations. Industry research, for example, shows that companies spent more than $24 billion on leadership and management training worldwide in 2013, an increase of 15% from 2012.

The question is whether companies will get a worthwhile return on this investment. In past years leadership development has always been treated as a discretionary expense or even a luxury, and therefore something that could be pared down or eliminated in hard economic times. Underlying this notion was the lack of tangible results that could be attributed to management training. Without real results, leadership development becomes at best a leap of faith, and at worst a waste of time and money.

A number of companies are starting to address this issue by reversing the traditional leadership development “equation,” which essentially posits that if you give leaders the right skills and experiences, they will change their behaviors and produce better results. Reversing this means that companies start at the end — with results. In other words, leadership development begins with a real business challenge that leaders need to solve, instead of with a hypothetical case study or simulation. In order to succeed, they have to act, reach outside of their comfort zone, and adapt their approach.

Over the past couple of years, we have collaborated with the leadership development team at Cargill, one of the world’s largest global agricultural processing and distribution companies, to apply these ideas in a program for high-potential managers called “Leading in a Complex World.” Here’s how it worked:

At the beginning of each program, participants identified a challenging and complex problem in their business or function (e.g., product pricing, operational efficiency, customer service, etc.). Participants were then assigned to meet with people on the front lines of the issue both inside and outside the company (innovators, “future‐seers,” provocateurs, and stakeholders whose voices aren’t normally heard) to open up their thinking about possible solutions.

After reflecting on this input, each manager was required to carry out at least one safe-to-fail experiment. The small-scale project would test a possible solution in a low-risk way, in 100 days or less, and without the pressure of having to be right. In other words, the main purpose was to quickly learn about what does or doesn’t work. For example, one participant focused on creating a new pricing scheme. Another tried generating operational efficiencies through a different supply chain control tower process. Someone else designed an experiment to get a plant operation down to zero accidents.

As the experiments were proceeding, each manager worked with another member of the cohort to get peer feedback. This helped ensure that the experiments had clear measures of success or failure.

Of the 75 participants, 80% completed their projects and produced tangible results and business insights. One experiment generated a 2.6% reduction in work orders, which equated to $342,000 over the course of three months. Using the continuous process improvement methods that were developed for the experiment, the manager is now working to reach a 30% reduction goal over a longer time frame.

Another experiment was about achieving some cost leverage by testing the viability of a strategic partnership with another organization. When the manager shared proprietary information with the potential partner, however, he discovered that starting with a full partnership was not the right way to go because the relationship lacked “mutual trust and transparency, which takes time.” As an alternative, the manager began to test other ways of collaborating, short of a full joint venture. He reported, “Through this learning about cooperation in partnerships, we are running several new projects in the fields of sourcing and coproduction.”

Participants also reported learning how to be more effective leaders in fast-changing environments. As one person noted in her after-action review, “By doing our experiment at one site instead of implementing at all 30 of them at once, it took the pressure off. We could see what the data said, and it was all right if it wasn’t perfect. Then we adjusted before moving on to other sites.”

Of course, Cargill is not the only company that has reconfigured leadership development programs to start with a business problem. One of us (Robert) is leading a Health Science Leadership Academy in the Texas Medical Center in which clinical and administrative health professionals are using business experiments to help build resiliency to improve health outcomes. In addition, Ascom, a Swiss-based global communications company, has incorporated “rapid results initiatives” into their high potential leadership program for several years, forcing participants to apply their learnings on business challenges given to them by C-suite sponsors.

What all of these programs have in common is the belief that by focusing on constant experimentation, leadership development can be a driver for strengthening organizational capability and business success.

If your company already subscribes to this approach, you can use a leadership development program both to become a better manager and to accelerate progress on one of your most critical business challenges. If you are participating in a leadership program that doesn’t require this kind of hands-on experimentation, try doing it on your own.

Pick a business challenge that’s already on your plate — perhaps how best to introduce a new product or how to insure the efficacy of a new safety procedure. Then think about how you can shape a shortterm, safe-to-fail experiment that uses some of what you’re learning in the program. For example, introduce the new product in one region or to one “friendly” customer first, get feedback, modify as needed, and then scale your approach. With the safety procedure, you could test it quickly in a controlled environment to make sure it works as expected before rolling out to a wider group. You’ll be amazed at how leadership lessons become more real when you test them on an actual challenge.


Leadership experiments can lead to breakthroughs in your organization. To learn how to plan breakthrough projects, download our white paper “7 Elements for Chartering a Breakthrough Project”.

In it you will learn:

  • what a ‘Breakthrough Project’ is and why it’s critical to organizational transformation
  • why creating a ‘charter’ is a critical step in the process
  • the critical roles that key people must play in the project to enhance success

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5 Essential Leadership Commitments in Communication

Leadership and communication are so intertwined that they could be thought of as synonymous. It is important to remember that in this case, the term communication is shaped more by what employees feel, hear and perceive, rather than what the leader says.

People in the organization observe the verbal and nonverbal communications from executives. They look for clues as to the authenticity of these executives, and whether they can be trusted as leaders. The people also look at the congruence between what leaders say and do. They look to determine if “the walk matches the talk”.

Here are 5 essential leadership commitments that must be made in communication to transform organizations:

1.) Develop High Integrity Capacity

The level of congruence between words and action is essential in establishing the credibility of the executives. Petrick and Quinn call this congruence “high integrity capacity” — a coherent unity of purpose and action in the face of moral complexity and conflicting values. Building the level of integrity capacity is crucial for action and communication in transformation, given that a transformation invariably includes challenges as well giving up the comport of old ways of doing things.

In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner point out that this important congruence includes the relationship between the leader’s stated values and priorities for constituents and his/her own behavior. “If customer service is important, find time to spend with customers. If your message is that ‘we’re all in this together,’ then make certain your own actions reinforce this message.”

Too often I have seen the stated purpose and values be horribly at odds with the executive’s behavior. As an example, I was working at a paper mill in Louisiana that was in the midst of a very difficult market and was having major operational problems with a capital expansion. The COO of the company concluded that job cuts were required to lower costs, even though this facility was not particularly overstaffed. On the morning that these difficult actions were to occur, the COO came flying in on a very expensive private jet (the latest Gulfstream), delivered a speech about the importance of cutting costs, and then jumped on the plane and flew back out. Needless to say, the executive’s actions were highly inconsistent with the words. Until the point when credibility is established, leadership communication will be ignored by many people in the business. In the example just described, the executive’s presence and speech made things worse for the facility management, rather than better.

2.) Align Communication with Transformation

Accountability is demonstrated by leadership communication that is designed to promote the transformation. This transformative communication includes a clear, comprehensive description of the reasons for the transformation, what the transformation will accomplish for the business and what the impacts will be on employees and other stakeholders. Leadership communication is not a one-time thing. Nor is it putting a video on the employee’s web sites.

Communicating with others about the transformation is a prime means of establishing and sustaining accountability. Ultimately, communications matter when people know what is expected of them, how this change will affect them personally, how you are enabling them to be successful in managing the change, and how the transformation will benefit the business and employees as a group.

3.) Learn to Acknowledge

Acknowledgement is a key element in effective communication and accountability. Yet a conversation for acknowledgement is often hard for people in business. We can usually describe all of the defects and limitations. Even in the face of a big accomplishment, we are prone to look at all the things that could have been done better. As an executive leader of transformation, you want to be aware of this tendency to focus on the problems and what is wrong.

Leadership Communication and accountability promotes acknowledgment, candor, forthrightness and honesty. All of these are attributes of effective leadership communication. Leadership accountability is essential in building and sustaining a climate of trust in leaders. Leadership inspires via communication. Communication is both action and word. As an example, acting with accountability is a strong communication. The opposite is valid as well, that is acting with a lack of accountability is a strong communication.

4.) Promote Ownership

A company with thriving accountability promotes “ownership” by employees of their portion of the business. This means developing ownership of the problems and lack of results, of creating innovative solutions to address the problems and increase results. It means taking ownership of the initiatives, people and results. These are all the things that a leader wants to see in a business, and are examples of what is evident when a business is transforming.

5.) Establish Metrics and Accountability Structures

Accountability establishes metrics and ultimately the needed measure and controls. Through the accountability structures, the employees and the leaders can see what is and what isn’t on track. Through accountability structures, employees and leaders can make important observations:

  • Whether they’re on the right course
  • Whether they’ve got the right people, and people in the right places
  • Whether they’re achieving goals
  • What is needed to institute change and target new results

Accountability leads and promotes transformation. Communication by leaders is essential in transformation, and accountability is at the heart of empowering people to become engaged in performance improvements and transformation.


If you want to learn more about what characteristics and roles leadership plays in the success of any organization, download our whitepaper: ‘Successful Strategic Execution Begins With Leaders’.

In it, you will learn:

  • The two hallmarks of an effective leader
  • The most crucial value for leaders to possess
  • The greatest contribution a leader provides
  • The most valuable ‘tool’ for a leader to wield

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Why Leadership Accountability is Critical in Breakthrough Projects

Perhaps you have heard the expression: “I can’t hear what you’re saying because who you are being speaks so loudly”. This implies that the ‘being’ of a leader is a stronger force than any words the leader uses. Consider that for leaders, accountability is an essential ingredient in their being.

For many, the previous statement will be hard to understand so let’s unpack it a bit. The role of leaders is to align people, communicate goals, seek commitment, motivate, and inspire. Empowering accountability, as created by leaders, serves that purpose. It is quite distinct from management accountability, which is designed to produce consistency, control and order. Empowering accountability is designed to enable employees to be extraordinary in pursuit of the exceptional. Empowering Accountability by leaders is essential for success in Breakthrough Projects that lead to organizational transformation.

So let’s explore what Breakthrough Projects are and how they lead to transformation.

What are Breakthrough Projects

Breakthrough Projects are a strategic intervention harnessed to transform of an organization. The intent of a Breakthrough Project is to:

  • Be a vivid demonstration of leader’s commitments to the business and organization
  • Be a source of organizational learning
  • Disrupt the status quo
  • Demonstrate accomplishment and performance which was previous thought not possible
  • Develop organizational and technical capabilities
  • Develop leadership capabilities of those involved in the Breakthrough Projects
  • Produce exceptional business and financial results

In the beginning of a business transformation, it is important for executives to remember that people in the organization have seen many examples of executives saying one thing and doing another. Even when people have not seen it in your organization, they will infer it from what they have heard from family and friends. The expectation you are walking into is that you will ultimately not hold yourself to account, nor will you require that other executives and managers hold themselves to account.

Role of Accountability

Given the magnitude of these changes, a key design element for Breakthrough Projects and Organizational Transformation is accountability.

Continuation of the existing forms of accountability is probably a mistake. In a business transformation, I recommend that a formal ‘Structure of Accountability’ be created to demonstrate new forms of accountability based on leadership, rather than management. This new Structure of Accountability will assure openness and transparency in how the Breakthrough Projects are conducted. In my firm, we call these new structures Results Leadership Teams. A Results Leadership Team (RLT) assures openness and transparency during key tasks such as making the charters of the teams publicly available, creating scorecard and value capture documents, formal and informal communication, and open town-hall style meetings with employees.

Accountability and transparency are stronger when the executives establish an expectation that the actions and results of the Breakthrough Projects and organizational transformation will be kept open within the company. This is essential, since transformation does not occur in private or behind closed doors. It is a very open and public phenomenon. The leaders want to make sure that their action and communications are directly linked to the business results for which they are accountable. A leader steps forward to assert that she/he is accountable, and invites others to observe and eventually join in.

Modeling Leadership Accountability Regarding Results

Leadership Accountability is demonstrated when the executives and managers hold themselves to account for success of the Breakthrough Projects in a public manner. The RLT provides an excellent forum for this Leadership Accountability to be displayed. This practice of executives and managers displaying their Leadership Accountability is a powerful communication of their commitments to Breakthrough and Transformation in their organizations.

The public display of leaders being accountable and personally committed may not seem like a big deal. Yet for many organizations, it is a pivotal step for leadership when executives promise to publicly hold themselves to account for Breakthroughs in the business. In many organizations, executives have a history of blaming lack of results on circumstances and other peoples.

Executives demonstrating Leadership Accountability and personal accountability for results is a crucial building block for organizational transformation. Embowing the organization happens when leaders “own” their circumstances and business results, regardless of how good the results are. Kouzes and Posner state that the starting point for leader accountability is being willing to accept personal responsibility for personal actions and those of the organization.

“In the final analysis, accountability means embracing your full responsibility for results and remaining answerable for your progress in attaining those results, regardless of how or why you managed to get into your current situation.”

Too often executives think that they cannot show any signs of weakness, must always be right, and appear strong. While this is a common concept, it is simply not useful for executives who desire to provide leadership for their organizations. If you paint yourself into a corner of needing to be right, strong and never vulnerable, you have lost any hope of being perceived as an authentic and genuine leader. Rather, you will appear to your people as fake, overly ambitious, and untrustworthy. You will give the impression that you are petty, small and working your own agenda. Regardless of what you say, most of your people will interpret you as a two-faced liar, and view you as simply another empty suit or ‘hot air’ executives that they have seen before.

And a leader viewed in this manner can never transform an organization.


If you would like to understand better how to introduce a Breakthrough Project in your organization, download our white paper, “7 Elements for Chartering a Breakthrough Project”.

In it you will learn:

  • what a ‘Breakthrough Project’ is and why it’s critical to organizational transformation
  • why creating a ‘charter’ is a critical step in the process
  • the critical roles that key people must play in the project to enhance success

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Empowering Accountability in Leadership Communication

There is a common misconception that effective communication is a formal activity, such as a manager conducting a town hall meeting. Further, communication is thought to be what a specific functional group does. That is, communication is what our ‘communications department’ is responsible for.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Communication is a primary responsibility of anyone who seeks to be a leader. Communication is how leaders accomplish their work, including creating accountability which empowers others. Leadership occurs in communication. Leadership involves engaging and inspiring others to act in ways which produce extraordinary results. Absent effective communication there is little to no leadership.

Empowering Accountability

Among the ways leaders engage and inspire others to act is establishing Empowering Accountability. This is an expression of leadership in which employees are given direction and guidance with clear understanding of their purpose and boundaries for inventing and taking risks. Extraordinary results seldom happen when organizations “do what we have always done”. No, achieving the extraordinary requires employees “stepping out” with creativity, innovation, inspiration and prudent risk taking. Employees in most organizations will not step out like that unless they know their leaders “have their back”. Empowering Leadership is precisely how leaders watch their employees backs and encourage the desired risk taking.

Leadership communication and Empowering Accountability go hand in hand. Leaders communicate and make decisions with openness and straightforward disclosure, in contrast to using only “need-to-know” communication. Leaders are acknowledged for talking straight and telling us as much as possible about what we are doing, why we are doing it, what it will mean to me, and how it will benefit our business performance. Accountable leaders act from a commitment to be answerable to their constituents.

Acknowledge Mistakes Without Blame

Leaders also acknowledge the difference between good choices and poor ones. They are in communication about these poor choices and the consequences on the business. This open communication is at the same time complementary and supportive of the innovation and intent of those who made these choices which are later regretted. Of course, that is not the case if those involved in making the decisions were devious and acting with ill will.

At the beginning of an organizational transformation, the leaders often need to address actions and decisions from the past which are now causing issues for the business. Blame should NEVER be part of these leadership conversation. Rather what is needed is a clear, concise statement of what happened. In most cases, the employees are already aware of the circumstances. Yet, something magical happens when the leaders stand and be accountable for past events, even if the leaders were in no way involved. The point to establish is that we will communicate directly our understanding of what happens, will not issue blame, and will support our people’s creativity, innovation and risk taking. This is crucial positioning for both leadership communication and Empowering Accountability.

Leading to Breakthrough Projects

This positioning is important because in most Breakthrough Projects and organizational transformations there will be dramatic moments when something did not go as planned. Leader’s ask the right questions, and their conversations must focus on what was learned and how can it be used going forward. This is in direct contrast to the typical management investigation in the form of “who is to blame?” and “how do we make sure this never happens again?”.

The leadership approach assumes full accountability for events and based on that seeks to promote organizational learning and possible breakthroughs which can occur only through an empowering inquiry into the events. This leadership approach will promote action and learning. In contrast, the typical management approach ends up focusing on who to blame, how to punish that individual and group, and writing additional processes and procedures in hopes of preventing any future recurrence. While common and well-intended, this management approach actually has harmful effects. Blaming and punishing people has a suppressive impact on willingness to create, innovate and take risks. Further, the new procedures usually add onto existing procedures and increase the complexity for employees. Many companies’ procedures have become so complex and voluminous that have the unintended impact of being a burden for employees rather than an asset.

Leader’s establishing Empowering Accountability, which supports employees’ creativity, innovation and risk-taking, is a key enabler of breakthroughs and organizational transformation. These leaders provide a platform for employees to learn, grow and ultimately become leaders themselves.


If you want to learn more about what characteristics and roles leadership plays in the success of any organization, download our whitepaper: ‘Successful Strategic Execution Begins With Leaders’.

In it, you will learn:

  • The two hallmarks of an effective leader
  • The most crucial value for leaders to possess
  • The greatest contribution a leader provides
  • The most valuable ‘tool’ for a leader to wield

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