Chapter 5: Seven Desks — On Accountability

Beatrice has become an automotive CRM expert. In the auto CRM space, eighteen different CRM systems compete. For the past four months, she has finagled her way into eighteen different auto dealerships, each using one of these CRMs. She is bound and determined to analyze every single one. At store after store, someone has fallen victim to her vibrant personality and infectious enthusiasm. Her detective work is essential, so it’s a relief that she’s proving good at it.
In her conversations with internet sales reps, managers and auto dealer GMs, Beatrice shows considerable interest in the things most difficult about their jobs. Her questions seem endless — what are the bottlenecks, what are the inefficiencies, what creates frustration for customers? But she does it with such interest and aplomb that no one seems to mind. She’s sensitive enough to show up mid-week, always in the morning, when dealerships are usually not busy. Time after time, she’s found someone willing not just to talk with her — but also to let her look directly into the store’s CRM system.
Once in front of a computer screen, she drills in — deep into the user interface layer, clicking down pathway after pathway. Working in Visio, she’s mapped out system details and identified the significant features of all eighteen CRM systems. There is surprising consistency in the high-level architecture, but lots of diversity in the details. Four months in, she’s developed a granular understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of all eighteen existing CRMs.
An auto dealer CRM system helps sales reps manage communications with prospects. But existing auto CRMs were built for a world that has since shifted. Currently, CRM systems are desktop-centric, not mobile-centric, and control oriented — not transparent and interactive.
Auto customers have changed. In communications, customers expect speed and transparency. They want a quote first, a phone conversation later. They want to text as well as email, and they demand a quick response to any inquiry. For service, they want to know appointment alternatives, drop their cars off without hassle, and get estimates before work begins — via text or email. When the estimate arrives, they want a simple, one-click “I Approve” or “I Don’t Approve” button.
These are tough requirements to fulfill. The integration requirements alone are daunting. But the company that figures it out will have a shot at CRM domination. Dealers are intensely competitive with each other. They search relentlessly for competitive advantage. A CRM system that delivers superior customer insight, actionable analytics, sales rep-friendly workflow, customer-centric messaging and design built on a mobile-centric, cloud-based platform will dominate the automotive vertical.
You, Joe, and Beatrice worked together to figure out a segmentation scheme and identify the top two priority segments. From there, it is Beatrice’s responsibility to take it forward into a comprehensive CRM workflow design. You’ve given her authority to make design decisions, but you want to review them regularly. A weekly one-on-one between you and Beatrice has been underway since the move to Fieldstone Toyota. Beatrice already defined the buyer and user personas in detail for the two principal segments. You are on board.
More recently, she created “day in the life” narratives for each persona. Comparing her CRM research to the detailed persona descriptions, she designed the high-level end-to-end workflow for a next-generation CRM. She optimized for three stakeholders: the customer, the sales rep, and dealership management. She defined all the data states. She broke the design down into twenty steps and developed storyboards for the first step — from incoming car-buyer lead to the in-store visit.
Beatrice is a maestro. Today, she shares her progress and asks for input. The storyboards are progressing. She shows you the mobile view for the consumer and the sales rep. Then she shows the mobile view for the internet sales director and the general manager. She indicates that next week she will complete the desktop view.
You ask a series of tough questions. You propose alternative pathways to further simplify workflows. You ask how she will test these ideas with car buyers, auto dealer reps, and management. She answers well. Extensive feedback sessions with customers, auto sales reps, and managers are planned. However, you think the mobile design for the front-line auto sales rep can be made even more straightforward, with fewer steps. It can become even more intuitive. She seems a bit piqued, but rises to the challenge and promises to update you next week.

Jim Wetherbee is a former naval aviator and astronaut. He flew on a Space Shuttle six times and since retirement from the Navy, Jim has advised some of the largest companies in the world on how to more effectively manage operations in high-hazard environments. It was a two-hour conversation with Jim that pointed me to the following insight. It’s profoundly important for leaders:

Responsibility is assigned. Authority is delegated. Accountability is shared.

Most CEOs define accountability as if it was synonymous with responsibility. “She’s accountable for accomplishing this task or for achieving that goal.” When results fall short, “She was accountable — it’s her fault.” But that’s not the right way to think about it. When a subordinate’s performance falls short, both superior and subordinate failed. When a team member’s performance falls short, the whole team failed. Accountability is shared.

In the superior-subordinate relationship, accountability is a mutual obligation. The subordinate must transparently account for plans, activities, and outcomes. The superior’s responsibility is to review past performance, current data, and forward-looking plans with a critical eye — to audit, challenge, coach, and recommend improvements. This is the nature of shared accountability.

So how exactly does a leader exercise shared accountability? It depends on the subordinate’s maturity and the degree to which the task is existential.

You must first assess a subordinate’s task-relevant maturity. There are four possibilities:

  1. The incompetent
  2. The apprentice
  3. The journeyman
  4. The maestro

If you discover that you are dealing with an incompetent, replace this employee. Fast. You have no room for ineptitude.

For the remaining states of maturity, your exercise of shared accountability will vary. As a leader, your role with subordinates is twofold: to increase the pace and quality of outputs, and to build employee competency. When you impact outputs, you gain moderate short-term leverage. When you impact employee competency, you gain high long-term leverage.

An apprentice needs precise, detailed oversight. Apprentice and supervisor meet frequently — at least weekly — to review progress. The leader’s role in the accountability relationship is to direct, inspect, assess progress, and provide corrective input. The supervisor gives encouragement when the task is performed well, but the emphasis is on direction.

For the journeyman, performance is acceptable, but much growth is possible. The leader’s role is to encourage and coach. You meet less frequently — perhaps weekly or monthly. By noting areas of strength and improvement, your goal is to build confidence. By clarifying the next expected skill level, you illuminate what’s possible and encourage the stretch.

The maestro is already performing at an elite level. The maestro believes there is very little distance between her current state performance and an ideal state. But that’s never true. Some of the most significant leverage can come from challenging maestros to even higher levels of performance. With a maestro, you don’t meet as often — depending on the context, it might be every other week, or monthly, or even quarterly. When you do, however, you bring two objectives. The first is to confirm that the maestro’s priorities are in alignment with your own. Maestros can sometimes be so confident they head off in a direction not set by you. And the second is to introduce a challenge. Maestros tend to think that the current state and the ideal state are the same — they are the living embodiment of ideal state. Your task is to build a wedge between current state and ideal state by defining a new, challenging threshold of higher expected performance. Strong leaders both support and challenge their maestros.

Sometimes the task at hand is of existential importance to the company. When this is true, frequent superior-subordinate engagement — sometimes as often as daily — will occur. Even with maestros.

Shared accountability does not just operate inside the superior-subordinate relationship. It also exists in teams. In a real team, each member brings a unique competency that is required to pursue the team’s mission. Each member expects every member to do their part. A primary indicator of a high performing team is the degree to which role boundaries have dissolved, critiques of each other’s effort and performance are routine, and from member to member, the accountability to perform at the highest standards is mutually owned.

Leadership is leverage. Andy Grove, in his book High Output Management, said that a manager’s value is the sum of his organization’s outputs, plus the sum of outputs of the organizations he influences. As CEO, you coach your direct reports not only to ensure fulfillment of their direct output objectives — but also to help them become better followers and leaders. Ultimately, this is the most significant source of leverage. As a company scales, a CEO moves from doer to coach of doers, to coach of coaches. Since your managers will lead work groups and teams, you must coach them in work group and team development. Since they will maintain shared accountability relationships with subordinates, you must teach them to exercise these consistent with their task-relevant maturity. It is your accountability, and theirs.

Bill is assigned the responsibility to support the price quote customers. He is the only engineer not on the Tiger Project Team and the sole employee maintaining the current product for the eighteen dealers still on it.
You meet with the Tiger Project Team every week. Today, Beatrice, Vijaya, Joe, Farook, and Sanjay have something important to share. You’re interested in the update. Multiple times, as you observed them huddled in the cafeteria at Fieldstone Toyota, you heard voices rising. It’s obvious there were many points of sharp debate. Yesterday, you happened to walk by as Vijaya slammed her notebook onto the table and declared as she marched towards the door, “I need some air.”
Today, the group wants to present to you the system architecture plan.
Joe provides a brief introduction, then turns to Farook. Farook is responsible for the infrastructure, data, and integration layers. He begins.
“So let me describe this diagram. System architecture is the scheme by which a product’s function is allocated to physical components. I include in the system architecture both the core platform and its interfaces, so we have a holistic view. Ours is a mobile-centric platform, and our applications will deploy on cloud-based clusters. We will be interfacing with multiple APIs. Security is vital. Our data needs will be spiky, and our compute workloads will be large. We will eventually run thousands of multi-core processors. We need instant response times and 100% uptime. Our system must be responsive, resilient, elastic, and message-driven. This requires a microservices approach, running in the cloud,” he says.
You struggle to keep up, but you get the gist. Your questions focus on the data layer: it’s critical to confirm that the architecture will support advanced analytics. You notice that Sanjay is not the only person weighing in — Beatrice, Vijaya, and Joe all show significant understanding of the architectural tradeoffs as well as which requirements are most critical. But you continue your critical review, asking every question that comes to mind.
Farook is a maestro. For once, you’re having trouble figuring out a legitimate challenge to further elevate his game. You grudgingly smile; the questions are done.
The team seems to have gelled. They’re on the right path. As you walk back to the small conference room, you’re upbeat.

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Next up Chapter 6: Eight Desks — On Teams publishing on Tuesday, January 16th!