The scandal that is currently unfolding at the VA that has forced the resignation of its lead administrator reminds me of one of the great truths of leadership. Delegating authority and responsibility without attaching accountability and consequences for failing to perform is pointless.
I’m sure many of you associate the word “consequences” with firing, but that isn’t my view of the world. I tend to think much more broadly and believe that there is an infinite capacity to improve on everything we do in our lives. That goes for both employees and their bosses.
When I began in my job as head of GE Power Systems Division, a multi-billion dollar organization, where we manufactured the turbines that powered electric utility grids, industrial plants and large commercial ventures, the prevailing view was that if the turbine was delivered to the shipping dock our job was done. We changed the Division’s mindset by expanding our thinking and extending our accountability far beyond the shipping dock. I made it clear to our team that our job wasn’t done until our customer’s customer received the electricity and was completely satisfied. Our mission wasn’t accomplished until the turbine was generating power for the end customer’s site, but even then there was more work to be done – a lifetime of maintenance to keep the turbine running. We called our approach “see-through accountability.”
The reason for our expanded sense of responsibility and accountability was that the consequences of a failure to perform could have been pervasive, extending far beyond the individuals responsible for less-than-perfect performance. A dissatisfied customer could choose not to buy again, or worse, could tell others how poorly we performed. And, if this happened, sales could have decreased and layoffs could have occurred. Moreover, the men and women whose community we were privileged to live and work in may have been adversely affected because of our failure to perform. Even retirees, whose pensions were fully entrusted to a fund, could have been harmed.
Fortunately, there are many men and women who believe that failure is not an acceptable option. Their fear of the consequences of failure is enough to keep them motivated and focused on success. They are the individuals that drive innovation at the highest levels of Corporate America. They are the entrepreneurs, small business owners and individual contributors.
That brings me to the disturbing situation at the VA. The ultimate consequence there is that men and women who served our country so bravely suffered, and some allegedly lost their lives, waiting in line for medical care. This is both regrettable and disgraceful. However, such lack of performance raises the question: does firing someone here help? Perhaps, so. Senior leaders are responsible for their subordinates’ performance. Holding poor performers and their supervisors accountable and imposing consequences for failure can refocus an organization, re-establish proper incentives and provide a starting point for fixing the broken system so that a veteran will never have to fear going without proper treatment in the future. Even now, with a new administrator about to be named, there should be a full and mandatory operating review of the VA and annual audits of its performance, just as is the case with any publicly traded company.
We also need to establish measurements against best-practice benchmarks to see how taxpayer money is being spent. We need to carefully measure the performance of VA management and staff, since firing or removing personnel alone will neither fix the culture nor drive performance. In a serious breach of conduct of the kind we’ve seen in the VA debacle, firing someone is only one step in a long and measured process of rehabilitating a broken organization.
I am certain there are many dedicated individuals serving the VA today. Let’s focus on fixing the system so that they can be more effective. By applying business methods of performance measurement, those who excel will be rewarded and those who fall short will pay the consequences.
Photo: cdrin /shutterstock