What do football and leadership have in common?

Can’t guess the answer?

They’re both prone to pile-ups.

In football once there is a ball on the ground, the players all pile on — it always seems like a bit of overkill. Similarly, once there are problems in the workplace, we often see leaders pile up on the problem like it’s a ball on the ground.

A recent lesson I hadn’t expected is that the levels of leadership tend to work on top of each other when it comes to addressing important issues, and it makes a big old mess.

For example, if there’s a significant safety issue, you’ll find the senior leadership team, a variety of managers, and even the supervisors hard at work on what they think should be done.

As all levels of leadership attack it, the football (or problem) doesn’t move.


They’re all approaching the situation as if they have direct responsibility for managing the workforce. Yet that’s fundamentally not true.

People need to slow down long enough to figure out who’s accountable for what. The pile-up gets in the way of that. Below, we’ll explore what each layer of management (and team members) needs to be accountable for, and how layered accountability can create the movement you need on big issues.

The Critical Role of Senior Leadership

When it comes to implementing change, senior leadership can find themselves unclear on what is their part in the situation. When they can’t figure out how to create change, they are either frustrated or surprised that they can’t make it happen. But when asked if they’ve talked over their vision with team members — including gathering additional thoughts, ideas, and feedback — the answer is often a ‘no’.

Beyond just establishing a vision for success, senior leadership has often never joined together as a team to establish clear expectations for the leaders that report to them.

  • What type of strategy do they want to see developed?
  • What’s the timetable?
  • What are the parameters they’d like to see in place?

Rather than jump over their direct reports and problem-solve it themselves or throw their hands up in frustration, they need to communicate a vision, establish clear expectations, and support mid-level management in their roles. They need to step back, look over the field and call the play.

After all, you don’t see Andy Reid jumping on the ball with Patrick Mahomes, do you?

Coaches of the Coaches

Mid-level management’s role should be to establish the strategic direction, create an executable plan, and support supervisors in holding people accountable for the behaviors within the plan. In addition, this tier of leadership is often coaching the supervisors who in turn have frontline responsibility for coaching the broader team members.

One common sticking point is that managers assume supervisors know how to implement a behavior and coach teams to that behavior, but often they don’t. For example, in manufacturing, we ask supervisors to take responsibility for people, materials, and a wide range of problems that occur daily. Yet we often have not ensured they have the skills and abilities to carry out the elements of accountability.

It’s not enough to simply step back and ask them to make changes. Managers of supervisors need to be actively coaching and supporting supervisors daily as they carry out these responsibilities. I often remark that supervisors have one of the heaviest loads to carry with the needs of both employees and management pressing on them. We need to do more to support this group in carrying out responsibilities successfully.

Senior leadership needs to describe the plays they expect of their management team, including their roles as coaches of the supervisors.


The Difficult Role of Supervisors

Like the often-missing clarity around expectations between senior leaders and management teams, there can be a pile-up between the mid-level management team and supervisors.

For example, mid-level managers might tell supervisors what the attendance policy is and walk away expecting that they know how to handle it. But most supervisors haven’t yet learned how to establish the vision for success with the broader workforce and engage them on the topic. They also haven’t learned how to set clear expectations and have the follow-up coaching conversations needed to uphold the policy.

So what happens? We end up with policies that are rigid and overly structured to address an attendance problem that’s almost always related to a very small portion of the workforce. The idea is that only through black-and-white policies can we hope to get the behaviors we’re looking for. If we separated the expectations around supervisory skills and responsibilities from the team member expectations, we could hope to instill the supervisory skills needed for not just attendance but a wide range of other behaviors that need to be consistently supported in the workplace.

The Role of Team Members

As we come to the behaviors and actual results that we see in team members, you’ll see the weakness from the layers of accountability above. You’ll also find a wide range of inconsistencies in how expectations are shared and carried out. Some team members might have supervisors who are coaching them, but most may not. People often exclaim that some supervisors hold people accountable and others don’t, which makes it hard to hold anyone accountable at all.

Accountability in Layers

The topic of accountability is hardly new, but what seems to be missing is:

  1. An understanding of what goes into holding someone accountable in a manner conducive to positive, healthy relationships. Elements that include setting clear expectations, making sure people have the training or skills to do the work, and the follow-up coaching/follow-up required to create change.

  2. The different positions levels of leadership need to play in coaching people to expectations.

How do you see layered accountability? What specific actions and skills do you believe go into accountability?

I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.

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