The Blaming of the Shrew

Recent weeks have seen the press baying for blood and calling for high-level resignations in the wake of the Jean Charles Menezes shooting, Northern Rock, the loss of Child Benefit data and the fresh allegations of corruption surrounding political donations.  But who is to blame and should the people at the top always carry the can? 

If recent press articles are anything to go by, the answer to this question is undoubtedly “yes”.  But I feel that in simply blaming the most senior person we can find, we are possibly confusing the act with the process.
Take the loss of 25 million Child Benefit records as a case in point.  The fact that the head of Customs and Excise has resigned and the person who sent the CD’s in the post is suspended and under investigation would seem to me to serve no purpose at all. 

Regarding the “act”, there is no question that losing sensitive data on half the population of the country is an error of biblical proportions, but in management terms I do not see this as the real failure.  In my mind, the real failure is in presiding over a “process” that allows an error of these proportions to occur.  Far from disciplining the junior employee “responsible”, I think that they should receive an apology from the senior management for having been placed in a position where they could make such a serious mistake.

As a company director myself, I always made to point that if people were not making mistakes they were not trying hard enough.  It was not that I wanted mistakes, far from it, but I did not want them to be overly conservative or to live in fear of trying something new.  For example, how many light bulbs do you think that Edison made that didn’t work before he made one that did and how many bad balls did Tiger Woods have to hit before he became the best golfer in the world?  Alan Sugar once said that most people would never work again if they had a fraction of the money his mistakes have cost him – yet he remains an admired business leader and fabulously wealthy.

However, I also viewed it as my responsibility to ensure that everyone understood their scope for experimentation and the boundaries that they could work within.  To achieve this, I see the following as being the primary responsibilities of the CEO or senior management team:

  1. Vision.  Does everyone know what they are working towards and how their actions contribute to the achievement of the organisation’s objectives?  It is understanding this that creates alignment.
  2. Values.  Most organisations I have ever worked in or with have a set of values that appear on mugs, mouse-mats and posters; but I have only ever seen a few organisations that have been willing to fire people solely on the basis of their unwillingness or inability to live the organisation’s values.  But that is precisely what is necessary if the values are to be seen to be anything more than a poster.
  3. Empowerment.  I like to use the word “empowerment” as opposed to “delegation” as, where delegation implies simply doing the same thing as your boss would otherwise do, empowerment implies taking responsibility for making the best possible decision for the organisation. 

In an ideal world both would be the same, but in practice many senior people see decision making as being a private act. 
In an empowered environment, you can only be certain that you are making the “best decision on behalf of the organisation” if you speak to all the key people who might be affected by your decision or might provide valuable suggestions and ideas.  Only then can you be sure that your decision is the best one possible.

Living up to these three tenants is not easy, indeed I would readily admit that although I always saw them as objectives, I never felt that I could tick any of them off as being achieved.

But ask yourself this; if the vision at the Child Benefit section of Customs and Excise office had been something to do with the welfare of children and their parents, if the values that everyone lived and breathed had included things like confidentiality and security and if people felt empowered to challenge requests, to sign off modest sums of money to remove sensitive and irrelevant data or to have the data encrypted, do you think that the notorious CD’s would even have been posted, let alone lost?

If the answer is “no”, then it is absolutely right and proper that the organisation’s leader should have resigned.  More to the point, far from receiving compensation for loss of office, he should have been fired for a failure to achieve the goals that should have form a key part of any CEO’s contract of employment.   Sadly though, it is quite probable that vision, values and empowerment were not even mentioned in his contract of employment.

Finally, should the Chancellor himself be held accountable? 

Normally I would have said “no”, as I do not think he has been in office long enough to take full responsibility for the people he has reporting to him.  But the fact that the Government were willing to point the finger at a “mistake by a junior civil servant” is, in my opinion, inexcusable.

I do not make this as a political point, but as a principle of leadership.  I forget who said it but I always remember a quotation that I heard many years ago that was along the lines of:

When things go well it is the people that should get the credit.  But when things go badly, it is the leader who should take the blame”.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.