You can’t outsource responsibility

By Todd J. Sukol
It behooves all leaders, and certainly those who are new in their role or are in a new position or organization, to inventory their performance regularly with regard to taking responsibility.

Whether you are in charge of an organization, a department, a team or a project, one of the most important things successful leaders must do is accept responsibility. You will rely heavily on your team to get things done, to be sure, and you will need to stay open to others’ ideas since – believe it or not – they frequently will be better than yours. And yes, there are always unexpected bumps in the road that are totally out of your control. But if you are to be an effective leader you need to start and finish with the premise that the one thing you carry above all is ultimate responsibility.

Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States of America, with his iconic “The Buck Stops Here” desk sign. If he can accept responsibility, so can you.

Using outside contractors is an area where this can be especially challenging. Nonprofit leaders do well to bring in truly expert consultants to augment staff capacity, but there are no magic bullets. The two most common mistakes I see nonprofit execs make (and wink, wink – maybe I myself have made a few times) is to go to one of these two extremes: a. think we know better than the experts and force them do things differently than they recommend; or b. abandon our own common sense and judgement, allowing consultants to impose ill-fitting boiler plate solutions. Both extremes typically end badly. If you were smart enough to hire an expert, be smart enough to listen to them. But at the same time, don’t abdicate responsibility. Be an inquisitive learner. Ask lots of questions. Make sure you understand their recommendations as they relate to the nuances of your particular operation. If you’re dealing with a real expert, they will not be rattled or annoyed by your questions. A great consulting relationship is a partnership, with both parties learning from each other along the way. But make no mistake about it, when it comes to the outcomes your organization experiences, you are responsible

This simple lesson can be as hard to internalize as it is easy to say.

As leaders and managers we facilitate and orchestrate with the big picture in mind. If a piece of our plan falls out of whack, we are the ones with the perspective and power to creatively deploy a compensatory measure to make up for it. We are headed for trouble if we adopt attitudes like: “This would have worked out perfectly if so-and-so were better at her job”; or “it was the consultant’s fault.” There are no perfect employees, no perfect board members or volunteers, no perfect consultants, not even perfect machines. As a leader, it is your job to keep an eye on the big picture – the buck stops with you.

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