Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Working 'for' the man in the mirror

I am now four and a half years into self-employment after thirty five years working in the National Health Service (NHS) as an employee.

When I worked in the NHS in a secure, salaried position I had:

• Employment protection including occupational pension
• Guaranteed salary regardless of the effort I put in
• Regular hours Monday to Friday
• Sick pay
• Holiday pay

As a self-employed sole trader I have:

• No employment protection
• No guaranteed income
• No sick pay
• No paid holidays
• No regular hours

So on face value many might say the preferred option has got to be the secure salaried position. In fact I’m pretty sure many might argue it is a no brainer.

And yet I have never been happier in my work.

I believe I am more accountable than I ever was in the NHS. That is because I am accountable to the man I see in the mirror. He holds me to incredibly high standards and expectations. I cannot con him and I cannot bluff him. He sees straight through inadequate excuses. Bullshit does not work with him.

It is very ironic that I feel more accountable than I ever did during the time I worked in the NHS which is one of the most ‘supervised’ environments.

This personal experience convinces me of something I have always believed.

• In large organisations (I would say in small organisations too) we simply must let people have self-accountability.

• We can make people accountable and then hold them to account.

• The best managers and leaders know how to ‘let go’ and yet still ‘be there.’

Some will argue it is not quite as easy in an organisation as it is for me in a self employed setting to have this freedom – I don’t accept that. I would say the more freedom people are given the more effectiveness you get back. That's not about 'rules' and complexity - its about trust, beliefs and organisational culture.

It’s not hard work to trust people – we just need to trust them.

What do you think?


Mike Chitty said...

Congratulations Trevor on your longevity as a self employed consultant.

Many of your observations ring so true.

I am confused by the apparent contradiction though between:
"we simply must let people have self-accountability" and "We can make people accountable and then hold them to account".

Do you think accountability has to be chosen, or can it be given?

In my view, real accountability (as opposed to ritualistic) is always a choice. With employers we can go through the rituals of accepting accountability and then find all sorts of ways of manipulating the situation to mitigate failure.


Many NHS Finance Directors were past masters at this. I remember one of them saying to me 'If there is a hole in the finances we make sure we are all in it'. This is about essentially patriarchal (parent/child) relationships with employers leading to bureacratic, low risk, self preserving behaviours.

We need to encourage more entrepreneurial relationships that reward risk and change in pursuit of excellence and encourage people to act with more autonomy - in the full knowledge that they are accountable for their results.

Accountability and autonomy are, in my experience, highly correlated.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Mike

Life is good in self employed land …..

Sorry for the confusion caused by my comment about giving people freedom and holding people to account – I recognise the paradox. It is tied in with my other statement that the best leaders know how to let go and keep hold.

What I meant to say is that if we make people accountable we can be safe in the knowledge they will act accountably.

I think we have to give people our trust. There is no such thing as ‘half trust’ which is what I often saw in my NHS career. In other words the manager still wanted to ‘dabble’ and ‘check’ far too much and far too often thus undermining the person who was confused by who held the accountability.

As one of my heroes once said “You can’t be half pregnant” – it’s the same with trust – there is no such thing as ‘half trust.’

Your question is a great one – “Do you think accountability has to be chosen, or can it be given?”

My opinion is accountability is best achieved when it is a personal choice but I also believe the most effective leaders the can ‘give’ meaningful accountability.

Henry Stimson the US Secretary of State for War in World War 2 famously said “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him”

I vividly remember one of my bosses in healthcare 25 years ago saying in a meeting of many senior managers ‘We must not put ourselves in a position where we might be criticised’ – that mindset is essentially the reason we had so much checking, double checking and unnecessary bureaucratic CYA (cover your a***) behaviour. It sets a tone of non-accountability.

mark jf said...

The question about whether accountability is given or taken is interesting and leads me to a real management problem. How does a manager make his staff accountable when they've been brought up in a culture of (for whatever reason) non-accountability? How do you give accountability to a bunch of people who have never had it, some of whom don't want it and most of whom will be frightened of it? And how do you manage the person who readily takes it but clearly isn't ready for it? And how does the receiver manage the boss who doles it out but badly?

Dangerous stuff, accountability, when it's in the wrong hands!

Trevor Gay said...

Great comment Mark – thanks. You hit the nail on the head perfectly in all the scenarios you describe.

The best managers and leaders will always get the best out of the people for whom they are responsible.

So many times in my NHS career I saw really talented people held back because managers were not prepared to ‘take a risk’ in letting those folks have their head.

Yes there are some who don't want to take on any accountability – maybe it’s in their make up – maybe its acquired fear - maybe it’s because they have been ‘bitten’ before when showing initiative and being punished.

The joy of management is that we are all different and the best leaders will know each member of their team – what makes them tick; those who need a hug; and those who need to be pushed. Different strokes for different folks

Great discussion thanks again Mark.

Tim Blair said...

Great post Trevor!

While trusting isn't that hard, there is some preparation that needs to be done. My maxim is: "Where there is truth, there is trust." Without a leader Knowing the truth, Showing the Truth and then Living the Truth whether things go great or not, trust is just a word. Truth in my opinion is foundational to trust and there is some work in those three areas for leadership in building a truthful foundation for trust.

Thanks for your wisdom here, I really enjoy what you have to say.


Trevor Gay said...

"Truth is Trust" - now there is a good title for a book Tim - you should write it!

The best leader I ever worked for was the one who told me I would not make a Chief Executive in his organisation. At the time I was hurt of course but now looking back I think he made the right call.

I can also see how he wanted to tell me only the truth.

I like your link of truth to trust.

Anonymous said...


Once again from my side of the labor management divide, I am a unit secretary at a hospital in the U.S. The best manager I've ever had, now unfortunately long gone, had a simple philosophy. She told us what she expected to be done and then turned us loose to do it. When someone failed she didn't berate them. Instead she constructively pointed out what had gone wrong and worked out how to improve. When my latest boss started she subjected all of us to "interviews". During mine I bluntly told her that I didn't like to be micromanaged because I was a self starter, was good at my job, and most of the docs knew me and respected me and my work. To my utter surprise, she wasn't offended. Instead, she respected my answer and seemed to respect me as well. Either she has a soft spot for unit secretaries or she appreciated my honesty. I suspect it's a combination of the two.

Anyway, my problem with her is that she doesn't seem willing to let people learn on the job. How can you learn to be accountable, which I see as one part of being a self starter, unless you're allowed to learn on the job? There are exceptions to this of course, e.g. major life threatening errors; but learning on the job is a huge part of any employment. Just one person's viewpoint.


Trevor Gay said...

Hi John – good to hear from you and thanks again for your excellent comments. It’s always great to hear from folks who are working at the front line in healthcare.

Training on the job? - I suspect approximately 99.9% of what I learned in my healthcare career was through ‘doing the job.’ That may be a slight under-estimate :-)

Seriously, we cannot allow surgeons for instance to learn by making many mistakes but it is ok for reasonable risks to be allowed. We are all adults and we can all do risk assessments.

Your current boss says all the right things in terms of respecting you and appreciating your honesty. I like that. The biggest challenge for managers is to 'let go' and still feel secure. I had some great bosses who were able to do that seemingly easily and naturally. I also had bosses who dabbled, interfered and didn’t really ‘let go.’ I would much rather have bosses who let me get on with things and let me make my own mistakes but don’t ball me out. The best leaders and managers are brilliant at giving constructive feedback – especially when things go wrong.

Have you heard the story of the IBM middle manager who made a mistake that cost IBM $750.000 dollars?

He took his letter of resignation to the CEO and told him that he didn’t need a telling off - he just wanted to be allowed to go quietly. The CEO handed back the envelope and said ‘Why would I want to sack someone I just spent $750,000 dollars training’

Wonderful story – that’s the sort of boss I would want.

Scott Peters said...

Amen to working for the MAN!

Wonderful job on the Race for Careers too! How many days left to donate?

Keep up the great work Trevor and thanks for your down-to-earth, realisic approach to solving opportunities with Simplicity!

Trevor Gay said...

Cheers Scott -great to hear from you again my friend.

Only 9 days now to the big day on 26th April. Donations are allowed up to two months after the event. We intend to reach our £3000 target by hook or by crook. With offline donations we are now almost up to £2000 and we have plans to raise the remaining money.

We have been so impressed, indeed emotionally moved, by the generosity of so many of my Blogging commenters from all over the world – it has been an incredible journey.

I will be posting a countdown to the Marathon in the next few days.

Scott – We both really appreciate your efforts to raise the profile of our run.

We did 20 miles last week and it felt fantastic …. I hope we will feel the same after 26 miles on 26th in London.

Fred H Schlegel said...

Interesting thing about freedom, sometimes it's the penalties of failure that make you the most free.

I find John's comment most telling. He took a risk letting the boss know how he wanted to work. It worked out, might not have. Sometimes managers are just looking to see what level of self assurance you have. Push back and it can end well, the manager lays off and you now have enough rope...

If this was a manager who never criticized, never instructed, never stuck their nose in - John wouldn't have had to stick his nose out and might not have made it to the next level of self assuredness.

We tend to be very critical of ourselves. More honest and unforgiving than we are of others. That forces us to say to the man in the mirror, 'hey, I can do this - lay off.'

Obviously, I've just made some vast assumptions about John, but simple actions often speak volumes about what to expect from a team member or employee.

Spencer said...

Trust is an interesting concept. Yes it is something we need in corporate America. It is vital to our survival. Recently, I wrote an article relating to "Heart-Based Leadership." Heart-based leadership begins with trust. Any ole average ordinary leaders are out. A new breed is coming into being. These are servant leaders who truly inspire their teams and those that follow.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your response to my comment. What I find most telling is your comment that I now have "enough rope ...". I assume you mean that I now have enough rope to hang myself as the saying goes. I am well aware of that fact, but it didn't begin with my most recent boss. It began with the perfectionism I inherited from my parents, which can be both a virtue and a fault. What it did instill in me was a work ethic that demanded that I do my best. In the end, that's where my self assurance came from.


Trevor Gay said...

John and Fred – a great exchange. One of the great joys of my Blog is the way it can facilitate such great discussions. Thank you for sharing your views.

Trevor Gay said...

Spencer – I would love to read your article - can you send it to me?