Why Senior Leaders Have the Ultimate Responsibility

Chris Edmonds is the founder and CEO of the Purposeful Culture Group, which he launched after a 15-year career leading and managing teams.

U.S. President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that said, “The Buck Stops Here.” What the world needs today, more than ever, are senior leaders that take this advice to heart. When no one takes responsibility for corporate governance, we have situations like the following – from awhile back – happen: 

Soon after news began to break about the illegal activities the  News of the World tabloid was involved with, News Corp. Deputy COO James Murdoch announced the publication’s closing. 

In his testimony to a committee of Parliament in London, the stance taken by News Corporation owner Rupert Murdoch and his son, James Murdoch, was concise and consistent. To many questions asked by committee members, the Murdochs provided different versions of one primary answer: “We didn’t know.” 

They claimed they didn’t know (among other things): 

  • That phone-hacking was a wide-spread practice across their journalist population.
  • Who signed checks ranging up to 600,000 pounds for what one committee member characterized as “hush money”
  • That the company was paying legal fees for the convicted felon who hacked into the voicemail of a 13-year-old murder victim
  • That bribes were paid to police staff for information about news “targets” 

The single theme to the Murdochs’ testimony was that they didn’t know about any transgressions at News of the World until recently, and they are, therefore, not responsible for anything. 

Committee member Tom Watson stated his belief that Rupert Murdoch “is responsible for corporate governance, and it’s revealing in itself what he doesn’t know.” The Murdochs’ lack of connection to day-to-day operational activities and norms created a News of the World culture that delivered exactly what they should have expected: invasion of privacy, corruption, unethical practices, and, ultimately, the demise of the organization.

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Set organizational standards, coach to them, hold staff accountable and enjoy the benefits of a high performance, values-aligned workplace.


Who’s in Charge? 

Who is responsible for corporate governance? The best-case scenario puts this responsibility solely on the shoulders of the senior leader – be it the President, CEO, or whatever that person’s title. The senior leadership team shares in this responsibility but ultimate authority falls to the senior leader at the top of the organizational hierarchy. 

The proactive senior leader and his/her senior leadership team put core agreements in place about “the way things will be done around here.” A formalized organizational constitution answers these questions: 

  • Who are we (our organization’s servant purpose)?
  • What do we stand for (our values and measurable behaviors)?
  • What is our strategy (key success factors)?
  • What should we focus on right now (our goals)?
  • Where are we going (picture of our desired future)? 

With these agreements in place, proactive senior leaders spend time and energy communicating the servant purpose, values, strategy, and goals constantly. They spend time and energy wandering around the organization regularly, observing how the organization operates. Based on what they observe, they praise progress and citizenship and redirect behaviors that are inconsistent with the desired vision. 

In the absence of such agreements, with possibly only the “making of money” as the organization’s purpose, any number of approaches – legal or not – may serve that purpose. 

Align Your Team 

Even if you’re not the President or CEO, these suggestions can help you create clear agreements and desired outcomes for your team. Creating a compelling team vision is a terrific activity for engaging team members in the core work of the team. Clarity of vision, values, strategy, and goals enables team members to praise and coach each other during fast-paced, day-to-day activities. 

Set organizational standards, coach to them, hold staff accountable and enjoy the benefits of a high performance, values-aligned workplace.


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