It’s not often I find myself still thinking about media articles days and days after I’ve read them, this one has been haunting my thoughts for over a week now. The article tells a former leader Martha Johnsons story, I will admit it is a relatively sympathetic piece, but sympathetic or not the situation Martha found herself in is one many of us could face.

Brief Background

About Martha’s story (also brief) – Martha Johnson was the Administrator of the United States General Services Administration commonly known as the GSA. A politically appointed role, nominated by the President, responsible for 12,000 government employees who oversee an annual operating budget of $26.3 Billion USD and an annual procurement budget of $66 Billion USD (source Wikipedia) among other impressively large numbers of services, assets and subsidiary agencies. In short a high powered, highly influential role. In 2012 Martha was forced to resign to before a report – initiated internally by herself – was released highlighting a case of grossly excessive expenditure by GSA staff, this exert is from the article in the Washington Post:

In October 2010, the GSA hosted a training conference near Las Vegas that cost $823,000 for 300 GSA employees — and rang up all sorts of federal contracting violations. Officials made eight site visits to pick a hotel. Some received swag like custom GSA blackjack dealer vests and commemorative coins. The sushi tab was $7,000. They hired a mind reader.

The article itself focuses on three dimensions of this story – the political landscape resulting in Martha Johnson’s resignation, the fact that this only came to light as a result of an investigation initiated internally ie: it could have been kept quiet by a different GSA Administrator, and the way she found herself cut off from the world unable to get a job of any description post resignation among other side-effects.

I would like to focus on another dimension of this story – delegation and trusting your staff.

Leadership is a well studied and documented art form,  as is management. In an organisation of over 12,000 employees the need for structure, hierarchy and management controls are apparently obvious, the sheer size and scale of the organisation needs a strong construct holding it together. Each segment of the organisation needs to understand it’s own purpose, context and constraints to ensure it can deliver what is needed within the larger entity (things we all already know so I will stop prattling on about). So as the Administrator or CEO of a massive machine like this delegation and trust are a given. The question arises as to how this trust is implemented, how purpose, context, constraints and delivery expectations are trickled down? In this instance moral and ethical values along with the GSA’s own mandate were breached, I note other more direct management involved were also fired for their specific roles but as the leader of this organisation what controls could Martha have put in place to prevent such behaviour and expenditure occurring?

In a startup or growth company on a smaller scale the need for purpose, context and constraints are amplified as is the impact of any one individual or smaller team within the organisation not delivering what is expected of them.

Equally in a startup or growth company – I am talking to the business owners reading this now – the founder and owners will be fully vested, financially, emotionally and time wise in ensuring their company is successful. Here is where the question of trust vs control comes into the mix. We all know on a logical level that the more empowered people are the better they perform, or the adage of many hands make light work, or the productivity of a team working together is greater than a collection of individuals. However, we are often let down by our teams not owning their deliverables to the level of perfection we would like them to achieve or (excuse my turn of phrase here) taking the piss – not stepping up and delivering to the level of the wider team or to the extent they are paid to do.

As a business owner it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to control every dimension of your company through micromanaging but that isn’t the answer, micromanagement simply doesn’t scale. Sadly this situation is both common and hard to resolve – there are guidelines, methodologies and known practises – but the reality for us control freak business owners is letting go and trusting our staff can be challenging at the best of times.

So back to Martha’s situation. In an organisation of 12,000 staff she had to empower and trust her management team, who in turn will have done the same with the level below them and so on. Which is what’s been haunting me, what should she have done to ensure nobody within her organisation “took the piss” (excuse my language again) to this massive extent? why did these staff members think it was OK to not be accountable for the public funds they controlled? Does prevention of this type of indiscretion come down to culture or control?

In this instance as the head of the organisation Martha paid the price. In a privately owned company the entire organisation could well pay the price through loss of revenue, a damaged reputation (leading to loss of revenue) or being sued for breach of contract. So trust is important but equally creating the environment those you are trusting know what their purpose, context and constraints are. Honestly I had hoped in writing and researching this blog I would have found the silver bullet but am finding myself as haunted by the question of trust as I was when first reading the Washington Post article. What do you think? what practises do you have in place to prevent a disaster happening within your organisation? Would love to hear. Thanks Vic.