male presenting business person on the edge of a gap in the mountians

The Entrepreneurial Gap: When Your Accountability Exceeds Your Control

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

One of the most common coaching goals for scaling leaders in executive and cross-functional roles is to lead through influence. Generally, their ability to do their job depends on getting the buy-in of peers and others in the organization where they lack the positional authority to control resources and determine trade-offs. Leading through influence requires that you listen and be open to input from stakeholders, understand and communicate the context, “bring people along,” build trust, and inspire or motivate others to act.

However, influence skills alone will only get you so far. Organizational structure, culture, and incentives can either set you up for success or failure.

For example, let’s say you are leading a company initiative that is highly cross-functional. It requires data from the sales team, cooperation from customer success, engineering resources, coordination with HR, and communications support. None of these functions report to you, and all of them have competing priorities set by their function. Lacking authority, you must build trust and influence with your colleagues, communicate, listen, and identify aligned interests. But even if they all agree that the project is worthwhile, their responsiveness to your requests will depend on whether they make your project a priority, and that will depend on many elements that are outside your control. But still, the CEO is expecting you to deliver results.

You are in what has been called the “entrepreneurial gap.” Your narrow span of control over resources does not match the breadth of your accountability. In this situation, many leaders wonder: Is it me? Or am I not set up for success?

Traditional organizational structures often follow the accounting principle of controllability: your authority over resources should equal, or align with, your responsibility for performance. This approach is based on practicality and fairness (how can you be held responsible for something not in your control?) and on an assumption that its non-application would lead to role confusion and it would be demotivating for employees to be evaluated on metrics that were outside their control. Makes sense, right? But what if a gap between accountability and control could be used to engender greater creativity and innovation? Voilà—the entrepreneurial gap—so-called because the lack of direct control is believed to incentivize and even require that employees be innovative and creative in their approach—essentially, that they act like entrepreneurs.

Broad, uncontrollable metrics are widely used in successful scaling companies. Broadening the scope of responsibility beyond the sphere of control has some real benefits for an employee’s learning and decision-making. According to research, individuals with narrower goals often disregard information and learning outside their span of control; but “holding employees accountable for uncontrollable factors can help to overcome tunnel vision by broadening their attentional scope. Thus, disregarding the controllability principle can improve employee learning by overcoming an important bias in information processing.” For example, a sales leader responsible for one region may disregard information and learning from another region that could be beneficially applied to their own region, but if their remit expands, they will take in that information, learn, and apply that learning and make better decisions.

Organizations would do well to be intentional about where they create this gap where responsibility exceeds control. It turns out that the level of seniority of an employee makes a difference to their tolerance for the challenges and ambiguities of being responsible for factors outside their control. Controllability seems to be more important to lower and mid-level managers, who experience frustration and confusion at their lack of control, while the most senior leaders have more tolerance for being confronted by factors beyond their control. In addition, not all roles lend themselves to the higher-risk entrepreneurial approach (think compliance and accounting).

If a company elects to deviate from controllability and create roles that create an entrepreneurial gap, it is essential that these roles be designed to compensate for lack of control to set the candidate up for success. Harvard Business School’s approach to job design looks at four factors when determining whether a role is set up for success:

  • Span of Control—resources, people, budget, infrastructure, etc.
  • Span of Accountability—range of responsibilities, including deliverables and tradeoffs.
  • Span of Influence—extent of ability to impact and motivate others to action.
  • Span of Support—range and effectiveness assistance, resources and guidance that provide support, collaboration and mutual aid.

In the scenario described above, your accountability is high and your control is low. In order to be successful, you will need to operate through influence, but your ability to do so also depends on the organization and culture to create a robust support system, characterized by (1) a strong sense of shared purpose or mission, (2) group identity that promotes mutual aid and support, (3) equity and fairness in the system of reward, and (4) trust in one another’s motives.

It is in the span of support where organizational leadership and culture come into play to set you up for success or failure. For example, if the people whose cooperation and collaboration you require have narrow accountability and feel no sense of identification with or responsibility to you, if trust is low, your task of influencing them will be much more difficult.

As you consider whether to accept a role or to tackle a project, you would be well served to look at the structural and cultural elements that are critical to leading through influence. If your accountability is wide relative to your span of control, ask:

  1. Who are the key stakeholders and how strong is the trust and sense of shared purpose among the stakeholders who control the resources that are needed to achieve success?
  2. Where are the overlaps and potential areas of role confusion?
  3. Do the relevant functional leaders operate as a team with mutual support and shared accountability for key business outcomes?
  4. How does the organization recognize and reward cooperation and support?
  5. How comfortable am I with the challenges and opportunities inherent in the role?

The answers to the first four questions can help you understand what structural and interpersonal factors are present and how they may impact your ability to influence. But the final question is about your appetite to enter the entrepreneurial gap, with its challenges and frustrations, and the creativity and learning to be found there.