The authority/accountability balance



The outcomes that you are responsible for need to be explicit, appropriately resourced with Authority, and clearly spelled out in your job description. Your job description is a document you should know, own, and revisit regularly with whomever you report to, in order to ensure success.

Once you have the Authority side of the equation appropriately resourced, setting outcomes that are a stretch, but still realistic and achievable within the scope of your position, is critical to your success. It is good to think about short-, medium-, and long-term goals, especially if you are in a leadership role. For example, one expectation you will have, regardless of your station, is that you keep up on your email and answer your phone. These are short-term goals that will often be included in your job description. However, taking on a new hospital contract and making sure that it has 24/7 hospitalist coverage, that all the hospitalists are meeting the geometric mean length of stay, and that all the physicians are having 15 encounters per day doesn’t happen immediately. Long-term goals, such as taking on a new hospital contract, are the big-picture stuff that can make or break the career of an HMG leader. Long-term goals also need to be delineated in the job description, along with specific time stamps and the resources you need to accomplish big ticket items – which are spelled out in the Authority side (that is, physician recruiter, secretary, background checks, and so on).

One of the classic misuses of Accountability is the “Fall Guy” scenario. The Fall Guy scenario is often used by cynical hospital and medical group executives to expand their influence while limiting their liability. In the Fall Guy scenario, the executive is surrounded with junior partners who are underpowered with Authority, and then the executive makes decisions for which the junior partners are Accountable. This allows the senior executive to make risky decisions on behalf of the hospital or medical group without the liability of being held accountable when the decision-making process fails. When the risky, and often ill-informed, decision fails, the junior partner who lacked the Authority to make the decision – but held the Accountability for it – becomes the Fall Guy for the failed endeavor. This is a critical outcome that the Authority/Accountability balance can help you avoid, if you use it wisely and properly.

If you find yourself in the Fall Guy position, it is time for a change. The Authority, the Accountability, or both need to change so that they are in better balance. Or your employer needs to change. Changing employers is an outcome worth avoiding, if at all possible. I have scrutinized thousands of resumes in my career, and frequent job changes always wave a red flag to prospective employers. However, changing jobs remains a crucial option if you are being set up for failure when Authority and Accountability are out of balance.

If you are unable to negotiate for the balance that will allow you to be successful with your current group, remember that HMG leaders are a prized commodity and in short supply. Leaving a group that has been your career is hard, but it is better to leave than stay in a position where you are set up for failure as the Fall Guy. Further, the most effective time to expand your Authority is when you are negotiating the terms of a new position. Changing positions is the nuclear option. However, it is better than becoming the Fall Guy, and a change can create opportunities that will accelerate your career and influence, if done right.

When I talk about Authority/Accountability balance, I always counter the Fall Guy with an ignominious historical figure: General George B. McClellan. General McClellan was the commander of the Army of the Potomac during the early years of the American Civil War. General McClellan had the industrial might of the Union north at his beck and call, as well as extraordinary resources for recruiting and retaining soldiers for his army. At every encounter with General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, General McClellan outnumbered them, sometimes by more than two to one. Yet General McClellan was outfoxed repeatedly for the same reason: He failed to take decisive action.

Every time that McClellan failed, he blamed insufficient resources and told President Lincoln that he needed more troops and more equipment to be successful. In summary, while the Fall Guy scenario needs to be avoided, once you are adequately resourced, success requires taking decisive and strategic action, or you will suffer as did General McClellan. Failing to act when you are appropriately resourced can be just as damaging to your career and credibility as allowing yourself to become the Fall Guy.


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