Posted by Bill Dann

Results! Not reasons: Accountability is the second
of four keys to superior company performance

by Bill Dann, CEO Professional Growth Systems

This article is the third in a series of five. It addresses the second of the four keys to superior company performance: Accountability.
The other key factors are:

  • Clear focus (July 2008 issue)
  • Accountability (This issue)
  • Continually-improving systems (Coming November 2008)
  • Commitment to cooperation (Coming 2009)

When we go into companies to help them do strategic or project planning, we often follow in the footsteps of other consultants. The clients tell us that our predecessor ran a good session; everyone felt good but when it was over, but nothing changed. In other words, there were no results, no real improvement, no changes.

It seems to be a common complaint.

Why is that?

Three major problems prevent success

There are three consistent reasons that keep these projects from succeeding:

  1. The plans the consultant presented included intended goals and “to dos,” but they didn’t identify the actual results or outcomes that define the point of success. In short, there were not complete in our view.
  2. No member of the management or project team stepped up to take responsibility for each result.
  3. Leaders didn’t hold people accountable for the results. Instead, they succumbed to the old habit of accepting rational explanations for why things did not get accomplished.

Fixing the first two problems

You can correct the first two of these fairly easily. The third requires a little more thought and work, so I’ll deal with it separately, after I’ve finished with the first two.

  1. Fixing the first problem: Be certain that your plan includes period-ending (usually annual) targets that are stated as a clear accomplishment. For example: to increase sales by 10 percent; to reduce system errors by 30 percent. Be sure that there are at least quarterly milestones that define how you get from the milestone to the intended target.
  2. Fixing the second problem: Ask if there is a member of the management or project team who is willing to take responsibility for each outcome. This person might not actually do the work, but he or she would have to make a commitment to the team that the work will be completed as defined. Emphasize the notion that each commitment to an outcome is a promise to the team and organization. Remind the person that, at the end of the day, we are judged, and will rise, according to the promises we keep or don’t keep.

Dealing with the third problem: instilling accountability for results

Getting accountability for results is a lot more challenging than fixing the first two. Unless we are punitive by nature, we don’t like calling out people on their misdeeds and broken promises. Rather, we want to see ourselves as supportive, understanding, forgiving. That’s all well and good, but this leadership behavior will not move the organization ahead.

“Excuses are the opiate of the unsuccessful,” as Faust, Lyles and Phillips state in their book, Responsible Managers Get Results: How the Best Find Solutions – Not Excuses.

Why is demanding results so challenging? First, we are all overcommitted, and so we tend to buy any reason for a failure to complete tasks. Too many emails, problems at home, unforeseen glitches, lack of cooperation from others, and so on. Strategic and project plans often define what we are expected to do, above and beyond our normal jobs (our change agenda). The real problem is that our normal jobs are probably already overwhelming.

Potential leaders have to do one of two things:

  • Accept the fact that they won’t be able to lead the group to a new level of performance.
  • Commit to doing whatever is required to reach that new level by insisting on performance from their teams.

If, as it should, the strategic plan contains the essential elements for the organization’s success in the future, excuses are simply not options. They threaten future survival.

Helping leaders become more effective

Here are a few tips that will help leaders become more effective in improving performance:
Publicly (that is, as a team) review progress on results for an annual plan every two weeks. This simple act will spur improved performance (no one likes to be behind). I call it management by embarrassment.

If team members have failed to meet goals, ask them what they have chosen to do, in place of fulfilling their promise to the group.

Ask if they want to make a new promise, or if they would rather have the outcome assigned to someone else.

Meet individually with those who repeatedly present excuses for not fulfilling their promises. What in their life is getting in the way? Do they need better tools for personal time management? Have they simply overcommitted?

Don’t miss our next newsletter: Continually-improving systems, the third of the four keys to superior company performance.