Posted by Bill Dann

by Bill Dann, CEO Professional Growth Systems

Over the past several years, I have enjoyed an increasing role as coach for a number of executives. The work is rewarding because it is high leverage. That is, a small investment of time by myself and the CEO has the potential to have a major impact upon an entire organization. Helping leaders to truly lead is well worth that investment.

Throughout my coaching experiences, I have observed certain patterns in the changes executives make that seem to have the greatest impact. In this issue, we’ll cover one of them, increasing accountability.

What is accountability, really?

Let’s start with the definition: To be accountable is to be “liable; called to account; answerable”. A synonym is “responsible”. Look closely at the definition, and you will note there are two players involved, the one accountable for his/her actions and the one to whom he is accountable. To truly be accountable requires action from the authority holding you to answer for your actions or lack of actions. Thus, you can be listed on a plan or “to do” list as being the one responsible, but if there are no consequences for not fulfilling your commitment, then are you really being held accountable? I think not.

Researching the term on the Internet, it is interesting that most often it is used in a moral or ethical context, talking about political and other leaders being held accountable for their actions. I hold this concept in a much simpler context, namely, being made to honor the agreements that one makes.

When accountability works

Think about it. What gives you peace of mind as a leader, supervisor or parent? It is simply knowing you can depend upon others to do what they say they are going to do. Imagine if that were the case with every employee and every responsibility or task that needed to be done.

Malcolm Forbes was once asked how he could be riding around Manhattan on his Harley and flying around the world in balloons when he had a huge business empire to run. He simply stated, “I did my job”. I suspect what he meant is that he assured that everyone else was doing their job. In short, he had built a culture of accountability in his organization.

Accountability breeds responsibility

I recently had lunch with a coaching client and listened to her relay the wins she was experiencing. I have witnessed her transition from beating herself up for the failures of her team, to seriously confronting her team members about non-performance on simple, clear, short-term commitments.

What changed? She extracted very precise commitments from her people for action; either a result or a change in behavior to get in line with policy. She put in place the tools for accountability, namely, a clearly delineated strategic plan with quarterly commitments for action by her team members and data on performance in each area of the company. Lastly, she mandated policy in all areas of the organization to get the norms she wanted clearly defined.

Over lunch, we reviewed her journey of confronting the one employee who chose to “call her bluff”. Having no cards, he is now begging for his job back, but having learned that his word cannot be trusted, she is not budging. “What about the others we have talked about”, I asked. “They are coming along”, she replied. In short, her leadership actions have sent shock waves through the troops. The old game is over, the new game is accountability or no game at all.

I have no doubt that this shift in leadership action will have dramatic impacts on the performance of the organization over time. Steven Covey said it well, “Accountability breeds response-ability”.

How to get there from here

So how do you make that shift as a leader?

First, do a self-assessment. Are your people honoring their commitments to you, even the little ones, e.g. being on time to meetings, getting back to you when they say they will, etc. What are the consequences or learning for them if they are not? What are you training them to do or not do by your actions?

Having done the assessment, is change needed? If yes, then go about putting in place clear agreements you can hold others accountable to. If an agreement is broken, demand that a new agreement be kept. If there is a pattern of broken agreements, confront the employee and consider asking them to take some time off, at their expense, to think about how they are “showing up” now and how they want to show up in the future.

Also, make visible the commitments of team members by posting your strategic plan in the conference room or holding regular team meetings to review progress on commitments. Then, as you monitor the plan or the to do list as a team, others become aware when team member X has not met the agreement. Reviewing commitments as a team encourages accountability, as no one wants to be the “odd man out” who is not getting the work done. (For more on the distinction between accountability and responsibility, see our recent blog post)

Accountability is one of the highest leverage changes a leader can make

As you go forward, remember that you should be on a journey to build a culture of what I call, results not reasons. There will always be reasons as long as those are good enough for you.

Is this easy? No. Straightforward, yes; easy, no. I struggle with it myself. But I know that targeting accountability is one of the highest leverage changes a leader can make.

For a deeper look at the topic, we delved into accountability vs responsibility. You can check that post out here. And, if you need help with accountability, consider getting a coach to hold you accountable for the change you wish to make in your own performance as well as those you mentor and lead. And, as always, if you have questions or would like more information on coaching for accountability, contact us.

Holding others and yourself accountable is tough and not for the faint of heart. We are happy to help you define and take the steps needed to move yourself forward in this critical area of management.