Most business executives relish in the perceived power behind the word accountability. For employees it is either a welcomed set of expectations and boundaries which drive performance OR it becomes a marker which conjures up fear, insecurity, and concern of not being able to meet the expectation.
Without the ability to hold individuals accountable, a leader’s attempt to drive change and implement strategies can stop dead in their tracks. We all have experienced this! How many times have we been in meetings where the annual vision and creative planning is just fabulous – and then when it comes time to review our results the following year, our execution just stunk!
We are constantly trying to get the team to deliver. We use many types of techniques – all with varying levels of success. We crack the whip, we create incentive compensation plans, and we point fingers and assign blame for the lack of results. Often, we even yell, scream, instill punitive punishment on our team members, and embarrass them publically trying to coerce them to change. Does this work? Oh, I suppose it may work sometimes for a short period time. Yet, at what cost? Is the change sustainable? What happens to the culture in the team? Does the approach build trust? What traits does it encourage within the team?
This past year, I have witnessed many of these approaches with my executive clients. Without exception,
- They are frustrated with the lack of results.
- They are challenged with the lack of perceived respect they are building within the organization.
- They are concerned about their career trajectory, not to mention their lack of fulfillment and satisfaction in their positions.
So, what is it that drives this approach with executives, when they are smart enough to know this tactic is not working? And, what can they do to change this behavior to drive effective change and systemic accountability?
A few thoughts:
Positional authority does not immediately presume the leader embraces accountability. Being the big cheese in an organization means we are expected to lead. We are to lead change. We are to lead collections of individuals toward a common vision and goals. AND, we are to hold ourselves and others accountable. This is a key distinction. Many think that just by being ‘in the seat’ we are to assume the role of holding others accountable. The buck doesn’t stop there. What I have observed is that many executive leaders presume by their position, their job is to cast aspersions, delegate zealously, and frankly avoid any direct ownership themselves. This is a fatal error for any leader who aspires for excellence. People in leadership roles must hold themselves accountable to the same standards of excellence we expect and drive from our constituents. Whether these be executives in our company, students and teachers in a school, or volunteers on a common project; we must act as we wish them to act. We must hold ourselves accountable to the results of our own choices AND actions in our organizations. And, by the way, this takes a lot of courage. As leaders, by default we are being watched with a more critical eye. Which means when we stumble, which we undoubtedly will, we must have the courage to admit it, hold ourselves accountable, and fix it. Humility, courage, and requests for help from our team become our best friends as leaders.
“What” questions drive awareness and change. I read an excellent book by Linda Galindo, The 85% Solution: How Personal Accountability Guarantees Success. She touts an example of an executive who realized the need to stop pointing fingers and look to himself, first, as the person who was ultimately accountable. He repeatedly would ask himself four specific questions to ensure he would ‘own it’ and drive his own self-awareness and drive a change in behavior:
- What is the problem?
- What am I doing – or not doing – to contribute to the problem?
- What will I do differently to help solve the problem?
- How will I be personally accountable for the result?
These are powerful questions, which everyone one of us can use and from which we can grow. Look within first.
As leaders, we own it. Period. As leaders, the ultimate responsibility is ours. We are to lead. This does not mean mandating change or enforcing punitive enforcement. This means leading. We must acknowledge that we can’t mandate accountability – we need to live and demonstrate it for the entire organization. Not just what we presume to be our ‘to do’ list for our specific job description. No, as leaders, we own it for the entire organization. We communicate openly with our teams and explain the rational holding each other accountable. We call out – and encourage our team to call out – when anyone on the team is not holding up their end. We hold ourselves ruthlessly to the standards of excellence we expect from others. If we are not congruent in holding ourselves accountable to the same expectations from our team – we are phony and our perceived leadership strength is hollow. Positional authority simply falls away in importance. We achieve respected leadership authority by walking the talk and proving through our actions our commitment to being accountable, personally and collectively.
In closing, when we were children growing up, we all at one point or another used expressions such as these: “It’s not my fault. . . They made me do it. . . I forgot.” As adults, there are common expressions which resemble our childhood excuses: “It’s not my job. . . No one told me. . . It couldn’t be helped.”
Well, as leaders these are just child’s talk. Each person owns their choices, their behaviors, and their actions. We are accountable. And true success, by any metric, begins and ends with personal accountability.