As a leader at your organization, you like to think that you run a pretty tight ship. But if you’re being honest with yourself, you know that you let a few things slide. A missed deadline here and there. A few tiny white lies to clients. The fact that Mike in marketing often over-commits and under-delivers. Your own tendency to talk over others in meetings. In other words, people (you included) haven’t always done what they know they’re supposed to do or behaved like they know they’re supposed to behave — and they’ve gotten away with it.
None of these transgressions have been deal-breakers. Yet you know if you don’t start holding yourself and your employees accountable for these little things, they’ll eventually lead to bigger, more damaging sins. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the A-word: accountability.
Accountability is a tricky business because it has different meanings for different people. A definition we learned that we like very much is “a personal willingness, after the fact, to answer for the results of your behaviors and actions.”
With that in mind, think about where you and your people have dropped the ball in terms of client relations, personal integrity and interactions with co-workers. More importantly, did any of you answer for these lapses? You can post core values on the company website and remind your employees about them via the company newsletter until you’re blue in the face. But if none of you are ever held accountable to these behaviors, you’ll just repeat these transgressions over and over again.
Of course, you might be thinking, “We’ve tried making accountability stick before, and all those initiatives just melted away over time. That’s what will happen this time.” Our experience working with many organizations continually shows that you can’t create an accountable organization in passing. Buy-in must come from everyone. Accountability must be woven into the fabric of your organization. It has to become a part of every aspect of your business.
Drawing on concepts from our book, Culture Without Accountability, here’s an approach to create the perfect “make-it-stick” plan:
Conduct an accountability post-mortem. Here’s a revelation for you: Despite the accountability failures the past, it’s very possible that no one at your organization thinks they’re doing anything wrong. Maybe they’ve never actually been told that they need to change how they do things. That’s why you should kick off your accountability revolution with a meeting of the minds.
Call your team together for an open discussion of the company’s core values and required behaviors and where you’ve dropped the ball. Explain that no one will get in trouble for acknowledging their own shortcomings or even pointing out those of others. Ask people to share the negative effects they believe these behaviors had on the business and explain that those negatives will only get worse with time.
Set the stage by taking responsibility for your own transgressions. This will encourage others to be honest in turn. Finally, explain that things are going to be done differently from this point forward. Use this meeting to get consensus on what the core values and behaviors need to be to support the company’s strategies and goals for the year, and emphasize that everyone, starting with the key leaders, will be held accountable for demonstrating them.
Hold an accountability boot camp. It’s good to do this early in the year. However you go about making accountability stick at your organization, one thing is for sure: You and the other leaders at your company can’t simply decree an accountability mandate and then expect everyone to fall in line. You’ll need to implement a training and development plan to help employees understand why accountability is important and what accountable behavior looks like.
A boot camp-style training session is a great way to achieve this. In these sessions you should also establish how their accountability mindset and behaviors will affect their pay and progression in the organization. Teach employees how to provide feedback to one another, since this is essential to developing a culture of accountability. For leaders, you’ll need specialized training and development programs that explain what accountability looks like for them and what they can do to be effective accountability role models. We’ve seen these kinds of programs work many times before. Through our consulting practice, we work with companies from around the world to tailor training plans specific to their needs — we don’t feel a standardized approach is as effective.
Start with a behavior statement. Everyone needs to understand that they will be held responsible not only for the results of their work, but also for how they go about their work, and their rewards will depend on both. If your most experienced salesperson has great sales numbers but bullies the shipping department every time he or she needs an order rushed, or if you have an employee whom clients love but who often misses internal targets, those transgressions must have consequences despite these employees’ successes in other areas.
One useful way to communicate this is to develop behavior statements that make it clear what you’re looking for. The statements will answer the fundamental question of what, precisely, you’re trying to fix, implement or eliminate. This is especially helpful in international companies, because accountability might mean different things in different countries, languages and cultures. So, for example, you might establish accountability behavior statements such as:
- Always do what you say you’ll do.
- Always tell the truth.
- Bring issues up as you discover them.
And then make those even clearer through “Dos and Don’ts.” For example:
- DO be open, honest, and truthful.
- DON’T make excuses.
Once you’ve established accountability behavior statements and provided Dos and Don’ts, you can revisit them during performance reviews. They’ll help drive discussions with employees on how they are doing when it comes to meeting your company’s accountability standards.
Regularly meet up and talk it out. Do you hold regular communications meetings with your team or organization? We recommend it, because meetings provide an opportunity for management to highlight people who have demonstrated good accountability, as well as to show where things went wrong and what could have been done better.
This should be done in a way that instructs rather than punishes. Use every available communication tool to emphasize why accountability is important: electronic signs, business reviews, one-on-one meetings, emails, posters and more. If, by way of regular communication, you reinforce the changes you want to see, you will drive the value deep into the organization.
Don’t promote accountability shirkers. A sure way to express the importance of accountability at your organization is to connect it to advancement. Promotions and salary increases should be considered only for people who demonstrate accountability as defined by the organization.
When your employees do well, reward and promote them. If they don’t do well, apply consequences and make sure they understand that their performance will limit their success and possible progression. Do not promote employees with problems with accountability, especially if they’ll be moving into a leadership position. If you do, rest assured that employee’s problems with accountability will become other employees’ problems with accountability.
Hire accountable people. Spice up your interviews and weed out the unaccountable by asking key questions during the interview process. Instead of asking a job candidate about her strengths and weaknesses, ask, “If I asked your boss how you demonstrated accountability, what example would he or she give?” Or say, “Share with me a time where you made a big mistake and how you handled it.” If you’re interviewing a candidate for a leadership position, you might say, “Summarize a difficult conversation you had with an employee who had failed to meet a commitment” or “Describe a situation in which you very clearly held others accountable for their performance and it paid off. How did you do it and what was the outcome?”
More and more companies are using skill assessment tools and personality tests to screen potential candidates, so why not add behavior-based questions to screen for accountability? Of course, hiring an employee and then training him to be accountable is possible. But hiring people who are already accountable is a better, less costly option.
Monitor your success and make adjustments as needed. Goals and metrics should be used to guide the business on an ongoing basis, not just at the beginning and end of the year. Use regular business meetings to establish an accountability drumbeat to keep goals and metrics on track so there is a better chance to achieve success. Reviewing goals at the end of the year and hoping for success will likely end in tears.
When left unattended, the negative results that come from a lack of accountability will spread. Will your organization be able to survive that kind of plague? Maybe. Certainly, not all companies meet the fate of the Enrons and Lehman Brothers of the world. But in the end, what will your company look like? Will it be a place where great people want to work? Will it be able to provide great services or products to customers? When you commit to making accountability stick, you improve your chances of becoming a great company. Make this the year you and your employees dedicate yourselves to accountability.
In 2001, drawing on their respective years of experience in senior global leadership at Motorola, Julie Miller and Brian Bedford joined forces to establish MillerBedford Executive Solutions. MillerBedford helps businesses and organizations improve strategy, culture and leadership, while addressing issues that limit success. Their newly released book Culture Without Accountability—WTF? What’s the Fix? is full of real-life stories of what accountability looks like and what can go wrong in its absence, and offers a proven process for installing an accountability-based culture, a platform for success in business and in everyday life.