Even if you don’t claim to know much about leadership, you might naturally assume this is fundamental. So, what’s the big deal? A leader should set clear objectives, have clear expectations, hold employees accountable, and get results. Right?
In real life, it’s actually a very delicate balance. Any organization needs accountability. But, too much of it, too much (undisciplined) authority, too much “my way or the highway,” and people will stop following and certainly choose to ride that highway — and you’ll find yourself in Turnover Land. On the other hand, without accountability, there are no results. Without results, no organization can survive.
First things first.
Accountability is not simply taking the blame when something goes wrong.
Accountability is delivering on a commitment. It’s taking responsibility as to an outcome, not just a set of tasks. It’s taking initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.
So how do great leaders foster accountability in the people around them? I believe that truly great leaders do the following things exceptionally well:
- They are very clear in their expectations and are exceptional at communicating it. The first step is to be crystal clear about what you expect. I find this to be very difficult. My expectations are more based on either results desired or a vision of what I want to see created. Painting this picture accurately and with enough detail is hard for me. Determining the vision and setting strategies to get results comes easy to me. Getting other people to clearly understand what is inside my head is challenging. The better I link the two, the better I perform as a leader. So, I have to really try hard to ensure that people understand what I am wanting. Sometimes this necessitates overcommunication and repetition, even if that means being annoying. When you try to do this, you need to be clear about the exact (don’t leave out details) outcome you’re looking for, how you’ll measure whether or not that outcome has been achieved, and how you propose people should go about achieving the objective. Now, I say “propose”, because it doesn’t all have to come from you. In fact, the more skilled your people are, the more ideas and strategies should be coming from them. That is ideal. You paint the picture and give suggestions about how to proceed, but your team finds a better way to get there. Have a genuinely two-way conversation, and before it’s over, ask the other person to summarize the important pieces — the outcome they’re going for, how they are going to achieve it, and how they’ll know whether they’re successful — to make sure you’re ending up on the same page. Writing out a summary is a good idea, but doesn’t replace saying it out loud. I read once that people need to hear things 7 times before they “get it”. CEOs tend to believe this number should be somewhere between 0 and 1! That gap has to be closed….
- They ensure clear capability of the person they are talking to. What skills will this person need to meet my expectations? What resources will they need? If the person does not have what’s necessary, can they acquire what’s missing? How can I help them do that? If you can’t answer these questions favorably, then you’ll need to delegate to someone else. Otherwise, you’re setting them up for failure. And, that’s a failure in leadership, not the person.
- They establish clear, detailed, and easy to understand measurement(s). This is another area I struggle with, but I’m getting better at it. Over time, you can start to develop the skills to take vague objectives or “soft” goals and turn them into achievable and measurable objectives (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are struggling with a real world issue on this, and I can try to help you). Nothing frustrates leaders (or anyone, for that matter) more than being surprised by failure. Sometimes this surprise is because the person who should be delivering is afraid to ask for help (If you like, re-read weeks 33 and 35 for some deeper insight on that topic). Sometimes it comes from premature optimism on both sides (dangerous – do a “reality check” before proceeding). Either way, it’s completely avoidable. During the expectations conversation, you should agree on weekly milestones with clear, measurable, objective targets. If any of these targets slip, jump on it immediately. Brainstorm a solution, identify a fix, redesign the schedule, or respond in some other way that gets the person and the objective back on track.
- They give candid, constructive feedback and they want it to be a 2-way street. Honest, open, ongoing feedback (both positive and negative) is critical. People should know where they stand. Nobody likes the feeling that they might be flying or sailing in the wrong direction without a compass. If you have clear expectations, capability, and measurement, the feedback can be fact-based and easy to deliver – that is, you have already developed a clear instruction manual on how to give that feedback to each other. Is everyone delivering on their commitments? Give feedback weekly, and remember it’s more important to be helpful than nice.
- They are clear about the consequences of failure. If you’ve done #1 through #4 well, you now have the luxury of being confident that you did what’s necessary to support their performance. At this point, you have three choices: repeat, reward, or release. Repeat the steps above if you feel that there is still a lack of clarity in the system. Sometimes this is very necessary. Personally, I hate when I put myself in this situation. It is such a waste of time and money. Every time I feel this pain it’s a reminder and reinforcer to me that I can’t rush through the steps. If the person succeeded, you should reward them appropriately/as agreed upon (acknowledgment, promotion, etc.). If they have not proven accountable and you are confident that you followed the steps above, then they are not a good fit for the role, and you should release them from it (change roles, fire them, etc.).
REMEMBER: It is much better to be honest than nice.
Jesus has promised that he will hold all of us accountable. He made no secret about the fact that we reap what we sow, and that we can store up treasures in Heaven while we are on Earth.
Matthew 18:18 – “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on Earth shall have been bound in Heaven; and whatever you loose on Earth shall have been loosed in Heaven.”
Revelation 3:15-16 – “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.”
If this isn’t crystal clear on accountability, I don’t know what is!
Grace? Yes, for the repenting heart. Lack of accountability? No!
There is more scripture that fits this topic, but these are two of my favorite. I encourage you to do your own searching to find scripture that speaks to you in a way that you understand.