“Who in your life can you really count on?”  This question was posed to me recently by my friend and author David Irvine.  David has written a number of books on culture, leadership and accountability, including “Accountability: Getting a Grip on Results” that he co-authored with Sean Murphy and Bruce Klatt.

As I pondered his question, I realized the people that “made my list” have two key characteristics in the way that they operate.  Firstly, they take promises seriously by clarifying and confirming expectations, understanding the required outcomes, and making sure that delivering on their promises is realistic.  They don’t say “yes” to vague, undefined commitments.  In fact, they don’t say “yes” very often at all, being careful to manage other promises they’ve made and not overcommit.

Secondly, the people that I can really count on have a system for promise keeping.  They write down their commitments, schedule follow-ups, and get things done proactively.  They are organized and use paper or electronic based task management systems to keep track their promises and priorities.

Accountability in organizations

Just as it matters who we can count on personally, accountability in our organizations matters too.  In fact, the ability to execute on our business strategy depends on our employee’s ability to make and keep promises; their ability to be accountable for outcomes and to deliver on promises.

In our work with clients, lack of accountability is a recurring theme.  Here’s what it sounds like:

  • “if I could just get my people to care as much about the results as I do, we would be more successful”
  • “it seems like we cover the same issues over and over again, and no one takes ownership for solving the problem”
  • “it doesn’t matter, no one is keeping score”

If you are hearing phrases like this in your organization, you have an issue with accountability.  And because of that, your company is not reaching its full potential.

Accountability starts at the top of the organization.  We can’t begin to address accountability gaps if we, as leaders, aren’t prepared to model the behaviors we’d like to see in our people.  We must set and meet the performance standards for ourselves first, and then look to hold others to the same standard.

Secondly, we must recognize that accountability follows relationship.  We can’t create a culture of accountability without knowing employees for who they are as people, building rapport and trust, knowing what matters to them, and opening the lines of good, healthy communication.  Then and only then can we build a framework for accountability.Rate your organization:

Which of the following statements can you respond to with a resounding, unmistakable “YES”?

  1. All the roles in our firm have clear and objective performance measures that define the standards required to be successful in the role
  2. We have a dashboard that tracks a handful of key numbers that predict the future health of our business.
  3. Our culture does not tolerate a lack of accountability from anyone at any level.

Accountability framework and culture

Last year I had the opportunity to spend some time with author and business thought-leader John Spence.  John is the author of “Awesomely Simple”, and consultant to many Fortune 500 organizations in North America.

John agrees that accountability is a huge issue for many organizations, and recommends the following principles to address the issue:

  • Top managers need to be clear about expectations, modeling accountability for themselves first, and then cascading clear expectations throughout the organization.
  • All goals and performance targets are specific and measurable.  They are “binary” in terms of their achievement, and can be objectively assessed either as being achieved or not.
  • Lots of transparent communication, making performance data and results visible to all employees.  Business dashboards can facilitate this.
  • Celebrate when goals are met AND deal with goals not being met.  Accountability is meaningless without consequences.

In my experience, making performance visible throughout the organization is one of strongest means to delivery consequences.  No one wants to be seen by their peers as a poor performer, while at the same time there is nothing more energizing and engaging than seeing a team celebrate a significant success.

I would agree with John on the points above, and would suggest adding the following elements to further build the accountability culture:

  • Single point accountability – ensure that each outcome and each key metric in your business has one person’s name beside it.  That does not mean that that individual must individually deliver the outcome, but they are the person expected to coordinate and muster the resources of the organization to make in happen (and ‘sound the alarm’ early if the targets are not going to be met).
  • Role Scorecards for every role – each job should have a role scorecard specifying the objective measurements of success for the role.
  • Turn conversations into promises – keep a roster of actions for each functional or project team that clearly displays who will do what by when (WWW roster).
  • Balance outcomes and inputs – as a leader, constantly ask people what support and resources they need to deliver the outcomes they have committed to.

Upgrading the team

Mediocrity breeds mediocrity.  You get what you tolerate!  If you settle for lack-luster performance you’ll get more of it.  But as you start to build an organization that has a culture of accountability, something interesting begins to happen.

Firstly, poor performers will become less comfortable.  There is no longer anywhere to hide when performance is objectively measured and visible.  In many cases, these employees will see the proverbial “writing on the wall” and choose to find another place to work.  And that’s not a bad thing!  Having mediocre performers leave the organization provides opportunity to recruit more “A” players.

Secondly, the “A” players that you already have on your team will become more engaged.  Top performers want to work with other top performers.  Their ability to deliver on their promises is dependent on others in the organization, and they will see you firm as a place to advance and thrive.

The bottom line

Creating a culture of accountability takes time; there is no quick fix.  But without it your organization will not meet its full potential.  Just like people, admired organizations are those that keep their promises – promises to customers, suppliers, employees and shareholders.

Can your organization be counted on?