Without leadership accountability, or an understanding of how to hold others accountable, implementing good ideas and best practices can stop cold.
Senior talent leaders understand this challenge if, around their organization, they often hear declarations such as, “We’re great at innovating and planning, but our follow-through stinks!”
ASK A LEADER WHO’S CHANGED HIS MIND
Today, George is thriving as vice president of operations at a flagship hospital for a large health system. However, in his prior leadership role, at another organization, he watched even the best plans and practices fail to get implemented.
There, leadership was frustrated with the lack of accountability throughout the organization. Yet, in executive team meetings, the group focused on putting out fires, and high-level strategy was rarely discussed. When business and financial goals weren’t met, finger-pointing ensued.
All eyes were on the CEO to do something. He didn’t hold others accountable. The accountability belonged to him, period.
Working with the organization’s talent leaders, the CEO made concerted efforts, from executive retreats to personality testing, to get leadership to come together—and lead. Nothing, however, seemed to change.
Then, the lights turned on—at least for George. Through his personal work with the talent group and an executive coach, he was able to see what was really going on: He did not hold himself, or his colleagues, accountable.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to hold myself accountable,” George shared with me. “I had to confront why I wouldn’t.”
George came to realize that he confused accountability with authority. He wasn’t in control—the CEO was—and that meant he wasn’t accountable. In other words, George viewed accountability as a zero-sum game; if one person was accountable for a situation or result, then everyone else wasn’t. He also admitted that personal accountability—answering for the outcomes of his own choices, actions, and behaviors—required courage.
In the days and weeks ahead, George took several steps to shift his understanding of accountability. He stopped employing an “accountability as hammer” approach and started engaging himself and his colleagues in owning the results of their leadership—good or bad—right up front.
George also ceased pointing fingers and assigning blame. Instead, when troubles arose, he looked to himself first. Consistently, he asked four specific questions: “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?” and “How will I be accountable for the result?” Additionally, in leadership meetings, he stopped making excuses and took the fall when his choices caused difficulties.
The changes didn’t stop with him either. The CEO, along with George’s peers and direct reports, caught on quickly, and soon accountability was being demonstrated throughout the organization. As a result, many began working smarter, faster, and better, and the bottom line revealed a newfound success.
ADVICE FOR TALENT LEADERS AND EXECUTIVE TEAMS
1. Acknowledge that you can’t mandate accountability—you can only demonstrate it.
2. Determine what a lack of accountability is really costing the organization.
3. Address barriers to accountability within leadership, such as in-fighting or power struggles, and set expectations.
4. Get educated on accountability, and develop a common understanding and vocabulary and a set of tools and techniques.
5. Make clear agreements for accountability, and discuss consequences up front.
6. Commit to “calling out” a lack of accountability.
7. Communicate a top-down accountability message to the organization—and live it.
“It’s in my bones now,” says George, about his commitment to accountability. These days at the org, he’s also seeing tangible business results, including delivering more than $14 million over expectations to the bottom line.
“I won’t forget the education and coaching that got me here,” he promises. “I work to demonstrate accountability everyday to myself, the leadership team, and our organization’s talent.”