Accountability: The Enemy Within

  1. March 4th, 2014  | 

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Published in Accountability

Year after year, accountability tops the charts of issues executives say they want to improve.

Based on hundreds of engagements and data I have collected over the years from more than 6,000 CEOs and their key executives from around the world, lack of accountability is the single greatest threat to achieving consistent levels of high per­formance.

The facts are clear: Most organizations are not as effective as they could be at getting things done.

And lack of accountability is a big reason why; often it’s the reason why.

Accountability is critical to anyone leading a group of people, because, after all, every business is a people business. Account­ability is how people get things done – or don’t get things done

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We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

As leaders, we get the behavior we tolerate.

When it comes to being accountable, we are often our own worst enemy. We accept excuses that sound logical even when we know better. We allow emotions to cloud our decision making. We delay having a conversation with an under performer because it’s easier to avoid a difficult conversation than having one. Instead of practicing accountability, we practice avoidance.

That was certainly the case with me. Along the way, I learned three valuable lessons:

  1. Clear expectations must be established. Don’t assume everyone on your team has the same definition of success. They may not.  Failure to set clear expectations means that evaluating performance is subjective. When your purpose, expec­tations, and rewards are crystal clear, your employees will embrace accountability as a way to become even more suc­cessful. The opposite is also true: If you are not clear about everything – vision, values, objectives, strategy, rewards, and, yes, penalties – the likelihood of achieving your vision is slim.
  2. Bad news does not improve with age. Avoiding performance issues in the hope performance will improve is wishful thinking. When you see a problem, it’s best to address it immediately. Failure to speak frankly with the person about his or her perfor­mance means nothing will change.
  3. It’s not personal. Yes, you’re talking with a person, but leave emotions and opinions behind. Stick to the facts, set a plan to get performance back on track, and communicate spe­cific consequences for underperformance. If under performers require termination, do it professionally and allow them their dignity.

I learned these lessons the hard way. I figured there’s got to be a better way to build and sustain a culture where accountability is part of the DNA of high-perform­ing organizations.

The Seven Pillars of Accountability

To discover that better way, I asked leaders at widely admired companies in completely different industries to share the steps they have taken to create, nurture, and sustain a high-performing culture.

What I learned is that accountability transcends borders and industries. I learned that all organizations wrestle with accountability in much the same way.  Although the scope and complexity may differ from organi­zation to organization, the problems leaders encounter on a daily basis are the same.

High-performing organizations create and sustain a culture of purpose, accountability, and fulfillment that is guided by a set of principles and practices that are simple to say and hard to do.

I call these principles The Seven Pillars of Accountability:

  • Character
  • Unity
  • Learning
  • Tracking
  • Urgency
  • Reputation
  • Evolving

You probably noticed an acronym: C.U.L.T.U.R.E. It’s deliber­ate and will help you remember the seven pillars.

This acronym also will help you remember that your culture is a significant predictor of your future performance.

The key to accountability is bringing together these principles and then acting on them with consistency to sustain a high-perfor­mance culture.

Accountability’s Other Side

Ron Farmer founded US Signs in 1980 and led his company through nine tough months the company’s first year as well as through three recessions before selling his company in 2011 for full value. Growing more than 1,000 percent in the first 5 years landed US Signs on the Inc. 500 list at #196. Farmer started a second company, US LED, in 2001, and he and his team achieved average annual growth rate of 73 percent over the first 10 years. In 2012, he was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist.

Like many of the leaders I interviewed, Farmer believes accountability has two sides: a positive side and a negative side.

Accountability gets a bad rap. Just saying the word conjures all sorts of negative images: micromanagement; an emotional, mean-spirited conversation; punishment. It can be all of those things, but it doesn’t have to be any of them.

“People do their best work,” Farmer told me, “when they know they’re going to be given credit for their contribution. So there has to be a certain amount of autonomy in people’s work so they can contribute without reservation. There’s accountability at work in this type of approach, but I view accountability not from the side that says, ‘This is what happens if you don’t do something,’ but rather, ‘See what’s possible if you do your best.’ It’s the other side of the same coin.”

High-performing organizations have in common a way of doing things that distinguishes their culture.

If your view of accountability is having a tough conversation with an underperformer, you will miss the bigger point.

Yes, we examine a model for a conversation with an underperformer, but long before that conversation occurs dozens of other practices must be in place if you expect to drive accountability throughout your organization to create and sustain a high-performance culture.

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises some of the world’s most admired companies and leaders, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 250 strategic planning sessions, he’s delivered more than 600 keynotes and workshops on every continent except Antarctica, and he coaches leaders who are inspired to take their career to the next level. His fourth leadership book— Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture (McGraw-Hill) —is a Soundview Executive Best Business Book.

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