A New Way to Think About Accountability
by Greg Bustin
As summer winds down, we find ourselves in back-to-school mode.
In my work with leaders, achieving high performance is a year-round commitment that goes into overdrive between Labor Day and Christmas.
And every year, accountability tops the charts of issues executives say they want to improve.
Based on hundreds of engagements and data I have collected over a five-year period from more than 3,500 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.
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. Accountbility is how people get things done—or don't get things done.
Accountability Starts With You
Before you can hold others accountable, you first must hold yourself accountable. And before you can hold yourself accountable, you first must know what matters most to you.
Hanging onto stuff you don't like hurts you, your colleagues, your organization—and your clients. You are operating contrary to who you are and what drives you, so it's also stressful.
Your sweet spot is where your personal values (what you're willing to do) intersect with your experience (what you can do) and your interests (what you want to do). Visit www.bustin.com/subscriber-resources to download the free personal planning template called The 7 Fs to confirm your sweet spot.
Finding your sweet spot is one of the most gratifying accomplishments you can experience. It's also a key to driving accountability.
Unlocking Organizational Performance
Once you've determined what's important to you, gather your team for a two-day planning session to ensure that everyone agrees on what is most important to the organization.
Your planning session should be concerned less with numbers and more with trust-building. Achieving alignment about how talent, time, and money will be allocated requires answering pointed questions. Without trust, the big questions will go unasked and alignment will be missing. Without alignment, unlocking performance will be an uphill climb.
To focus your thinking, consider using a one-page planning template I developed called the Migration Chart™, which also can be downloaded for free on my site.
The Migration Chart is the foundation of your plan for the year ahead. Once you have a plan, you no longer need to be the bad guy. Your plan is your contract with one another and it will enable you and your colleagues to hold one another accountable to the commitments you've made to each other in the planning session.
We Are Our Own Worst Enemy
Yet events rarely play out as planned.
When things go awry, we must again look first to ourselves for answers, because we get the behavior we tolerate.
When it comes to holding people 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 underperformer 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:
- Clear expectations must be established. Don't assume everyone 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 team 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.
- 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.
- 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 underperformers require termination, do it professionally and allow them their dignity.
I learned these lessons the hard way, and while I learned these lessons in my work within organizations, I'm sure you have already realized you can apply them to your clients. 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 high-performing organizations create and sustain a culture of purpose, accountability, and fulfillment that is guided by a set of principles and practices that I call The Seven Pillars of Accountability:
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. In 2012, Farmer 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—including financial services 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.
At high-performing organizations, those practices are The Seven Pillars of Accountability.
Copyright © 2014 Bustin & Co.
Greg Bustin is a Dallas-based business and leadership consultant, an international speaker, and a Master Chair for Vistage International, the world's largest CEO membership organization. He writes a monthly bulletin sent to more than 6,000 executives globally and his perspective on leadership has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Investor's Business Daily, The Dallas Morning News and other major publications. He is the author of four books, most recently Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture and has dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He may be contacted at email@example.com or www.bustin.com.
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