in Leadership

On Accountability: A Story and a Few Lessons

Consider this story:

Jay is a newly hired project manager whose primary accountability is to manage a large client account and ensure that all projects within that account adhere to scope, time, cost and quality parameters. The primary KRA for Jay was to drive profitability and customer satisfaction (and hence repeat business). Jay did a fantastic job in first few months and hence the expectations from him grew. He was now asked to mentor several other project managers, help in hiring new managers, provide three different reports in a week to various stakeholders, contribute in a few organizational initiatives and offer technical help in the sales process. What started with a clear accountability changed into a chronic case of multi-tasking. Jay was expected to reach his goal while following the exact process and still doing twelve other things that were unstructured.

In this case, to keep Jay focused on one important goal is the accountability of his boss – and if the boss failed on this one, Jay would definitely fail.

So what does this story tell us? A few things:

Accountability flows from top to bottom. You can’t hold people accountable, unless you demonstrate accountability yourself. If you do that, you will be perceived as a hypocrite. Result? Resentment in the team.

I think that fairness is an important element of accountability. If you want someone to perform, be fair to them. Maximize their chances of success. If you need more of their skills elsewhere, create a structure accordingly to avoid burn-out.

It starts with clarity on outcomes. When people work on many priorities, they get a chance to justify their failure by putting other things forward. If you want to hold people accountable for something, give them complete clarity of what is expected.

Another important realization is that accountability should always be aligned to a purpose and people should be given their space to perform. In Jay’s case, not following organization’s rules (processes) was considered breach of accountability even when results were in line with (and exceeded) the expectations. Never hold people accountable for following the steps and rules, but always hold them accountable for a goal – a big WHY. If there is a non-compliance to organizational rules, leaders need to assess and manage the risk (and cost) of non-compliance.

Accountability does not work without authority. If Jay had to validate every decision with his boss, he would have never performed at first place. People need space to perform, to execute their ideas and remain creative about how goals are achieved. Don’t confuse micro-management with accountability.

Accountability is never driven out of fear. If people are too concerned about what happens to them if they fail, they will never take so called “creative risks” to drive the initiative forward. Allowing people to make mistakes and learn from them is an important part of a leader’s accountability.

Establishing a culture of accountability is a double-edged sword. It is an opportunity to align people to strategic intentions, but if done wrong, it can create a totally opposite culture.

Join in the conversation: How did you drive accountability in your organization? Your team? What are your lessons?

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