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Colleen Shannon

By: Colleen Shannon on October 31st, 2012

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How to Build Leadership Accountability

Business Management & Strategy

One of the most powerful ways to develop leaders within your organization is to build an environment of accountability; where others are held to keep the commitments they make and where poor performance is addressed and eliminated.

While most leaders implicitly accept the importance of accountability, many struggle to foster it in their organizations, especially in today's fluid business environment. Here are some practical ways to promote accountability within your organization:

  1. Set standards and be clear about them: What are your expectations? What does success look like and how will it be measured or evaluated? What timeline is appropriate? By identifying and clearly communicating, you’ll meet the basic need for information on the “mission” for a specific initiative, project, or task, and provide a framework for success.
  2. Hold others accountable for the end, but not necessarily the means:
    In today’s dynamic work environment, be prepared for changing circumstances and avoid being wedded to a certain process unless absolutely necessary. Help your leaders become invested in and accountable for their actions by fostering their ability to devise their own plans and solutions. Use coaching questions such as:
    1. "Did you consider…?"
    2. "Can you help me understand why…?"
    3. "Why do you think…?"
  3. Assess and discuss progress: As you set expectations, also establish assessment checkpoints. Use your organization's performance management program as one mechanism to assess progress; just don't make it the only checkpoint. Use one-on-one meetings as described below and other avenues such as status reports and metrics to determine if performance is on track. Address less-than-expected results quickly and candidly, and provide advice for course corrections. Additionally, make sure to take time to acknowledge when progress is moving along well.
  4. Eliminate fear as a motivator: Allow room for error and the learning/growth that accompanies it. Make a point of sharing your own mistakes, their consequences, and how you did things differently going forward.
  5. Communicate your commitment: Regular communication, such as weekly one-on-one meetings, is one of the best ways to build an environment of accountability. Through such meetings, you can exchange performance feedback and progress information and address performance obstacles. One of the most powerful ways you can show your commitment is by modeling accountability yourself—make keeping your own commitments a hallmark of your behavior.

In the end, respect that someone else's methods may not mirror yours and look for them to create progress toward the results and goals.

As Thomas E. Ricks wrote, What Ever Happened to Accountability? in Harvard Business Review, "When standards are not rigorously upheld and inadequate performance is allowed to endure...the effect is not only to rob an enterprise of some of its potential. It is to lose the standards themselves and let the most important capabilities of leadership succumb to atrophy."