When we begin working with companies, one thing we often hear from a CEO is their desire to build an accountability culture. Accountability, like any of the key traits of an organization’s culture, starts with the CEO and is amplified by the senior leadership team. Culture starts at the top… as does accountability. This means that if you want to impact your organization’s culture, start by looking at your own accountability behaviors and how consistent you are using them with others.

We all have a sense of our own accountability, by which I mean, how accountable we are willing to hold ourselves. Ask yourself three questions: how clear are my goals; do I have the needed resources; and, how will I follow-through to be successful? The more clarity you have on these questions the more likely you will actually hold yourself accountable at work, home and even the gym. If we were all highly accountable individually, we’d likely all be a bit thinner and healthier, as well as more effective in our work.

In leadership roles we need to look at how we hold others accountable, both as individuals and in teams. Similar to individual accountability, clarity in goals and expectations is critical. You cannot really expect accountability if you are not clear on the goals and expectations. In addition, it is important to consider the time, skills, tools and resources others will need to achieve the expectations. Once these basics of delegation are well defined, the real hinge point is empowering people to act. This means giving people both the responsibility and authority to take action including any guardrails. And, with follow-though, consistently providing recognition and feedback reinforces accountability. When expectations are not being met, quickly taking corrective action is key. Too often, leaders do not take action to provide positive feedback or course corrections quickly enough.

When I’m working with CEO’s and executives on their leadership team, I suggest the following accountability conversation when people are not on track or missing expectations. The four questions for the conversation go like this:

  1. “What is getting in the way of you meeting this expectation?” (Note, do not ask why the date was not met, or the action not completed. “Why” invokes blame and in essence asks for their excuse) Once you understand the barriers or hurdles they are facing ask;
  2. “What can be done to clear those barriers or get over the hurdles?” (Note, here your can help them problems solve by coaching and probing for their ideas) Once there are some clear options to solve the barriers, then ask;
  3. “What will you do differently to get this back on track?” (Note: what you are really asking is what is their new action plan – ask for specifics, what will they do by when?) Finally for the real heart of accountability ask;
  4. “Can I count on that?” (Note: at this point your are asking for a personal commitment… making it personal) If you detect any reluctance to make a personal commitment, then there is a barrier that they are worried about that has not been discussed and you need to go back to start over at the first question.

This basic accountability conversation is a crucial leadership behavior. The more consistently you use it the more you will reinforce the keys to accountability.

While all culture starts at the CEO level, the senior leadership team reinforces the behaviors that set culture. If a senior leadership team is well aligned, they will lead in a common manner, amplifying the accountability behaviors with each other and with the organization. By acting the same way on how they lead and how they hold their reports accountable, they mutually strengthen the behaviors and the entire organization quickly understands that these behaviors are “how we operate”. The behaviors become cultural. Likewise, you will never get the accountability culture you desire if the leadership team is not well aligned and acting in unison.

Some of the key accountability behaviors or mechanisms that can be used are the following:

  1. Clarity – in goal setting and expectations as well as in the time, skills, tools and resources require to meet the expectations.
  2. Empowering people to act – providing responsibly for outcomes and the authority to achieve them.
  3. Use routinely scheduled one-to-one meetings with every report at every level – provides a two-way check-in on their progress and provide feedback.
  4. Use routinely scheduled team meetings to check-in as an accountability mechanism, the frequency of your meeting rhythm matters… frequency naturally drives accountability.
  5. Provide rapid positive reinforcement where due.
  6. Use the accountability conversation quickly when anything is not on track.
  7. Align and agree as a leadership team on what behaviors your will all use in a common way to reinforce the accountability behaviors into the organization.

Creating an accountability culture is really about shared norms and behaviors. The key is to be intentional about those behaviors from the very top of the organization and fortifying the common behaviors consistently at every level of the organization.

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Ben Anderson-Ray

Ben Anderson-Ray

Partner and Advisor

Ben Anderson-Ray is a partner with Trinitas Advisors, an executive coaching firm that helps business leaders build the leadership alignment they need to win more, grow faster and succeed longer. Ben can be reached at ben@trinitasadvisors.com.

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