How to build accountability

Written by Greig Clark

In my career, I’ve discovered a couple of ways to become familiar with red ink. First is to run a business that loses money. The second is to write for a tough editor of a national business magazine.

My last column covered “Connecting the Dots” between strategy and action. My first draft came back covered in the red script my esteemed handler prefers for his critiques. His key frustration: “Greig, I’m pushing hard on accountability because quarterly or weekly meetings [to turn strategy into action] sound good in principle, but often they’re a waste of time because there is no followup and there are no repercussions for inaction.” So, I promised that in this column I’d share some tried and true ways to hold people accountable.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for lack of accountability. But there is silver buckshot that will kill—or, at least, seriously wound—the problem.

Over time, I’ve found that the issue is rarely with individuals; instead, it’s embedded in the company culture. We have all seen the Unaccountable Organization. Meetings don’t start (or end) on time. Deadlines are not met. Everyone feels they are so busy that their colleagues will understand if they miss their deadlines. Eventually, no one counts on anything from anyone. Even promises to colleagues have a built-in escape clause: “I’ll do my best to get that to you by Friday.” Misses are met with a knowing sigh, implying, “That’s just the way it is around here.” And managers do nothing about it.

That may be OK in a government bureaucracy. It’s not okay when you’re competing in the marketplace. You need to kill the Culture of Best Intentions and create one of High Performance. Here’s how:

Step One: Set clear expectations. A good manager wraps up a meeting by getting each person to summarize their deliverables. A deadly error I see in many managers is their failure to ferociously guard those 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to review the what, by when and by whom. Document and circulate everyone’s action items on a single page for review at your next “touch point” with your team.

Step Two: Do the followup. You must hold a followup meeting, whether in person or by phone. If someone has given you a date to complete a task, mark the due date in your calendar or put it in a daily “tickler file.” (Look that up at Wikipedia.org.) The key to selling is to make the call and ask for the order. It’s no different with accountability.

Here’s a lesson from personal experience: Whenever I find myself not taking Step 2, it’s because my expectations are messy, I am doing such a bad job meeting my own objectives that it is hard to press others or I am afraid of the next and final step in the process.

Step Three: Give praise or inflict pain. Steve Lebner, my first business prof at the University of Western Ontario, had a wonderfully colourful way of making his points that helped them stick. On the subject of accountability, he said effective managers are good at dishing out KITAs—kicks in the ass. They can be positive KITAs, such as sincere praise from the manager, high-fives from the team or dinner out for the top performer. But sometimes you have to dish out a little discomfort with negative KITAs: Why was the objective missed? What can be done better next time? Where do you need help?

Montreal Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau once had his penalty killers watch 64 replays of a bad goal they’d allowed until, together, they figured out a foolproof way to make sure they didn’t give up a similar goal again. Winning is tough. It requires holding yourself and others accountable for what you and they are supposed to do.

And, yes, there must be consequences for those who continually miss. At College Pro Painters, we sometimes used the Excuse Board, on which people’s excuses for missing goals were recorded. (When excuses are made public and indelible, it gets tough for that frequently tardy employee to continually write that “traffic was unusually heavy” as a good reason for being late.) Qualification for bonuses is the next-level consequence. The next step up is a one-on-one development discussion with the employee’s supervisor (“How can we help you improve?”). Finally comes the career discussion: “You are constantly missing your commitments and letting down your team, so, how can we help you find another role to which you are better suited?” As my old mentor Sandy Anderson used to remind me in my College Pro days: “Even with an 18-year-old rookie manager, you don’t do them any favours by letting them off the hook.”

So, do yourself and your team a favour: Hold people accountable, and don’t let them off the hook. It will be awkward at times, but it will help you avoid a lot of red ink—because when accountability breaks down, so does the company.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com