By Tony Mulkern

Discussion about accountability is as much a part of executive conversations as goals, objectives, standards, and bottom line.  It is also seems among the most difficult concepts to define or make stick.  Patrick Lencioni, author of the outstanding book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, considers one of the most difficult tasks for members of an executive team is to hold one anther accountable.

Of course, he is right.  I have seen some senior teams set measurable objectives year after year, with few or any of these targets being reached.  Often there had not even been much effort.  No one wanted to make a fuss or embarrass anyone else, and the whole thing was allowed to pass.  Of course, no one would seriously recommend that a business operate without clear direction and objectives.  Yet in the absence of accountability, the whole exercise of setting objectives is an exercise in futility.

In seeking a definition of the term, Webster is not much  help, with phrases such as the “state of being accountable or responsible.” Unfortunately, Lencioni is only slightly more helpful when he says, “I define accountability as the willingness of team members to remind one another when they are not living up to the performance standards of the group.”  If being willing to remind is all there is to it, my experience suggests that this promotes a culture of mediocrity.  So let me suggest a fuller, more practical definition and then talk about how we can get over the common inhibitions about making it stick.

To be accountable means that one has committed to a specific course of action or outcome, within a defined time frame and other metrics, and thereby has an obligation to accomplish it.  The commitment involves a promise, and failing to achieve it involves failing to keep one’s word.  As such it is appropriate that others who have been counting on this outcome ask for and receive an account of one’s performance, both in regard to progress toward achievement, and explanations of outcomes.  Because one has given one’s word, one has an obligation to alert others to whom one has given one’s word if it appears the target cannot be reached, or reached on time.  Others have a right to expect advance notice, good reasons for the anticipated failure, and an alternative date or target.

For accountability to be real and not just verbal, success or failure in honoring one’s commitments must have consequences.  Consequences for success include praise, gratitude, recognition, rewards, celebrations, promotions, bonuses, raises, increased levels of responsibility and freedom to act, etc.  Consequences of failure include team disappointment; recognition that you let the team down; tough conversations or “post-mortems” about what happened; failure to obtain bonuses, raises or promotions; erosion of trust; limited opportunities for desirable assignments; and possibly discipline or termination.

In short, accountability involves commitments, promises, obligations, rights, and consequences.  We are speaking in the ethical and organizational senses, of course, not necessarily the legal one.  These sound like tough, serious words, but no one ever said building and running a successful business was an easy thing to do, full of unrelieved frivolity.  Lest anyone thinks this means you should run off and acquire a reputation for being a “hard ass,” let’s first take a look at what is required to establish a culture of accountability:

  • Start with Commitment and the Freedom to Say “No.”  Few of us feel much obligation to achieve objectives to which we have made no commitment.  If you want members of your team to really mean it when they say “yes” to a goal or objective, they must have the freedom to say “no.”  Some corporate cultures do not tolerate “no.”  The outcome is that everyone strives to look good by saying “yes” to the boss, knowing full well that they will not be alone when they fail to deliver.  “Overcommitment” is usually not a sign of intense dedication but of no authentic commitments at all.  Real commitment also includes the freedom to negotiate the specifics of the objective, in regard to time, other metrics, and resources needed to get the job done.


  • Expect What You Inspect—and Support.  An on-going scorecard, dashboard, or some kind of monitoring system is essential if you are to stay informed of team members’ progress.  If you do not stay informed, you send the message that you do not care.  If you do not seem to care, time and attention will be spent on other things.  When progress is not on schedule, don’t merely ask, “How come?” or “Why not?” which can be intimidating.  Say instead, “Looks like you are getting behind, and you know we are counting on you.  What can I do to help?”  Also, when creative and intelligent risks are taken without success, know when to help others learn from the failures and to pick up and try again.


  • Eliminate Wiggle Room.  For example, you are expecting an important proposal on your desk by 10 a.m. Friday, as a vice president has promised. She delivers it alright, on time, in the form of a first draft, leaving a lot more work still to be done.  You are disappointed and show it, while she feels you are an ungrateful ogre after the long hours she worked to make good on her commitment.  If what you really had in mind was, “A final version, approved both by you and other senior team members, professionally formatted and bound,” then this is what you should have said.  The latter would likely require multiple drafts, several meetings, and perhaps an extended deadline.  But there would be mutually understood accountability.


  • Keep Your Word.  The culture and values of an entrepreneurial company are set from the top.  Make only promises you intend to keep, and never break one without sincere apologies and taking responsibility.  In Good to Great, Jim Collins notes that in great companies when things are going well, the CEO looks out the window.  When they are going badly he or she looks in the mirror.  No one on your team will hold himself or others more accountable than you hold yourself.  An added benefit of creating a culture of promise-keeping is that it eventually encompasses customers who come to see that the company stands by its products, services, and promises.  What a competitive advantage that is!


  • Don’t Settle for Dreams and Wishes.  Many objectives are never achieved because no one ever planned to achieve them, literally, even if there were good intentions.  Action planning is the most tedious part of annual objective-setting and therefore usually neglected.  But an objective without a plan is just a dream.  And dreams are not real commitments or promises at all, just wishes disguised as such.  Plans tell you whether the “yes” is lip service or sincerely given.  They provide the opportunity to coach on more effective steps, as well as provide a system for monitoring progress.  Show me a senior team that routinely misses targets, and I will show you one with objectives but no concrete, written plans to support them.


  • Don’t Turn Your Team into a Fight Club.  No CEO would deliberately set up a situation where one team member’s success in achieving his objective almost ensures failure of another member to achieve hers.  Deliberate or not, this is frequently what happens, according to an article in the December 2006 Harvard Business Review   entitled, “Managing the Right Tensions.”  (The November 2006 Executive Compass discusses this ground-breaking article.)   You cannot have everything at once, and to attempt to do so does not create an image of a bold leader but of one who cannot make the tough choices about priorities and stick to them.


  • Hold Your Team Accountable for Holding Each Other Accountable.  An implicit agreement among poorly performing teams is often something like this: “If you don’t embarrass me when I fail to deliver, I won’t embarrass you when you do.”  As CEO or executive in charge of a team, you should not be the only one to ask tough questions.  Be prepared to confront those who shrink from confronting.  Require team members to take their complaints to each other and not just come complaining to you.  Ask team members to speak about the impact upon their objectives of someone else’s failure to deliver.  Likewise, expect them to be among the first to congratulate each other upon success—and to offer to help those who are struggling.

While establishing and implementing accountability can be seen as the “hard” side of management, the upside is unlimited.  It establishes a culture of trust, openness, interdependence, self-confidence, achievement, appreciation, and energetic celebrations.  One of the greatest motivators for workers at any level is an environment where everyone is heard, keeps their word, is constantly coached to grow in competence and confidence, and enjoys the rewards of accomplishing one success after another.  A leader who can foster that is one that will engender deep loyalty and extraordinary commitment.