Establish Accountability

February 27, 2008

Q: I have four people reporting to me, and I feel like none of them are accountable, there is no accountability. What can I do to make them more accountable?

A: Establishing accountability is a common challenge for entrepreneurs and managers. I suggest using a process I learned from a good friend, Henry Chidgy, who once ran several railroad and diamond companies. Henry emphasized the use of monthly performance reviews — yes, monthly! These reviews, however, need not and should not be complex; they work best when kept extremely simple. Maximum accountability is the main goal.

Here’s how the process of accountability works.

First, each employee is responsible to bring you all information for his or her review; you should not provide anything. The day before meeting, the employee brings you a list of five or six key objectives, detailing his or her progress on each. During the review on the following day, you simply assess the data and discuss how performance compares with objectives. Depending on the employee, this can be a short 30 minutes process, or as long as 2 hours. (Tip: When an employee comes into your office, he or he should always bring a pen and paper and be required to take detailed minutes of the meeting. Immediately afterward, the employee needs to make a photocopy to go in your file. The reason for this is two-fold: first, the notes allow you to verify the individual’s understanding of the review; second, the notes increase consistency from one review to the next.)

There are three key questions to ask during the meeting to build accountability:

1) How well did you meet the objectives we mutually agreed on?
2) Choose one of the following:

a) If you are ahead, how did you get ahead?
b) If you are behind, how did you get behind?
c) If you are on target, is there anything I need to know?

i) If yes, discuss further
ii) If no, extol the virtues of coming in one target.

3) If you are not meeting your objectives, what is the root cause?

The third question should trigger a discussion, in which you remain objective. If you can accept the employee’s explanation of the “root cause,” you allow it to be the actual root cause. If you cannot accept this explanation, you become the employee’s coach, helping him or her better understand the situation. Refrain from providing solutions; the employee needs to do this. If you tell rather than ask, you will not have accountable employees. Be patient – having employees solve their own problems is the key to building the accountability you want!

Once the employee develops a solution, I suggest coaching him or her through the following steps to drive accountability:

1) Establish an action plan of accountability.
2) Establish a deadline for implementing the action plan.
3) Schedule another meeting immediately after the deadline.

With difficult employees, you may need to increase the pressure, particularly if they consistently fail to meet goals. Pressure can be increased, simply by increasing the frequency of reviews. The process can occur every two weeks, every week, or even daily, if needed. It is unlikely that daily review will continue long term, as an employee at this stage is usually on the way out!

The key is to remain “on board” with the employee, instead of playing “the heavy.” Let the progress reports do the hard work. An added benefit of the reports is that no goal will be overlooked for long, without action being taken. Even if you feel like a micromanager, remember you merely coaching, not giving answers.

Some may ask, “If I manage like this, how will I ever get my own work done?” If this describes you, you need to re-examine your role as a leader. This is what leaders do. You must make time to enforce accountability, so that the team can achieve a common vision. If your employees are not accountable, you will be doing other people’s work for the rest of your career! Remember: If you practice this management style consistently, most of your employees will require very little time. Who knows. They may even become your apostles of accountability, replicating your style throughout the organization!

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