Good Leaders Are Accountable

Accountability means answering or accounting for your actions and results. It is something every leader wants more of from his or her team. Accountability is like rain—everyone knows they need it, but no one wants to get wet. It’s easy to talk about how “they” need to be more accountable, but it can be uncomfortable when we apply it to ourselves. When is the last time you heard someone say, “I really need to be more accountable for my results?” It doesn’t happen very often. Yet we get more accountability from our teams by being accountable to them. It’s a two-way street.

Although almost every organization I have worked with struggles to some extent with accountability, retailers tend to do a better job of boosting accountability than most. A primary reason is the specificity of their performance metrics and expectations. Mike Barnes is a client and Group CEO for Signet Jewelers, a retail jeweler in the United States and United Kingdom operating 1,900 stores with 18,000 employees under the names Kay Jewelers, Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, J.B. Robinson, and H. Samuel, to name just a few. Barnes expressed his perspective on accountability this way: “We have to own our performance every day regardless of any ‘noise’ that might surround that performance. I think of the phrase, ‘Don’t talk to me about the storm; just bring in the ships.’ We have to have personal and joint accountability for our performance, whether it’s great or not, even when we feel that circumstances out of our control affected the performance.”

The bottom line is that accountability means letting your actions rise above your excuses.

At its core, accountability is really about specificity—specific expectations, specific consequences, and specific language. Take a moment now to reflect on the performance of each team member. Think of the lowest-performing team member. By default, that person’s level of performance sets the standard for acceptable performance on your team—it’s the performance level that you as the leader allow. It’s a very public and visible standard regardless of how much we might want to sweep it under the rug or turn a blind eye to it. Winning leaders realize that they owe it to their team to always raise that standard, and it can be done by getting specific. Ambiguity is the Achilles’ heel of accountability, but specificity enables you to raise the standards of your team’s performance.

Specific Consequences

To boost accountability, broaden your definition of consequences. We tend to think of consequences with respect to the short term—the immediate impact of our performance (positive or negative). That’s the easy part of defining specific consequences. But it still leaves a lot to the imagination.

We need to help employees see and understand the longer term, the downstream impact of their performances on team results, on the organization, on customers, on shareholders, and ultimately on themselves.  When employees see how their actions help or hinder each of their various constituents, the personal consequences of their performances become evident.

External performance is ultimately a reflection of internal commitment.

The personal impact on an employee might include opportunities for more (or fewer if the performance is substandard) promotions, development opportunities, exposure to executives, public recognition, responsibilities, flexibility in the job, oversight of others, ownership of projects, and/or financial rewards. It is fair and appropriate to bring personal performance full circle back to these consequences.

My clients have found it useful to follow the circle of consequences with respect to their own leadership behaviors, particularly when they face tough situations. It illuminates the impact of their actions (or lack thereof) on various constituents and usually moves them from choosing avoidance to choosing courage.

Even on the most productive teams, there will be instances in which we have to muster leadership courage to address performance problems and ensure appropriate consequences. Earlier I mentioned Elaine Agather, head of J.P. Morgan Private Bank’s South Region. She is a beloved and direct leader who understands the big picture of consequences as it relates to her role as a leader. Agather states, “The team is bigger than any issue at hand. The leader has a personal accountability to the team to have tough conversations and to occasionally make tough decisions with individuals.”  Winning leaders such as Agather choose their team over personal discomfort. “It reminds us of our son’s former football coach, Chris Cunningham, who would preach this same leadership concept of “team over me” with this visual (big team over little me):

As with expectations, when we specifically explain the consequences of individual performance up front, we minimize the tough conversations we need to have later on.



Here are 8 things you can do to motivate your team:

Look in the mirror.
Are you waking up with enthusiasm and excitement about your work? Have you set goals for yourself and your team? Or are you just punching a time clock like the rest of them and its all you can do to not fall asleep with boredom or scream out loud with frustration. What do you need to become more excited and enthused? If you are not excited and energetic, it is not fair to expect your team to bring the same to the table.

Take a retreat.
Step away from the work environment for a day or if possible, two. Go to a 2-day management seminar or retreat and re-fuel, re-group and re-energize so that you can bring a fresh attitude and approach back to your team. Many leaders are suffering burnout and are not able apply creative solutions. Signs of burnout are: lethargy, apathy and negativity – just to name a few.

Take a pulse.
Do an assessment of your team dynamics. List all of your team members on a piece of paper and beside each person’s name indicate the level of performance you feel they are currently at, what you feel they are capable of and identify where the gap in performance exists. Then think about how you have approached this person in the past with regard to performance improvement and what you can do differently this time to have them hear you in a new and different way. 

Tell them what you want.
Have a team meeting and tell your team that you want to brainstorm ideas on how to create higher levels of motivation and morale. Be willing to hear all ideas and as a group have them prioritize the ideas and then delegate the action items. Be willing to do something yourself to show your commitment to the goal of higher motivation and morale. 

Do a 360.
It is a brave leader who willingly has his/her teams assess them as leaders. The 360 degree performance evaluation system does just that. It allows employees to evaluate their leaders and to provide sound feedback on how their leader can improve. Tell your team you want their opinions and input on how you can be a better leader. Be open and willing to hear the good with the bad and sometimes the ugly. Then do something with the feedback- communicate back to your team what you are going to do as a result of the feedback.

Coach regularly.
Statistics show that leaders who have a coaching plan in place for their employees have less absenteeism, higher productivity and overall higher morale. It makes sense doesn’t it? Spend quality one-on-one time with your employees on a regular and rotating basis and they begin to perform at higher levels due to ongoing personal attention and validation. Coaching prevents bad behavior and negative attention methods by employees.

Praise in public- criticize in private.
There is nothing that replaces pure praise. Employees surveyed stated that they value recognition above pay raises by their leaders. We often undervalue the power of praise and we may even feel that if they are doing a good job they should know that we think they are great. Some leaders feel that giving praise all the time is hard work and that employees requiring it are high maintenance. The rules of giving effective praise are: praise specific behaviors or results, be sincere, make it timely when the event happens and when possible make it public.

Be a psychologist.
Adapt to the different personalities of your team. You already know your people to a high degree and yet we tend to overlook the unique emotional needs of each individual. Treat them as they want to be treated and be willing to see things from their perspective. Openly communicate and be willing to share yourself with your team. You can’t be everyone’s friend, however you can be accessible, open and trustworthy. Teams who have an understanding and compassionate leader tend to be more loyal and can weather ongoing change at higher levels.

Often we feel that we just need to throw money or perks towards our teams to keep them happy. This is an erroneous belief and it has been found that truly what people want is to have open communication, straightforward and direct leadership and an easygoing environment to work within. Sounds good doesn’t it? 

The rewards of leadership are many and we can have greater satisfaction, less stress and a sense of accomplishment when we look at what we can do to improve our team’s performance and happiness on the job.