“Nine-tenths of life’s serious controversies        come from  misunderstanding.” --Louis Brandeis

“When is it no longer my responsibility to get people to complete their assignments ... and where does their responsibility to perform begin?” a North Bay CEO asked me recently.

“Your responsibility never ends ... and neither does theirs,” I said. “Your job is to work tirelessly to build a culture of accountability so that your team understands that being held accountable is the cornerstone of a strong, successful organization. It is not punitive.”

In this column recently, we’ve discussed personal accountability as the “singular touchstone of professional success over which we have the greatest control.” We’ve also discussed the After Action Report, a valuable teaching tool that reinforces accountability and inspires a culture of continuous improvement. A culture of accountability might be seen as the thread that connects our personal accountability – walking the talk – and the After Action Report – talking the walk. But what is it, really?

In simple terms, accountability is a willingness to accept responsibility for our actions. It’s being reliable and making certain that the commitments we make, from the perspective of others, have been kept. For a culture of accountability to prevail, each of us must make certain that those commitments are honest – and honored.

At the core of a culture of accountability is the requirement to set clear expectations. It’s not enough to say, “we’re expecting you to do a good job,” or “we’re counting on you to deliver the results we need” because those declarations lack specificity. The accountability process must begin with clear expectations so that everyone knows what “good job” and “needed results” mean. If you’ve ever sat down with your boss (or your shareholders or directors) during your performance review, you’ve probably often wondered why the expectations he thinks you missed weren’t very clear in the first place.

One time-honored tool to keep in your pocket is the S.M.A.R.T. acronym – Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Realistic and Trackable. In a culture of accountability, it’s OK to say “After we agree on an outline not later than noon on Tuesday, I’ll need the final report on my desk by 4 p.m. on Thursday.” There’s no doubt about the objective, the timeline or the intended result and it’s clear who owns the assignment. Applying the S.M.A.R.T guideline to every objective ensures that your expectations are unequivocally clear.

One proven enemy of this culture is a victimization mentality. There seem to be mitigating circumstances in everything we do, but a culture of accountability stresses, “what else can I do” instead of rationalizing “why it can’t be done.” You’ll find the victim’s mentality wherever you find people justifying their actions, excusing their ineffectiveness or rationalizing poor performance. Be eternally vigilant about victim’s stories, how circumstances prevented them from achieving the objective. Look for those who always want to know, “what else can I do?”

When people don’t meet clear expectations, ask them what they meant when they said “they were going to get that done”, or “what should I expect the next time you say you’ll get something done?” If it continues, it’s OK to say, “I’m losing confidence because” to reinforce your dissatisfaction and to pronounce the accountability bargain as broken. Do it productively and in a positive manner, but in all cases, do it so that the expectations contract you have set is clear and unequivocal.

As for that line between expectation and performance? A bright line only exists when good leaders follow S.M.A.R.T guidelines and set clear expectations and timelines. Once you’ve done that successfully, you’ve established a baseline from which you can effectively deal with an individual who fails to meet these objectives. In a culture of accountability, you can easily differentiate unacceptable employee performance from a failure to set clear expectations, and confidently make appropriate adjustments.

This is an ongoing process that is essential to achieve an accountable organization that creates a culture of trust, integrity and focus … and gets things done.



Lary Kirchenbauer is the president of Exkalibur Advisors Inc., providing practical business strategies for family and other privately owned businesses in the middle market. Exkalibur works closely with senior executives and their businesses at the intersection of leadership and business strategy. Lary also hosts a CEO Round Table for leaders of middle market companies in the North Bay. Please visit www.exkalibur.com for a library of valuable resources, articles and insights or join the Exkalibur fan page on Facebook.