This simple leadership attribute makes an everyday difference in how effectively an organization runs
If I were the CEO of a sizable company and were looking for one leadership attribute to drill down through my organization, it wouldn’t be one of those big highly publicized marquee qualities like, say, strategic thinking or innovation or disruption. No, it would be something much more simple and prosaic. But something that makes a real everyday difference in how efficiently and effectively an organization runs. It would be accountability.
To use a football metaphor, accountability is the blocking and tackling of the management world. It involves setting carefully conceived expectations and goals, and holding employees responsible for meeting them. In essence, it involves making sure your organization gets done what it needs to.
Sound like little more than common sense? Sure it does – but as I often say about the business of management, just because something is common sense doesn’t mean it’s commonly practiced.
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The fact is, managers, even those in senior management, can be surprisingly weak at accountability. Studies confirm this. In one large study reported in Harvard Business Review involving 5,400 high-level managers from U.S., Europe, Asia and Latin America, 46% were rated poorly on the measure “Holds people accountable – firm when they don’t deliver.” In another study from the consultant Towers Watson, only half of the participating companies felt their managers were effective “at working with employees to set appropriate performance goals for individual performance.”
Neither of these results surprise me. My own experience, after 24 years of Fortune 500 management, is that accountability leaves a lot to be desired. Annual employee performance-goal-setting is too often treated as a bureaucratic exercise rather than the critically important business function it is. Likewise, we don’t spend nearly enough time closely managing to the goals we’ve established. (And naturally if these goals aren’t well-conceived, the performance management process is flawed from the outset.)
Accountability is hardly rocket science: It simply involves making sure people do what they say they’re going to. But it does involve conflict and backbone in holding them to it. And conflict is unpleasant. Most people – and yes even many managers – if given a choice, avoid it. But that’s not the role of management; doing the job right requires getting the results your company needs. Even if that means having hard, tense performance conversations.
Accountability is the below-the-radar lifeblood of a well-run company. As noted at the outset, if I were a CEO (of something other than my one-person consultancy) I’d insist on it. I’d make it a top priority for every manager. Blocking and tackling. Nothing fancy. But operationally vital. In words often attributed to Thomas Edison: “Strategy without execution is hallucination.”
To return to my football example:
Without solid blocking, your quarterback won’t be protected.
Without effective tackling, your offense won’t have much chance to get back on the field.
Without firm accountability, your management won’t get the results it needs.