What do leaders want more than almost anything else (but often inhibit without meaning to)?
The big A -- Accountability. Nothing frustrates executives more than team members who don’t deliver as promised. It makes perfect sense that you want to be able to count on your people. You want them to take full responsibility, have contingency plans, and be innovative in finding workarounds when needed. And you certainly don’t want to keep a list of everything you’ve delegated -- just in case they don’t deliver. (Am I right?) Read on, and I’ll tell you how to get it.
Unfortunately, in a well-meaning effort to make sure that “everything is getting done as it should be,” many leaders stumble headlong into an easy but counterproductive trap: Micromanaging. I’m not talking here about managing an underperforming employee -- that’s entirely different.
Micromanagement is the leadership equivalent of helicopter parenting. Being overly involved, especially in decisions that rightfully belong to members of your leadership team, or maybe someone on their team. Nothing ruins accountability like micromanaging.
Why? Because micromanaging telegraphs a lack of trust. Telling someone how they should do their job, even if it used to be your job, usurps their authority. Overriding your direct report’s (rightful) decision undermines their authority. And without authority, how can you expect them to embrace accountability?
Based on my experience, all executives grapple with this unholy tension. They want their team members to have an ownership mindset, be innovative, and take responsibility for driving success, finding solutions, and making the right decisions. AND they want to make sure everything is being done “the best way.” No mistakes. No misjudgments. And often, no “doing it differently than I would have.” You don’t mean this, really, right? But inside you isn’t there a little voice that sometimes thinks “I could just do this better/faster myself if only I had more time.”
That’s the trick, isn’t it? Because the higher you rise in the executive ranks, the less time you have to “do stuff.” And the more you must be a leader, not a manager.
In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown defines a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” That’s you, right?
As an executive, you are accountable for building a healthy organization where a group of very talented people work well together, achieve goals, and deliver important value. It’s not to do the work that others should be accountable for.
So you aren’t in charge of marketing -- your VP of Marketing is. You may wish to be consulted, you may wish to share your past experiences, offer guidance or educate them. But if you regularly overrule them, make decisions on their behalf, or otherwise take over their work, you are undermining accountability.
Whoa! I hear you -- What are you supposed to do if you don’t trust them or think they’re capable? That’s a performance issue, and this doesn’t apply if you are managing an underperforming employee. You must start with having a capable person in the role (you still might not like everything they do, but you trust their capability).
If your team is capable in their roles, this should be a no-brainer. But it may not be, especially if they've been in their roles for a while, and haven’t kept up with changes in their area of expertise. In that case, see “underperforming employee,” above.
Focus on the measurable outcomes for which they are accountable. Include clarifying who has decision authority for what level(s) of decisions. Agree on milestones or checkpoints, and what you’ll review together at these checkpoints. Establish responsibility for scheduling checkpoints, and for initiating communication at an agreed-to cadence.
Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism and Effortless, describes a “high-trust agreement” as one in which everyone understands:
He adds, “with this type of clarity, team members begin to feel a sense of ownership and empowerment that leads to more initiative and innovation.” And I’ll add, without this type of clarity, you won’t get accountability.
Take a breath, my friend. I am not saying stop giving feedback, or checking their thinking (or math), or abdicate your responsibility. What I am saying is that if you find areas about which you’re concerned, take a coaching approach. Briefly, this means you’re asking questions (with a tone of curiosity, not criticism/blame) that prompt them to think further about whatever you’ve asked. By all means, give useful, actionable feedback. But don’t do their work. That’s their job.
Obviously, do this as outlined in your high-trust agreement. If they miss sending an update, point it out. If they aren’t fulfilling their role, let them know. If expectations or standards aren’t being met, tell them. In-person/video and with specifics. Then reward success in a meaningful way.
If you’ve ever said (or thought) that your team members aren’t taking enough initiative, they’re waiting to be told what to do, they aren’t making decisions well or quickly enough, see this as a sign. Stop and evaluate what you (or your systems) have been doing that’s eroding accountability. Ask what they need from you to step up their accountability, and deliver as promised. Coach and develop them where skills are lacking.