The Problem with Accountability

The Problem with Accountability
— Or, hey, it’s not my fault!

I didn’t have enough time.         If only I had more…
That’s not my job.                     Someone else will do it.
I don’t know how.                     I don’t think the boss said/meant that. 

The list is endless. The bottom line… It’s not my fault!

And therein lies the crux of the problem: Accountability isn’t about blame, it’s about ownership.

Don’t give me crap about my mask…

We recently conducted a workshop on Leadership Accountability. Powerful, uncomfortable stuff. People squirming in chairs, eyes shifting around, not making eye contact… even being accountable for understanding accountability was difficult.

Damn. How’d we get here?

First, let’s discuss what Accountability is in the leadership context, what it isn’t, and what it looks like when worn correctly.

(These are my definitions, so just bear with me. If you want to use your definitions, write your own article.)

“Leadership Accountability is being responsible for the results of your decisions or actions without demand or force and prepared to explain them when you are asked.


Like owning a car. No one blames you for owning a car (well, some of you may push that a bit), you just own it. If it’s clean, that’s on you. If it runs good, that’s on you. If the oil isn’t changed regularly (you know who you are), that’s on you as well.

In other words, you’re completely accountable for that car. You aren’t to blame for the car, you’re simply accountable.

So, think ownership.

We keep using “responsibility” when discussing Accountability… are they the same thing?

No. Here’s something to chew on to distinguish between Responsibility and Accountability:

  • Responsibility is taking ownership of activities.  A person who completes the tasks required for their job or role is responsible.
  • Accountability is taking ownership of results.  A person who knows what needs to be accomplished and does what it takes to get the right results is accountable.

We’re responsible for tasks, accountable for results. No, that’s not just a play on words, either. It brings us to another point: Accountability is one-deep.

Many people can own responsibilities, but…
Accountability is one-deep

Many managers can be responsible for submitting their numbers to a Director. That director, however, is accountable for that report. If one of those managers doesn’t do their job, that director is still accountable for the report.

Only one person is ultimately accountable for any result, though many may have a responsibility to assist.

Now, just to mess with your head… that same manager may have had an accountability to submit that report, but it’s only an accountability for that manager – the director still has overall accountability for the report.

Things that make you go “hmmmm…”

To further unpack this, we must understand that Accountability doesn’t mean punishment. Accountability is a willingness to accept responsibility for our own actions. We too often use Accountability and “holding someone accountable” as negative events. They aren’t, when done correctly.

First, you own accountability yourself. No one can “hold” you accountable for anything. They can force, coerce or threaten you to get you to do something, our even punish you when you don’t; but remember our definition, being forced doesn’t count.

What we can do, however, is assist others and ask for help ourselves.

We can help others with their accountability by doing what we’re supposed to do, respectfully reminding, and helping out wherever we can.

We can also ask others to help us with our accountabilities. Give people permission to be our eyes, ears, Jiminy Cricket or whatever floats your boat to help us remember and follow through. It’s not forced if you asked for help – it’s simply smart and resourceful.

So, how do we foster better accountability within our hallowed halls? It’s not hard, if we can get past the blaming game…

  • Clear communications. People know what’s expected and why it’s necessary.
  • Meaningful Consequences. Focus on positive consequences, negative/punishment is indicative of a failure somewhere. (this will be another article – it’s a big deal)
  • Model accountability. Leaders set the tone. Speak accountability; demonstrate accountability. “Do as I say, not as I do” simply will not work here.

The “Model Accountability” deserves more info… we model Accountability when we accept and embrace our own Accountability. Words like “I was wrong,” “I made a mistake,” “That’s on me,” and other similar statements imply accountability.

Think about it – openly accepting accountability is generally a positive thing, and has a constructive impact on others.

And be prepared to explain why, because that’s how we learn. Use reasons, not excuses. I could write a boring treatise on the difference, but I’ll use my simple mind’s clarification:

  • Reasons include my action or inaction as the center of the failure,
  • Excuses use another person, inanimate object or intangible as the center/cause of failure.

Give reasons, not excuses. We all learn, grow and improve when doing so.

I’ve crammed four workshop hours into this brief article, and those four hours could easily have been two days. Accountability, though simple, has the constant complexity of people’s emotions and fear. Makes for some heady stuff but hoped to give you a brief overview here.

Happy to share more if you like, just ask, comment or complain and we can discuss.

Fire Ready, Aim – Using Tracer Rounds in Decision-Making

Recently, I mentioned the concept of tracer rounds in a LinkedIn post. I received a surprising handful of emails asking to flesh that out a bit, so abra-cadabra, here we are. I think the concept of tracer rounds fits today’s decision-making model perfectly.

Ready, aim, fire!

Even though it was used in the movie Ben Hur (along with that other period gaffe, the red sports car), the phrase Ready, Aim, Fire! was probably made popular in the 18th century sometime to help infantrymen with musket practice and dueling colleagues to be civil with their killing..

Think about it… “Get ready,” means just that – assume posture and preparedness; “Aim” is to align the weapon’s barrel with the target; and “Fire!” means to set fire to the musket powder, sending a musket ball downrange toward the intended target.

Of course, it was also used in those unsavory firing squads, but the original principal held true. Get ready, take aim, and fire.

And in all fairness, this was a practical analogy for business decision-making for decades. Get ready (identify the problem); Aim (use available information to make a decision); Fire (execute the decision).

Makes perfect sense. Except we would usually screw up the order of things.

  • Sometimes it was “Ready, aim, aim, aim…” as we kicked the can down the road with cowardly stalling tactics, always “fixin’ to do something (Texas vernacular), irritating every competent employee within shooting distance. Too often, NO decision became THE decision.
  • Other times it was “Ready, fire, fire, fire…” as we made rapidly successive decisions void of any appreciable thought, knee-jerking our way to abysmal failure and more frustrated employees who had to clean up our collective messes.
  • Then, there was “Ready, fire, aim…” This one got an unwarranted bad rap. Too often it was considered the impulsive act of a manager not needing (or wanting) input from anyone else; s/he had all the information needed to do whatever s/he wanted. I think it was wrongly placed since likely, that manager never did take aim. At least not with any appreciable thought.

Ready, fire, aim actually works pretty well, as long as we use a feedback loop to keep it going. Something like Ready, fire, aim, fire, aim, fire… where each successive “Fire!” acts a decision-maker’s tracer rounds (tracers). Used in machine guns, tracers allowed gunners to see the ending point of the fired round, and adjust their future shooting based on that new information.

So, my knee-jerk friends or subscribers are doing high-fives, my thoughtful cerebral buddies are muttering “he’s a nut job” or something similar. Hear me out – there’s room for all in this thinking.

Think about it:

  • Ready, aim, fire was great with static targets, allowing simple information additions to increase likelihood of successful decision-making. More information = better decisions. The problem today is that those damned problems just won’t sit still; they move all over the place.
  • Moving targets are different. Information valuable when target is sitting at one place may be totally irrelevant when the target moves to a new location. We need a better way to utilize existing information to hit a moving target. Decision-making super-fast, yes, but armed with additional, valuable information.
  • Enter Tracer Rounds. Tracer decisions allow us to decide quickly, using existing information to zero in as best as possible with current information and target coordinates. Then, after we fire (make an initial decision), we can adjust based on the windage and elevation (success or failure) of that first decision. A little higher, to the left, a few yards further, etc. Rinse and repeat.

Modern problems require modern solutions. “Ready, aim, fire…” or it’s decision-making cousin, “Think, decide, act…” assumes that decisions once made stay made. Correctly and without the need for deviation. The problem is, it’s 2020, and that just ain’t so anymore.

The challenges leaders face today are seldom static – in fact, even the phrase “moving target” doesn’t always do them justice. Given our targets are moving, it seems our decision-making should be equally fluid and dynamic.

Many decisions are only “good” for an instant – a snapshot in time – before we need to make another decision. It doesn’t mean our first decision was necessarily wrong, only that its shelf-life for success had expired.

Think tracer rounds.

So, What do we do NOW?

And what is this “normal” you speak of…?

Let us agree these are crazy times. If nothing else, that should transcend political, geographic, or ideological lines. We are, without a doubt, in crazy times.

But what does that mean. I mean, to those of us in leadership, what does this all mean? Do we do more of the same? Do we need to do things differently? Do we need to poll the masses for the proper course?

What’s it all about, Alfie?? Sorry, got a bit carried away there; that movie was even before my time…

Seriously, though, these are unusual times. It is easy to become overwhelmed with all the things being thrown at us, and just as easy to forget that leadership is a skill, a learned skill, and it has not changed much in a couple thousand years. It certainly has not been by changed into something entirely different because of this pandemic.

Having said that, our leadership emphasis may change, depending on circumstances, environment, or even demographics. One day communication wins the day; the next day, resolving conflict is front and center. Both are leadership skills we should all possess but can become more or less urgent based on the times. So, what about now? Well, let us look at where you may want to focus your attention today. Here are some leadership tenets that are more important today due to the craziness of this pandemic:

  1. Lead by example – a positive example. By this I mean you should be certain to walk the talk; demonstrate you are taking the same hits as your staff. If there are sacrifices, yours come first, and subsequent events are shared among all.
  2. Be you. Even if you may not be all that great. Genuineness trumps contrived or opaque. Aggressive transparency is a virtue right now. Few secrets, no cliques, and display some vulnerability in your leadership behavior.
  3. Demonstrate empathy. Be nice. Don’t lead with “because I said so.” Be nice. Calm voices. Phrase your needs as a question, not a demand. Frequently ask about personal situations, challenges, and status. Demonstrate empathy, and realize you probably have a little more time to deal with some weirdness than you previously had. It is just courtesy. Be nice.

Now those three above are good, maybe even great (if I do say so myself). But how can we manifest these things? Apply them? Actually do something right now that represents them?

How about:

  • Never mention sacrifices without including your own. True, sometimes the relative differences are meaningful (10% reduction of a $1M salary may not immediately hurt as much as 10% of a $50K salary) but do it anyways. It shows that you are part of it, even if people roll their eyes a bit.
  • Check in regularly, and on a schedule. Employees need to know pre-determined opportunities to consult with you, where they can share concerns (work and personal) and ask questions. And do not forget to share back. Strangely enough, the more you share, the more others will share with you.
  • Do not rely on text, email, and chat alone. It is not enough, and 100% inadequate for anything negative, critical, or correcting.
  • You are now part of the personal support group for every employee in your charge, like it or not. They will look to you regarding how to act, react and behave to changes and/or crises. Ask how they are doing (frequently), get status updates, offer resources, listen intently, explain your feelings, etc.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Do not let assumptions grow into rumors, that grow into unchallenged fact. Examine resentment and malcontent behavior quickly. Remember that you are on-stage, all the time. All eyes are on you. Words, behaviors, body language, all of that. Meaning can be derived from the color toothpaste you use, so be mindful.
  • Encourage Innovation. It need not be a brand-new invention, or some uber-styled disruption. It may mean to simply create something new out of the old ways of being. It can be innovative to ask for input from a team of 12 if prior process had a single decision-maker.

I hear people arguing over “back to normal,” “new normal,” “old normal,” “there’s no going back to old normal,” etc. Give it a rest. “Normal,” as a broad descriptor, changes all the time. What was normal today was not normal five years ago, and no pandemic came in to do dirty things. Normal evolves; there is yesterday then today.

Prepare for tomorrow’s normal. It may look like yesterday’s,… it may look entirely different.

My final thoughts: Do not miss this opportunity to “manage normal.” Take a hard look at what is happening in your world right now because of this zombie apocalypse and evaluate before reverting to the ways of old. If today’s ways have some good, positive, productive elements, keep ‘em and make that part of tomorrow’s normal. If what we are doing today sucks, ditch it and do what you used to do. Make your own rules, then make your own “normal.”

Your future, your decision. Make the best of it.

Ready or not, here we come! — Businesses are reopening

Ready or not, here we come!

That used to be announced at the beginning of a kid’s game, hide-and-seek. Today, it means that states, businesses, the whole economy engine, are starting to reopen. You may violently agree with that, or vehemently disagree with it. That’s for Facebook, twitter, letters to the editor, and pithy online commentary.

Because like it or not, ready or not, here it comes!

So, let’s be smart about this. I will let someone else cover the PPE aspect of it, as I believe that’s been given enough airtime that you can easily find data and information that supports your desired direction. Instead, I just want to chat about the people.

Your folks will be concerned, no matter where they are on the open yes/no continuum. Fear of a business failing and their job at risk, or fear of being exposed or exposing others to the virus. Either way, there’s fear there. Pay attention to it. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

People will be a little different (or a lot), especially at first. Proceed purposefully, while being mindful. No ham-handed moves. Think it through.

Some specific tips:

  1. Communicate. Ask for inputs on everything, where even remotely feasible, and give updates so frequently it’ll make you laugh. Varsity-level communications efforts are in order. Two or three various-topic task forces may be a good idea to consolidate inputs and channel feedback.
  2. Keep an eye out for those who may be overwhelmed mentally or physically. Depression, anxiety, and exhaustion are real, and we you’ll need to keep a keen eye out for them all. Liberal use of PTO and EAPs may be in order. Now is not the time – at least initially – to simply say “suck it up, buttercup.” As fond as I am of “Sit down, shut up and color,” that needs to be holstered for the short-term.
  3. Check in regularly. One-on-ones are crucial now, even if brief. Take temperatures (figuratively, unless literal temps are necessary at your place), ask probing questions, see what you can do to help. Don’t rush these, especially at the beginning. They’ll find a natural rhythm before too long.

Use those check-ins to do some real coaching. I’ve created a few videos (more on the way) around Coaching in a Crisis.

Feel free to let us know what else we can do, and if we can help in any way.

When Leadership is Damned Hard

— Or, how to make a difference when no one’s paying attention.

Ok, as Forrest Gump so adroitly quoted his mother, “Stupid is as stupid does,” and I certainly don’t mean to call anyone reading this “stupid,” per se, but leading in challenging times – in this case, either the current pandemic or the resulting economic fallout – isn’t hugely different from day-to-day leadership.

But, it’s not the same, either.

We know for certain that burying our head in the sand and pretending that nothing is going on is positively insane.  It’s like your 2 year-old child closing his or her eyes and saying, “you can’t see me.”

Though many leadership skills are timeless, and probably should be exhibited anyway, there are always times when certain skills have more value than others. Leadership is, after all, situational.

If you find yourself between two slugs arguing, it’s probably not the time to haul out your skills at articulating your leadership vision. A necessary skill, to be sure, but at that moment, conflict resolution knowledge would be really helpful.

Situational, see?

There are 5 keys to leading effectively during these times; they aren’t necessarily difficult, but to ignore them will certainly make your life more difficult. Here goes:

See and be seen. Visibility is a big deal. Now’s not the time to hide out in your office, pining away the days or lamenting for better times. Get out, be seen, be available, and most importantly, be heard. High visibility coupled with credibility is a near-guarantee of success in uncertain times. People need to see you and see you frequently. Hopefully face-to-face, if your environment and social distancing allow. Otherwise, lots of phone calls, zoom calls, videos and texts.

Want cheese with that whine? No open complaining, commiserating, or whining. Not now (assuming it was ever ok, which you know, of course, that it isn’t) especially. Your folks don’t need to know that you feel as out of control as they do. It doesn’t help them, or you, to believe that things are hurtling out of everyone’s control. I can’t promise that your positivity will always result in their positivity, but I can promise that any negativity will spread like wildfire.

Remember, you were young once. Put yourself in employees’ shoes; this is uncomfortable, and there are plenty of unknowns.  Lots of things are changing around them, and they are neither fully aware of the rationale, nor in control of, any of those things changing. They need you to chart a course, plan, devise a strategy, set courses, directions, goals and objectives.

Make sure all are aware of them, and why they exist. This is a big deal. Crafting and disseminating plans in the face of adversity can be a powerful call to action. It gives employees a focus… a guide to action instead of incessant hand-wringing and worry. Further, it provides an outlet – a vent, if you will, for that nervous energy that seems to engulf some people when things around them are changing faster than their comfort allows.

Ask and ye shall receive. Now’s the time to ask for input, comment, and feedback from all, and do so frequently. Help people understand as best you can, explaining why things are happening (when you know), and why we’re taking this specific action. But in the end, they’ve got to do what’s necessary to help your organization (and themselves) weather this storm. Don’t allow so much discourse that we forget why we’re here. Empathy is important, but grace and accountability can coexist.

Execute. No, I don’t mean public hangings or firing squads, as tempting as they may be. I mean taking decisive action. A key component in motivation and employee trust – in helping employees see that all is not lost, that forward progress isn’t stalled, and that someone is in charge – is the act of action. Think, decide, act. A cornerstone of exemplary leadership, and a management skill that serves us all very well. Even when you don’t feel in control, recognize that your locus of control is infinitely larger than many you lead. You aren’t “still considering it” or “thinking about it,” you’ve decided not to do that for now.

Demonstrable actions are the key to success during challenging times. People will look to you for behaviors, thought process, attitudes, positivity and most importantly, direction and active leadership. You’ll eventually be judged on what you did, and doing something will always trump not.

Lead, and do so demonstrably. Do something.