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.

Leading by Example is a Default… Mentoring Has to Be Intentional

“There’s no success without successors.”

An old catchphrase that simply means as you climb the ladder of success, it’s a lot easier on the next rung if you’ve groomed someone to take your place in the organization’s leadership hierarchy.

That could be great, but it could also be terrible. It all depends on how you lead and mentor your team and the role you play(ed) in succession planning.

Leaders who care about helping others be successful appreciate those who care for others. Butt snorkelers appreciate butt snorkelers.

Unfamiliar with the term? Butt snorkelers take brown nosing to the next level of kissing ass. They’re the ass-kissers who always side with the boss and will throw a coworker under the bus without thinking twice. Most of us, especially those with military experience, have worked with at least one, and frankly they make my skin crawl.

Okay, this isn’t about butt snorkelers, although that might be a fun topic to spend your next three minutes reading about.

So how do you prepare the next person to take your position? What is the difference between mentoring and leading, and why should you care?

We’ve said it many times, but as the boss, leading by example isn’t a choice… everyone’s always watching, so your only choice is whether to be a good example or a bad one. I had lots of different bosses early in my career; some were good leaders, and some were absolute nightmares. And so it was I was blessed to finally have a boss who was more than a good leader. He demonstrated it the day he said to me, “Kevin, I’m not trying to change who you are, but dammit, you don’t have to you SO HARD all the time.” (Thanks again, Mike.)

What differentiated him from being a good leader to all the Airmen in the unit and a great mentor to me and others was his desire to make the organization even better in the future without him at the helm.

Mentoring takes leading to the next level. A leader develops her team for the benefit of the organization and for the individuals’ growth and advancement. A mentor selects individuals based on knowledge gained from leading and developing them with a longer view of how they could be important members of the senior leadership team in the future. Leading individuals typically lasts only as long as the employer-employee relationship exists; bosses come and go as do team members. A mentor-mentee relationship could span decades and isn’t limited by a common workplace.

While preparing one of your team members to take over your responsibilities in your absence – and it would be close to negligence if you didn’t – don’t assume it should be someone who always gives the answers you’re looking for. Mentoring one of your team members goes far beyond preparing them to do a particular job… you want to identify the people who care more about organizational success than they do their own and prepare them to be willing to step into any role that will make the organization better. If that’s not already part of your leadership repertoire, it might be time to rethink that.

Stepping up the leadership game to effective mentorship requires a more intimate – not too intimate, please – relationship with the mentee. It needs to be an intentional effort about gift discernment, using examples from daily life and work as coaching examples of how to handle different situations, setting personal development goals, and even future career planning. While the military has made the term “whole person” almost infamous, mentorship should indeed delve into the individual’s work-, family-, community-, and self-related goals to prepare them well beyond their next job.

So, here’s a few tips on making the mentor-mentee relationship work:

  • Be present. This is not a time to multi-task.
  • Don’t feel like you need to give a continual stream of advice.
  • Create a safe space. No Judgy McJudgeface. You both have to feel free to be honest and open.
  • Be truthful. I’m not saying use the truth like a club, but you have to be able to share the honest, unvarnished truth.
  • Share personal experiences. We’ve often learned from our mistakes; give them the opportunity to learn vicariously.
  • Keep confidences. Violating this trust will destroy the relationship.

Mentoring isn’t for everyone. Some leaders lack the humility to share personal stories of failures and mistakes, choosing success stories and arrogance instead. Some leaders can’t spare the extra time a commitment to mentorship takes. Some leaders are uncomfortable with the level of trust and transparency it takes. I suffered from all of those at first, but when I look back over the decades, I now only measure career success in terms of the people I’ve mentored as they worked to be successes in their own right.

As I said, the mentor-mentee relationship can be a long-standing and trusted one – one that can easily grow into a collaborative effort, a partnership, or maybe even a lifetime friendship. While not always butterflies and rainbows, it could be one (or many) of the most rewarding relationships you’ll ever have.

It’s up to you, leaders.

7 Leadership Hacks I Learned at Home… Courtesy of My Wife

Last week was my anniversary. After exactly 1,722 weeks of wedded bliss, I thought it might be time to give my wife some credit for the leadership lessons I’ve learned from her. No, she’s not a leadership guru, a coach, or a high-powered executive in some Fortune 100 company. She is, however, a damn good Physical Therapist who has zero interest in being part of the management morass she’s been subject to over the last 34 years.

And, trust me, she knows the difference between good and bad leadership behaviors. I know this because I’ve heard about every single one.

While I learned most of what I know about corporate leadership development and executive coaching from my best friend, Kevin (yes, Berchelmann), I learned about how to be a leader and how to develop leaders by doing it. Lead is an active verb – a skill that can’t be learned by just reading about it, and it requires building relationships – an activity that can’t be practiced when we’re by ourselves.

No, learning how to lead comes through doing, and getting good at it is, at times, messy and painful. Kevin and I don’t help people learn leadership skills that apply only to them office; these are life skills that apply to every situation where we interact with other people: at home and the office, with friends and family, in sports and professional associations, and through volunteering and military service.

We see good leadership behaviors, and we try to emulate them. We watch bad leaders and try to avoid their behaviors like the plague. Emulate and avoid are also active verbs, and I included try because we aren’t and won’t always be successful.

Just ask my wife.

Speaking of my wife, here are some leadership skills she taught me (or is still trying to teach me) that I’ve found beneficial:

  • When you’re wrong, be quick to admit it. I am often wrong but never in doubt. Just kidding, I know when I’m wrong. There can be no covering up or blamestorming; that just makes it worse. People know when we’ve got it wrong, so we just need to admit it, apologize sincerely and get over it. No one gets it right every time, and while being wrong can be a blow to the ego, the sooner we correct the mistake, the less damage it tends to cause.
  • When you’re right, don’t gloat. (“I told you so” is for second graders.) When we correct or give guidance, we can always do it in a way that doesn’t make others feel stupid or demeaned. Few things destroy a good relationship quicker than that.
  • Speaking of relationships, we’re only able to influence others because we have a relationship with them. I don’t particularly give a $#!+ what strangers think about me, but I do care about the feedback I get from those I care about. Similarly, people generally don’t care what we think unless they respect us (unless they just like to be unhappy), and they won’t respect us without knowing and having a relationship with us. The ability to influence others to put forth effort to achieve a shared goal doesn’t exist without a relationship. We don’t have to be buddies, but they have to believe we genuinely care.
  • Your opinion has less value if you express it the very first second you form it. (Shooting from the hip only works in the movies.) When we shoot off our mouths, we clearly haven’t taken time to consider the message we’re trying or likely to get across or how the receiver will interpret our words… especially if we’re angry or frustrated. The old “count to ten” rule actually works when we use it.
  • If you need help, ask for it. (“I got this” doesn’t always git ‘er done.) Most of us suck at asking for help, and while I’ve written about this before, it’s worth repeating: it’s better to ask for help early when we need it than wait until it becomes a crisis. Earlier allows us to make a needed course correction while later affects everyone involved in the product/service delivery chain. Needing help isn’t a sign of weakness. Quite the contrary, it’s a sign that you have your feces collocated and you’re comfortable and confident in your own skin.
  • “Because I said so” rarely ends the discussion. (“But why?”) Simon Sinek has a great TED Talk about explaining the why. Directive leadership (management) may be effective in a crisis or for a safety issue, but explaining the ‘why’ contributes to encouraging – and empowering – others to make good, well thought out choices in the future.
  • Finally, nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around a little. Looking for a little quiet time? Leave a big emotional wake behind you and you’ll get it. ‘Nuff said.

There you have it. If you promise not to tell her, I’ll admit that having this wonderful woman in my life made me a better leader. Everyone who’s ever worked with me or for me knows she’s the saint behind the success.

What interpersonal skills learned from one aspect of your life can you apply as leadership skills in another? Are you willing to try to admit when you’re wrong? Build relationships at work? Hold your tongue? Ask for help? I think everyone will be pleased with the results.

It’s up to you, leaders.

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.

Prohibition is Back

Welcome to the new Roarin’ Twenties!

The last Roarin’ Twenties was a decade marked by economic growth, technological advances, an increase in leadership opportunities for women, a society tired of war, fascination with material wealth, and a social media obsessed with sports and entertainment celebrities.

Déjà vu all over again?

Not to be a buzzkill, but we all remember how the last Roarin’ Twenties ended – with a stock market crash and the Great Depression. Let’s see if we can keep from repeating some of the mistakes this decade.

Lest I fail to mention Prohibition, I’d like to propose some Prohibitions in the workplace that will get the New Year off to a good start. No need for a Constitutional Amendment, just good leadership.

Prohibit hiring and promotion practices that reward butt-snorkelers and overlook hard-working members of the team. (The difference between brown-nosing and butt-snorkeling is depth perception.) My experience with this came mostly from the military, but it’s no less present in the corporate world. Promoting people who are better schmoozers than contributors or hiring people less qualified than some you already have has an outside effect on your top performers. It reeks of favoritism and is demoralizing to the team, and it is a great way to drive the best to another organization.

Prohibit making good doers into unprepared managers. Just because someone is good at what they do doesn’t mean they’ll be a good manager. And that’s okay. But making someone who has not been developed as a leader a “Manager” is somewhere between risky and foolish. The other doers may put up with it for a while, but there’s a good chance they’ll start heading for the exit as soon as their spouse gets tired of the complaining. Instead, develop the high potentials who have the characteristics necessary to influence others to execute the company vision BEFORE they become supervisors and managers… and don’t stop. We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: effective leadership development can’t be a one-and-done activity.

Prohibit making Feedback a dirty word. First of all, feedback is neither inherently good nor bad; it is simply factual information provided to an individual or group with the purpose of helping them grow and improve. It can contain critical information, but it doesn’t have to; letting people know what they’re doing right helps them grow and improve. The key is to give and take feedback often enough in a non-threatening environment that it becomes second nature.

And for heaven’s sake, if the company’s HR process for providing feedback is cumbersome or otherwise user-unfriendly, scrap it. If it’s only used once a year for compensation purposes, scrap it. If it’s only used to document sub-standard performance, scrap it. If it promotes a one-way diatribe instead of an honest conversation, scrap it. Get the idea?

Prohibit cookie cutter rewards systems. There are certainly money-grubbing exceptions, but for the most part, people want to feel valued for doing worthy work. It’s not always about getting a big paycheck (though it doesn’t hurt); there are plenty of ways to reward your folks. The key is communication and finding out what makes them feel rewarded. For some, it’s recognition; for others it might be time off. If money is their deal, a surprise bump in pay or unexpected bonus, or maybe even a charitable contribution in their name. Promotion consideration and leading a new project are also ways to let them excel at more worthy work. How do we know what makes them feel rewarded? Of course… ask them.

Prohibit making more work the reward for good work. Not saying don’t challenge your top performers with more difficult assignments, just remember that being an excellent worker is both a blessing and a curse. Stay vigilant for signs that someone is close to being maxed out or risk burn out. And never, ever give someone more work because someone else is skating by doing the minimum or less. Short of lashing someone in public, I can’t think of a quicker way to demoralize a valuable contributor to the organization.

These a just are few ways to get the year off to a good start with the team, because ultimately, it’s about them! If some of these prohibitions ring true where you work, talk to your folks and find ways to rid the workplace of the behaviors. Get the team’s buy-in by involving them in the solutions. The alternative is inviting disruptive turnover for preventable reasons. Not the best start to the new Roarin’ Twenties.

It’s up to you, leaders.

Leadership and the Devil’s Advocate: Saint or Sinner?

“Yes” men, “No” men, or some happy medium??  (“men” used for convenience, and is in no way gender-specific)…

Do we want our closest and/or brightest to agree with us, butter us up, lick our boots, kiss our derrière or any of a dozen other euphemisms for sucking up merely because it was our idea?

Or are we actively seeking constructive, challenging dialog??

Must we always have complete, obedient agreeance (not sure that’s a real word, but my baby sister Elizabeth always used it, so here it is), or do we really want diversity of thought?

Personally, I believe that when reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people disagree, the final outcome or decision is always – ALWAYS – a better one.

Further, I’ll also opine that “diversity of thought,” particularly in leadership decision-making, is one of the only valid business cases for intentional, purposeful “diversity” in an organization.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it…

And let’s be clear: I’m not talking about that crap-magnet Joe/Jane pain-in-the-butt employee who always disagrees, simply for the sake of disagreeing. Nor am I referring to those schmucks among us who are simply rabble-rousers looking for attention via a cause they can denigrate.

No, those are simply toxic jerks, and, like Bob, we should fire the a$$holes.

I’m talking about smart, well-intentioned people disagreeing and able to substantiate their disagreement with logic, data, and thought, sans logic’s evil twin, emotion.

I believe it’s a good thing. So, how do we get it to happen? Well, I’ll tell you how…

First, you must provide a safe forum. There must be an accepted arena, vehicle, or secret handshake, code-word, or ring-knocking ceremony where those with contrarian views know they can share.

And don’t be shy – advertise this forum.

Next, like birth control, there has to be a “safety-first” mentality. Those who may disagree must know (not just hear) that their well-thought, well-intentioned disagreement is welcome – in fact, expected – in the course of regular dialog. And that they won’t get shot between the eyes for doing so.

Finally, it’s gotta matter. Naysayers, contrarians, devil’s advocates – whatever the name – have to see their push-back accepted as input and occasionally alter decision-making some of the time if you really want it to continue.

Being “accepting” is good, but not good enough. You’ve got to be prepared to actually use their unpopular inputs. Go figure…

I once worked with a CEO who would frequently tell me that “If you and I always agree, one of us in unnecessary, and I’m keeping my job.”

Early diversity at its best. Thanks, Russ.