The Art of Holding Others Accountable


An anguished cry of frustration I frequently hear from CEOs is – “how can I get my people to be more accountable?”

In fact that was what was actually said to me by a new client I took on a few months ago. At the time I just noted it and said nothing. I just wanted to find out if my theory about lack of accountability was accurate in this case or not. I would find out through interviewing her team later.

To be fair, this CEO – let’s call her Maria for the purpose of this article – was not talking about who to blame when something went wrong. It was much more about accountability for results and deliverables.

Before I give you the results, let me talk about my theory!

What I believe is that the problem regarding accountability frequently lies with the one who seeks the accountability, in this case with Maria.

Why do I say that?

Having worked with multiple organisations, across many industries and in different cultures I have found that the following are frequently the root causes of lack of accountability.

They are:

  1. Lack of clarity about the outcomes. This causes so much difficulty and confusion. So often when it comes to delivery there is frustration that what was expected and what gets delivered are a distance apart and the root cause of this is lack of clarity at the beginning. Invest time here, check that the outcomes can not be disputed. I would suggest asking the person to say back to me in their own words what they have understood the outcomes to be. No harm to follow up with a summary on paper.
  2. How we measure success not nailed down. I have often seen a lot of time devoted to the process of delivery but not enough to the outcomes, and how they will be delivered. Let there be no ambiguity on how success will be measured.
  3. Not identifying the key stakeholders. So often these initiatives require support from elsewhere, but this is assumed rather than negotiated. If, as CEO, your support to engage these stakeholders is required, then be clear that it will happen – but only if sought.
  4. Not having interim reviews. You need to check in on a regular basis and have identified clear milestones to determine whether you are on track or not. These reviews are also the opportunity to give feedback – really honest feedback!
  5. No discussion about the consequences of success or failure. For everything there is cause and effect and too often we stay away from the uncomfortable conversation about consequences. But both parties know that there are consequences – positive if a good outcome, negative for non-delivery. It is the sign of a mature relationship to have this conversation at the outset.
    In my opinion, if you miss any one of those steps, you are not setting both sides up for success.

Let’s go back to Maria! Was my theory right or wrong?

When I met with her people it was clear that, most certainly, she did not score 100% across my criteria.

The inevitable subsequent conversant with Maria really created a paradigm shift in her thinking and behaviour – that is to her credit! As a result the level of accountability has increase dramatically.

And, on a personal level, her frustration has reduced accordingly!


John A Murphy Winning at Business and Life

Ranked in Top 10 Executive Coaches on LinkedIn


John Murphy has been running his own consultancy business, John Murphy International, for over 10 years.

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