KingChapman Blog

5 Questions Great Leaders Ask for Empowering Accountability

Posted by Bob Chapman on Dec 27, 2016 9:04:00 AM


2009: “The Economy Falling Off a Cliff...'

A Latin American country manager was facing a huge challenge. Through the first 7 months of the year, current expectations for profit ranged from £2million to £35million, on a business plan of £95million, with a transformational growth plan of £110million. He was having to face the challenge – do we modify our transformation growth plan to be more realistic, or to stick to the plan, recognizing the hill to climb is way beyond anything he or his business had ever done before. “What do you want to do? It is your call.” After a few hours of going back and forth, weighing all factors, including his own credibility, he decided “We won’t change our plan number – because if we do, it will be a slippery slope for the rest of the year.”

With this decision, we entered the leadership team meeting, and he shared his own personal dilemma in deciding what he wanted to do. The leadership team went through their own concerns, and in the end, they were all aligned to the original transformational growth plan. By the end of the year, the business delivered its plan number of £110million, becoming “The Best Performing Business for the Year” in the entire organization.

Role of Accountability in Leadership

In successful execution of strategic growth, accountability, leadership and transformation become inexorably linked. Accountability is an acute and overt manifestation of leadership. Leadership involves accepting and acting on the accountabilities of the position. Transformation is the fundamental changes which will promote achievement of growth. Transformation will not occur without empowering accountability and leadership.

Among the strongest evidence that a business is committed to growing and transforming is that the executives, managers and employees have a new relationship to accountability. In time this new relationship to accountability will be manifested in the performance of the business, relationships with stakeholders and service provided to customers. One of the first aspects in executing growth strategies is establishing empowering accountability. That is, employees experience clear accountability which is designed to enable and support their success. This includes appreciating that failure is natural when groups and teams are taking appropriate risks.

Unfortunately, too many growth strategy execution projects fail because the executives in charge of that portion of the business were unwilling to act in an accountable manner and to establish a context of accountability in the organization. The converse of this is also accurate. Those organizations which have produced stunning financial and strategies results were launched by executives who were tenacious about being accountable, acting in ways to demonstrate the essential nature of accountability, and established a firm context of accountability in the organization. Often this involved acting on direct reports and other executives/managers who were politically connected and well liked, but unwilling to act in a self-accountable manner.

Too often there are executives who philosophize and talk about accountability, but do not act on their accountabilities. Talking about accountability is not the same as being accountable and exercising accountability. It sad to see how many executives talk about accountability, seem to want accountability in the organization, and yet are unwilling to be personally accountable.

Definition of Accountability

The word "accountable" stems from late Latin accomptare (to account), a prefixed form of computare (to calculate), which in turn derived from putare (to reckon). The concept of account-giving has ancient roots in record keeping activities related to governance and money-lending systems that first developed in Ancient Israel, Babylon, Egypt, Greece and later, Rome. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the word accountable as:

  • Liable to be called to account, or to answer for the responsibilities and conduct: answerable and responsible. Chiefly of persons.
  • To be counted on or reckoned on.
  • Able to be reckoned or computed.
  • To be reckoned or charged, chargeable, attributable to.
  • Able to be accounted for or explained, explicable.

The term implies “The quality of being accountable; liability to give an account of, and answer for, discharge of duties or conduct; responsible, amenableness.” In business we say that leader accountability is acknowledgment and acceptance of responsibilities and results of the position. Bruce Winston writes that accountability is:

  • Willing acceptance of the responsibilities inherent in the leadership position with a commitment to serve the well-being of the organization;
  • Expectation that the leader will be publicly linked to actions, behavior, communication, outcomes, performance, and value achieved
  • Expectation that the leader may be called on to explain beliefs, decisions, commitments, and strategies to constituents.

The 5 Questions Leaders Ask

Accountability is personal. It begins with the leaders. If accountability is desired, leaders must start by looking in the mirror and asking questions such as:

1) When has your words about accountability been stronger than your actions?

2) Where you have allowed things to exists that you now know was a mistake?

3) Have allowed people around you to misbehave, use company resources inappropriately, to foster ineffectiveness, and ultimately destroy value? If so, who and why?

4) Have you allowed people around you to behave in a way that invalidates what you say you believe and stand for?

5) Have you allowed others not to be accountable because you wanted to avoid a conflict, or you were benefiting in some way from the continued existence of this situation?

These are tough questions, yet candid inquiry into one’s own accountability is essential.

Advice to Leaders

My advice to leaders is that accountability, authenticity and credibility all begin with you and your willingness to accept your own mistakes. This acceptance allows the leader to be bigger than the circumstances, and to talk about openly the consequence of prior actions. Accountability begins in the leader’s chair. If the leader is candid and honest about self, then there is an opening for establishing empowering accountability in the organization.

Accountability works when employees experience it as empowering and as an expression of joint commitment to success. Accountability is not empowering when it is experienced as punitive. As example, it is common to hear a negative tone when managers use the term “Holds others to account”. This punitive tone replaces the power which can be created in a candid conversation for accountability.

Further damage is done to the credibility of management when employees experience “holding others to account” as a version of “do what I say not what I do”. This is perceived by employees as inherently hypocritical since the one who is “holding” does not actually act in an accountable manner nor hold self to account. Remember the expression from a parent who is just before giving a child a whipping and says “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you”. While this expression may have had some emotional validity for a parent, I have found few kids who actually believed it. Too often that is also the experience of employees who experience “Being Held to Account”.

Empowering Accountability is among the first building blocks executives must install in strategic growth. Accountability is a critical tool for executives in achieving needed growth and value, and then sustaining that growth over time. Employees will be willing to hold themselves to account if the leaders go first. Absent leadership being accountable, the execution of strategic growth becomes a grind.


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Topics: Leadership Accountability