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How Two CEOs Front-end Load Accountability

Blurry expectations lead to blurry results, so winning leaders boost accountability right up front

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BY Lee Colan - 07 Feb 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Accountability starts at the beginning of the performance process. If we wait until the end, then we are simply imposing consequences rather than creating ownership. Therefore, crystal-clear expectations are the foundation for boosting accountability, but blurry expectations lead to blurry results.


Leaders and team members should be able to easily agree on the answer to this question: "How will I know if I have met expectations?" We cannot rely on others' perceptions of our expectations. The imperfect nature of human communication requires us to be more specific than we think we need to be.


Winning teams hold themselves accountable for measurable improvements and for hitting milestones. To do this, accountable leaders help their teams by clearly and specifically defining the actions, timing and results they expect from others and from themselves. For each member of your team, make certain you communicate:


  • Actions - What steps need to be taken?
  • Timing - By when? Be specific about when you want results - "next month" or "by second quarter" is not specific enough.
  • Results - How will you (and they) know if they have achieved the goal? Once you know what result you are trying to achieve, you can determine if you are measuring quality, quantity, cost or timeliness of your performance.


Although defining clear expectations can be tedious, if you take the necessary time to do it, you will end up spending less time dealing with performance problems and more time executing your plan. A broad and persuasive series of studies confirms that specificity of goals dramatically increases the likelihood of success. In one study, participants were asked to write a report on how they spent Christmas Eve and to write that report within two days after Christmas Eve. Half of the participants were required to specify when and where within those two days they intended to write the report. The other half was not required to give specifics. Among those who had to provide specifics, 71 percent handed the reports in on time. Only 32 percent of the second group did so.


In a business context, Stephen Mansfield, CEO of Methodist Health System in Dallas, has a handy technique to keep he and his team focused and accountable. Mansfield says, "I have a little handwritten index card for each direct report. On that card I write the three primary things that person and I have agreed that I most need from them. I check in with each person every few weeks to ask how they are doing on those items. I always end the discussion with, 'Is there anything I can do to help?' I also use the opportunity to offer a pat on the back." Mansfield is a master at applying the concept of proactive accountability - managing to specific expectations on the front end to boost accountability for results on the back end.


Paul Spiegelman is a client and former CEO of The Beryl Companies. They partner with hospitals to enhance the patient experience in various service functions. Spiegelman hit on a subtle yet critical distinction when we discussed the timing aspect of expectations. He has found an unusual balance between accountability and the award-winning culture he has stewarded over the past 10 years at his booming company. He explains, "We don't like surprises. It's okay to give a leader a heads-up - that shows you are managing to timelines. But if you don't give a heads-up and you miss the deadline, then you are just managing to deadlines." Henry Evans, author of Winning with Accountability, explains the difference between timelines and deadlines: "In school, most of us were taught about deadlines, which is 'when the work is due,' and we received very little training on timelines, which is 'when the work gets done.' When you help your team manage to specific timelines, you can prevent those tough discussions about missed deadlines.

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