Leadership Accountability: It's Not Your Team, It's You!

March Madness has got me fired up! Literally, can’t take my eye off the brackets. And with my Michigan State Spartan’s win over Duke, magic is in the air (literally and figuratively)!



Inspired by a recent LinkedIn post from Mat Ishbia, former spartan basketball player on the 2000 national championship team and now CEO of Michigan-based United Shore Wholesale Mortgage, I have been reflecting on another madness people run into from time to time that doesn’t occur just in March. Mat’s post stressed and reinforced that a mark of great leaders is the ability to hold people accountable. Could not agree more! I have a few more thoughts, however, on that topic to share and add!


Without a doubt, individual contribution corralled by a great for a central purpose and mission is powerful. The best coaches, CEOs, and leaders do this well. I’ve been fortunate in my career to both know and work with some of the best out there and have what I would qualify as a better than good sense what great looks like. Tragically, most likely in common with you, I know what bad looks like too. 


What happens when it heads south? In both my business and personal life, I interact with CEOs, community influencers, visionaries, and leaders at every level. I see similarities across the board with what works and what doesn’t work. I’m far from perfect and have fallen into both categories myself which perhaps makes me best qualified to comment. As a focused outsider championing strategy, development, and execution, let me offer some sickness symptoms and potential prescriptions.


Backboard Blame Bonanza

You know the bonanza is upon you when you lay more than half of everything going wrong around you at the feet of other people. It doesn’t matter if its role competence related or another topic that is 110% true. Blame is steeped in excuses. It’s a prime symptom of a personal lack of accountability. Excuses are the lies we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better. Reminder…the lies…we tell ourselves…to make US…feel better.


FIX: STOP blaming. Here’s a tool I suggest called, “1st Thought Wrong.” Steeped in the power of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), this tool suggests you openly challenge your inner voice’s first instinct to blame some one else. By challenging your 1st thought, you buy a little time to be open to the idea you might be wrong. Further, it’s a chance to stop yourself from what you might be about to do next…. which is assume incorrectly! The best leaders take a minute, evaluate, then speak.


The Lazy Lane Listeners

Have you ever found yourself saying, “…I’ve said that 1000 times…why are they not hearing?” I once received feedback from a wise personal coach that leaders may be saying something 1000 times, and nobody is hearing because you are literally disconnected from the person you are sitting right next to. Crazy thought. My coach described it this way. Leaders are outstanding in their field. And leaders, many times, are out STANDING in a field. You may be speaking, but it could be in a field, all by your lonesome. Don’t feel too lonely. MOST leaders I’ve worked and work with over the years describe the SAME thing.


FIX: START meeting 1:1 with your key leaders AND influencers. The face to face meeting has a great power in holding yourself and others accountable to the 1:1 conversation. I recommend meeting as often as is required, or as broken as the relationship may imply. Make them less formal and more frequent. Get out of the office if you can. Get on good, neutral territory. If you are using collaboration tech and do this as a weekly check-in, for example, REFUSE to let the phone call suffice. Get on a video call so you can make an eye to eye connection. It can work and make the times that you are physically together to have an even stronger collaborative relationship.


These conversations should recap important agreements. Take notes. Follow up with a thank you note, email, or text. The time you spend here will break down barriers and you may get great feedback to get you in from being out in the field and put you back in the conversation on solid ground.


The Back Channel Press

Here’s the scenario. You just left an important meeting and assignments were given. You did your best to explain what needed to get done, you even sent out a summary of the actions. Then you come back to the meeting a week later and surprise, surprise…the task wasn’t completed. Best of all, here’s the answer you hear, “…it wasn’t clear to me that what you wanted. And when I asked Donnie or Suzie, they said you meant something completely different. I know what you are thinking. If only they asked me! 

Your back channel is killing you and your teams. You never planned on cultivating a back channel…and it exists for a variety of reasons, all of which to be explored in a future post. The primary problem with the back channel is the fact that you are likely NOT in it. Further, its RIFE with other infections like gossip, back biting, here say, bias, and assumptions. 


FIX: Enlist participation at a higher level through transparency and involvement. The antidote to limited information flow and what I call, “reality,” cover-ups are the free flow of information and wider participation in the company’s development. Whether you are a small, medium, or large firm, engaging the team openly and honestly breeds trust and engagement. Nothing unleashes the potential better for your business or cause that highly engaged team members. Squash the back channel and make productive dialog and discussion a primary channel.


Take “Action-item” Apathy

How does the adage go…If I had a nickel for every action item, I’ve taken over the years, I’d be a wealthy man? Is the same true for actions items completed? It’s not hard to take an action item. Closing action items and the corresponding communications loop that goes with it is a skill. Building a team that knows how to close the loop is even more important. 


Some teams struggle in actions on an even deeper level. Forward thinking teams tend to lean too far forward and miss execution in the near term. Some teams so focused on the immediate situation may find themselves literally buried in the day to day minutia, unable to break out of tactical details. The bottom line is that BOTH are important. Especially for teams where the business depends on the mixed skills.


FIX: Go old school. Keep a list, assign owners, and keep track of progress. I subscribe to the methodology that a near term action tends to be in the 7 day or less range. Most actions live in the 90 day and less range. When you put it together you get a great formula for hitting both near- and long-term goals. The annual plan comes into better focus when you break it up into quarterly focus tightened in critical weekly actions. 

I suggest also developing some way of keeping score. Make it visible at a minimum to the people tasked with the accountability of delivering. This is an ideal way in which a leader assumes the responsibility of creating an environment where the team can succeed and win. Too many leaders divorce themselves from the culture and habits where stuff gets done. Worse, they can’t make a clear distinction between near, mid, and long-term success. Leaders own the task of clearing the road for the team’s success. Don’t be the road block.


EVERYTHING starts with you!

As you consider where to get started, the four challenges and their fixes may be a few areas to consider. Success never happens overnight, and a little luck never hurts. One of the most important realizations great leaders make, however, is that course, urgency, and speed starts from the top and permeates. Leadership teams that can come together and adopt the mindset of removing obstacles and creating an environment where success can thrive will get there faster and more consistently. That decision is yours to make. Stop playing the blame game and start owning the foundation of why and how the game is played. As you take accountability for this important step, you’ll never lose!

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