Getting things done effectively in a startup requires total individual and team accountability. You can’t afford excuses and multiple people doing the same job. In my view, “taking responsibility” is the core element behind accountability. Many people hear responsibility as an obligation, but I hear it as “the ability to respond.”
Unfortunately many people don’t have the ability to respond, because they lack confidence in themselves, or simply don’t have the skills required. Therefore an entrepreneur’s first requirement is to hire or team only with people who are accountable (already have the confidence and skills you need)—training them on the job is prohibitively expensive when you have minimal income.
Even with the best people, accountability must be nurtured, since it can be killed more quickly than it can be grown. Here are some characteristics of current business leaders, including Richard Branson, who foster responsibility and accountability, and keep it growing:
- You need to walk the talk. Above all else, you as the founder or executive have to be a role model of accountability. You need to exemplify the “buck stops here,” and never play the blame game. Reward accountability consistently and often.
- Communicate continuously. You need to make sure that your team members understand your expectations, and you need to proactively listen and understand the expectations of all stakeholders. Frequent and consistent communications, both verbal and in written processes, are required. Take away the “I didn’t understand” excuse.
- Measure objectively. Goals and objectives must be unchanging and measurable, based on results, with benchmarks for comparisons. Accountability assessments must be based on facts, not distorted by opinions, politics, and desire for power. Frequently changing expectations does not lead to accountability.
- Give control before expecting accountability. A sense of responsibility and accountability requires a sense of control. If several levels of approvals are needed for a specific decision, no one will feel accountable, and no one can be held accountable. Real delegation is required.
- Align functional groups with business goals. If key inputs are not under the control of the proper group, then they will cede accountability as well. If your sales group is measured on profitability, but is required to process leads from outside sources paid by volume, you have a conflict where everyone loses.
- Manage up the line and support your team. You need to be the sponsor and the advocate for every member of your team. Team members who take risks through accountability need to see your overt support up the line, with no blame and no scapegoats.
- Provide timely feedback on performance. High performance teams need immediate and useful information on how to improve, as well as regular full performance reviews, individually and as a group. Help people, including yourself, look in the mirror and see reality.
- Conduct humiliation-free problem analyses. Getting to the source and fixing problems should never be a “name and shame” game. Leaders need to provide safe havens where difficult issues can be discussed without assigning blame. The goal should always be to solve problems, not hurl accusations.
- Provide tools to support accountability. No tools and no data lead to total subjectivity and biased interpretations. Absolute dependence on tools leads to abdication of personal responsibility. Provide adequate tools, but trust the people.
- Differentiate accountability from entitlement. Accountability is hard, so no one is entitled to be right every time. Don’t punish people for making a mistake, but make it clear the mistakes have consequences, sometimes painful ones, that we all have to live with. Higher responsibility means more work and more skills needed.
Many executives subscribe to the misguided notion that you can hold people accountable. This is usually a ploy to control others and hand off responsibility, without being accountable yourself. People need to make themselves accountable, and accept the consequences of their actions. Remember that you are the model, and what goes around, comes around.