One of the things I end up coaching about frequently is how to drive accountability within the framework of a process that a CEO or sales manager is trying to implement. Most times, people come to me and are trying to establish a better process for sales, for selling, for client engagement, etc. I try to make sure we talk at the front of building the process that the process is not going to accomplish results by itself; the process is simply a framework to measure, assess, analyze, and then have a conversation about what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to be done differently.
Ultimately, all great processes must devolve into some sort of human conversation where we sit down and seek to use the data to hold folks accountable. However, driving accountability is not something everybody is naturally good at. Holding others accountable is a challenge, and a lot of folks like to think they’re good at it. I should say that I used to think I was but later realized I had some real deficiencies there. As a result of that, I built my own accountability framework that I use and now I teach folks.
The First Rule of Driving Accountability
One of the most important overarching considerations is that accountability has to have planned-for context with a specific place, date, time, and participants. Accountability, or seeking to hold others accountable must happen in the context of a scheduled meeting rather than an ad hoc ‘drive-by’ manner. Passing by a direct report’s cubicle, for example, is not the time to ask them about the status of a something you tasked them with three weeks ago just because it happened to pop into your mind.
Most managers provide goals and objectives but fail to create a specific context for following up. They often default to options like “Let’s circle back in a few weeks.” Driving accountability requires that the follow-up context – your next scheduled meeting – is articulated at the same time that specific goals or objectives are established. This sounds something like, “I am giving you this assignment, so let’s plan to meet in two weeks to check in about it. I’ll send you an invite for Wednesday at 1pm.”
Otherwise, you’re going to wake up one morning and remember that somebody is supposed to have done something, and of course you’ll go looking and see that it hasn’t been accomplished. You’ll get frustrated, and you’ll want to dive in and immediately have that conversation with the person about why they didn’t fulfill their obligation. Instead, take a deep breath and let that person know that you’d like to schedule time on the calendar to discuss progress toward a goal. Once you have an accountability conversation on the calendar and you’re not blindsiding somebody, there are a couple simple steps to follow.
Having an Accountability Conversation
1. State your Agenda
Begin your conversation off by saying why you’re there. “The purpose of today’s conversation is to check in about the assignment I asked you to complete a couple weeks ago. I wanted to share my observations, as well as to hear what you have to say.” You’d be surprised how often managers forget to articulate this simple agenda up front.
2. Share Your Perspective
At that point you can move to the second step, which is articulating your observations. It’s important to use the first person case when you’re talking about your perception of things. Rather than saying, “You didn’t do this,” or “This has not been done,” you want to make sure to begin your observation with, “Let me tell you what I’m seeing” or “I’m noticing” or “My data indicates” and then articulate the deficiencies or gaps that caused this conversation to happen in the first place.
3. Understand Their Perspective
At this point, you want to give them a chance to provide their observations. You’ve got to be careful, though, because people will want to jump into explanations and excuses and talk about the why. Instead, you will need to hold the conversation to their perspective about what results are happening or not happening. As such, it may be necessary to redirect their response by saying, “At this point, I am just trying to understand if my view of the end results aligns with what you are seeing. We’ll have plenty of time to talk about the ‘why’ in a moment but I just want to make sure we either agree on the actual activities or outcomes that we’re each observing.” As long as this part of the conversation sticks to objective outcomes you should be able to agree that the project is not yet complete, the revenue goal has not yet been met, etc.
4. Discuss the Impact
Once we either agree about what has happened (or not happened), the conversation should focus on discussing the impact or ‘so what’ of those observations. You might use phrases like “Based on the low volume of prospecting activity over the first month of this quarter, my concern is you will not make your quota this quarter.” Again, once you’ve shared your thoughts on the impact of the behavior you’ve been observing, it’s time to hand it over to them, and ask “What are your thoughts on this? Based on our shared understanding what has happened, what do you foresee as the potential impact of this situation?” What you’re trying to do here is get to a point where there is a an acknowledgement that certain behaviors are producing undesired results and that these behaviors need to be adjusted.
5. Identify Solutions
Once you’ve agreed on the behavior that is causing the problem, the next part of the conversation should be focused on identifying specific ways they can address the situation. This is a trickier part of the conversation because it needs to be collaborative in nature. At the end of the day, however, you need to ask a really simple question. “What is your plan for changing course?” The answer can’t be something vague like “I’m going to work harder.” You’re going to have to dig into the specifics of that person’s plan including the time, effort, days and hours required, and you’re going to have to try to do it in a very Socratic way.
Employee: “I’m going to work harder.”
Employer: “Okay, what does that look like?”
Employee: “Well, I probably need to put in more hours.”
Employer: “How many more hours a day do you think are going to be necessary to accomplish that goal?”
Employer: “What will the actual result of the work in those two hours be, and how does that contribute to the goal?”
It’s a hard conversation because you’re asking people to ‘do the math’ and really think about how they will accomplish their goal. Fundamentally, you’re looking for specifically what are they going to do differently as well as when these things actions are going to take place. In most cases when someone gets behind, it requires extra work to catch up and that may include longer hours, nights, and weekends. As a manager, it’s not always comfortable to say to a direct report, “This sounds like something you’re going to need to do outside of your day job because you have other responsibilities, and I know you don’t want to fall behind on those as well.”
6. Rules of Engagement
Once you’ve gotten to the point where the individual has articulated a reasonably sane and attainable plan for course correction, it’s time to talk about rules of engagement. Specifically, we don’t want to babysit their plan or have the same conversation over and over again.
One of the questions I like to ask at this point in the conversation is, “How will we know if the plan you’ve articulated is working to change the results that have not been happening based on the behaviors that you discussed that were impeding those results? What measures will be used?” Obviously it’s important to avoid answers like “I’ll feel like things are going better.” Every task, objective, or set of expectations can and must be distilled into objective and quantifiable metrics. If you’re talking about a sales role, it is always about more calls, more meetings, more deals, more pipeline, etc. within a given time frame. There’s no magic, so you want to get agreement on how you will know things are improving or not.
7. Schedule the Follow Up Now!
Now you need to decide when you’re going to meet to talk about this subject again. The future meeting to review results should always be put on the calendar before the current meeting ends. More importantly, that meeting shouldn’t be a month out. If you’re at the point where somebody hasn’t met expectations, they’re already in trouble and they need your help. You’re going to need to make sure you check in with them more frequently – two weeks at the latest although one week probably makes more sense.
8. What Happens if You Aren’t Making Progress?
Finally, and most importantly, you need to come to an agreement on how you will mutually deal with this if you’re still at the same place or worse off. Obviously, when talking about driving accountability, the concept of consequences come into play. Wherever you are along that continuum – from first conversation to putting someone on a performance plan or even terminating their employment – you need to be clear with your direct report. You can say something like, “I believe we both understand the problem and it appears you have a good plan in place to make the necessary corrections, and we have a scheduled time to check back in two weeks. However, there’s always a chance that we don’t get where we want to be. If two weeks from now we’re still not getting the results we want and the behaviors aren’t there, how would you propose we deal with that?” This is not about getting someone to say “I expect you to fire me at that point.” It is about determining how serious they view the situation. of course if the next step is a performance plan or termination you need to let them know this. Not as threat but as a means of ensuring they know where they are in the process.
I hope this is helpful. Driving accountability and creating a framework is not easy, so more than anything you need to make sure that you, as the manager, don’t shy away from the very important role of setting clear direction and then providing clear milestones to deliver on those responsibilities.
By Townsend Wardlaw