I had been working with this client for over six months. Our relationship was solid. Appointments were upbeat and fun. By the end of a morning together we always accomplished a lot and went our separate ways feeling energized.
But as I sat at the conference table this morning all was not well. Over the preceeding 13 weeks several major projects had failed to get done. I looked at the project plan in front of me, the same one the client had designed during our last session. The tasks were not difficult. The pace was not that rigorous.
Why hadn't they gotten any of this done? And then it hit me. This was my fault.
I realized that morning that I understood exactly how this client worked. I put myself in his shoes. With all the demands on his time, our strategic project list was getting lost. The important things were taking a back seat to the urgent things. He knew these things were important, and he felt terrible about the lack of progress. As he was beating himself up I interrupted, and I apologized.
I apologized for failing him as a coach and as a client. We both knew he needed accountability to be effective. But accountability is like medicine. You need the right kind, in the right dose at the right time for it to be effective. That is where I had failed. I was providing the wrong type of accountability, in the wrong dose, at the wrong time.
My story is played out every day by managers trying to provide the accountability and oversite their team needs to be successful. And just like me their efforts don't result in the right things getting done. They are focused on accountability for it's own sake rather than accountability for the sake of their team's effectiveness. Here are a few suggestions for better accountability.
Do your team members need accountability for deadlines, accountability for daily time management, accountability for adherance to company values....the list could go on. As a manager your role is to support your team. What kind of support do they need in the area of accountability? Most people take for granted that accountability is about staying on top of people so they meet deadlines. But a completely different type of accountability is helpful when it comes to staying on task and managing time.
One of my clients had a key employee responsible for scheduling most of the firm's production as well as handling incoming phone and email requests from customers. His ability to stay engaged and focused had a huge impact on everyone else in the company. But telling him to stay focused did little. Making him log his time did even less. Keeping meticulous notes of customer interactions worked for a little while, but not forever.
We did two things to help this employee be accountable for his time, focus and engagement. First, we made him take more breaks. With extra time to recharge the batteries and take a breather he was much more energetic on the phone and much more conscientious when scheduling production.
Second, we asked him to have a cup of coffee with the owner at 4:45 every day with the sole purpose of answering the question "was it a good day today?" This changed the focus of our accountabilty from "did you get your stuff done?" to "how do feel about what you got done?" He admitted that those 4:45 conversations were top of mind about 1:00. He said, "I would start thinking to myself 'it's not a good day yet, I need to make some more progress before 4:45 gets here."
An example of providing accountability in the wrong dose is freaking out. I saw this happen in a client's business when the office manager ripped someone a new one for parking in the wrong spot. Granted, there were good reasons for designated employee parking, but the punishment didn't fit the crime in this case.
Middle managers or new managers seem to do this more than others. At first I chalked it up to the power trip that comes with authority. But over time I have come to believe that it's more out of fear than anything else.
Managers feel like they should be doing something, and in the absence of a good mentor or decent training they just call people out for failing to perform. They want to do their jobs well. The problem is no one has ever taught them what good accountability looks like.
Of course the opposite is also true. One of my confict averse clients struggled to hold production managers accountable for turning in time sheets and pay requests on time. He would call the offenders into his office and listen as they explained why they missed the deadline. By the time the meeting was over everyone was all smiles with promises to do better next time.
One day the payroll manager quit and the owner asked me to perform the exit interview. It turns out she had been looking for a job for months. All those late time sheets and pay requests had been making pay days miserable for her. Time after time she saw the owner let guys off the hook, and she decided enough was enough.
By far the most frequent place business owners and managers go wrong is timing. Accountability is only effective if it is present in a way that motivates behavior. And this is exactly where I had missed the boat with my client. Providing accountability during our meeting, at a time when he was unable to do anything about it, was pointless. It would have been much better for me to followup with him a week before our meeting. He would have been motivated and he would have had time to get something done prior to our meeting.
Timing is also the easiest part of accountability to get right, IF you think about it ahead of time. Tackling the timing side of accountability is best done as soon as someone accepts responsibility for the task or project. Just ask, "when is the best time to check back with you on this?" Immediately the appointment goes in my calendar with an appointment invitation emailed to the other person.
##Call to action
Think of an area where holding someone accountable hasn't been working and change up your approach by doing one of the following:
- Change the type of accountability. If you are just asking "have you got this done?" change it up and ask "what kind of support do you need to get this done?"
- Change the dose. This probably means getting more confrontational for most people. Commit to have a "come to Jesus" meeting with someone who has been let off the hook too often.
- The next time someone commits to something immediately ask, "when is the best time to check in with you on this?" and put it on your calendar.