Walk the Talk of Accountability
Each month in 2023, I feature one of my top-ten “Things I Wish I’d Known” when I first started as a manager and leader years ago. This article is my eighth: Walk the Talk of Accountability.
We all have that friend.
The one we make plans with, knowing in the back of our mind they’ll likely cancel. Because they usually do!
We continue to make plans (after all, we like this friend), but with every cancellation, our confidence in them erodes.
The same goes for leaders. Especially new ones, who often overpromise and underdeliver.
Even though new leaders mean well, they can create unnecessary discomfort and conflict. They become stressed and anxious or place undue pressure on their employees and managers. And usually, they find themselves backpedaling.
Don’t be that leader!
Instead, be the leader who models accountability. One who builds and maintains trust — with employees, managers, vendors, clients and the community.
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My free worksheet features this month’s theme, “Walk the Talk of Accountability.”
Let’s start with the basics. What does it mean to be accountable?
Merriam-Webster defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”
In simpler words, deliver what you promise. And when you can’t? Own it!
As I learned in my early years of leadership, communication — clear communication — is inextricably tied to accountability. It lays the foundation for making the right promises, following through, and keeping others informed along the way.
Related: Use Your Words!
Why is communication such a big deal? Consider the following tales of two leaders as they navigate challenging situations.
Situation 1: Transparent Tami (Client Example)
Tami’s company has a big contract with a valued customer. She promises to deliver new system functionality by the end of the quarter.
As the end of the quarter approaches, the project team is in the weeds. Unforeseen circumstances had derailed progress weeks ago. There’d been a supply chain interruption, and one of the team leads had left on emergency medical leave.
What should Tami do now?
Tami needs to be transparent with her client and inform them of the delay. Accountability isn’t just about completing a project by the final deadline. It’s also about hitting the key milestones as promised along the way.
As soon as those milestones were missed — in fact, before then — Tami should have told the client about the possible delays. This way, she’d have avoided surprising the client with unwelcome news at the time the client expected completed delivery.
The takeaway: Be upfront with your customers as soon as issues arise.
Clearly explain the situation (and leave your emotion out of it). Then explore ways to compromise or adjust the deadline.
Situation 2: “Surely” Shirley (Staff Example)
Accountability isn’t limited to clients. It’s equally important to keep your word to your staff.
Shirley is the leader of a company with over 150 employees. One of her managers asks if she’d be willing to mentor him. “Sure!” she says. She likes this manager, sees his potential and wants to contribute to his professional development.
But hold on a minute!
Before accepting the manager’s request, Shirley should clarify expectations. What exactly is he asking of her? How often does he want to meet? Is he envisioning a three-month arrangement? One year? Longer?
When one person has a set of expectations and the other has something different in mind, it sets the stage for frustration, disappointment or even resentment.
The takeaway: Before you respond with “sure” too quickly, confirm you and the requester are on the same page.
Don’t skirt around your answer. Be clear about what you can offer. If someone asks you to meet weekly, but you can only afford to meet monthly, say so! Even if they feel disappointed, they’ll appreciate your honesty.
Accountability builds trust. Not only in leadership, but in all work and personal relationships. That’s why it’s so important.
The following Power Challenges can help you find ways to boost your own accountability and weave it into your company culture.
Power Challenge 1: Don’t Overcommit
Why in the world did I agree to that deadline? What was I thinking when I took on yet another project? How will I manage being on opposite sides of town on the same day?
It’s tempting to want to be all things to all people. To believe we’re superheroes. Until it hits us that we’re not!
This is how leaders often run into trouble. You can’t overcommit and still be accountable.
There are many seemingly valid reasons you might overextend yourself. Perhaps you are concerned about disappointing other people, so you avoid saying “no.” By accommodating, you hope to make everyone happy.
On the other hand, maybe saying “yes” makes you feel more capable or competent. Maybe you believe that “can-do” attitude aligns with your other personal core values or traits.
But promising the wrong things — or too many things — can backfire.
Analyze a time you overcommitted. What internal or external factors drove you to it?
So how can you avoid crossing the fine line between committing and overcommitting? Here are a few tips I’ve used to help stay balanced — and be accountable:
- Commit carefully. Before saying “yes” to a request, make sure you’ve checked your calendar, availability and capacity.
- Be intentional about what you promise. Does your agreement match your priorities? Can you afford the time and resources to keep your promise?
- Understand what you’re committing to do or deliver. Ask questions. Clarify any vague parts of the request. If a client asks for “a quick turnaround” on a progress report, do they want it by the next business day? Within a week?
- Don’t spread yourself too thin. Although you might come across as the most generous, efficient, capable leader, others’ opinions of you will change in an instant when you start dropping balls. Focus on building authentic trust rather than feel-good popularity.
- Be honest from the get-go. If there’s no room in this year’s budget to hire additional employees for your IT department, say so when the manager asks. People prefer honesty over empty promises.
As a leader, you also have another unspoken job: Don’t overcommit your employees and managers.
If you’re agreeing to an ambitious client or internal deadline, check with the key players first. You may not be aware of everything on their plates or other limiting factors.
Power Challenge 2: Walk the Talk — Consistently!
What you do matters more than what you say you’ll do.
When you’re in a leadership role, all eyes are on you. You have to set the same expectations for yourself as you do for your employees and clients. If your staff know you’ll deliver as promised or communicate when problems arise, they’ll be more apt to do the same.
Sometimes, though, we don’t model accountability. And we don’t even realize it!
Such as the time you went to a business lunch and decided to run a few errands before returning to the office without telling anyone. “After all, I’m the boss,” you think.
Or the occasions when you told yourself, “I’m a leader … of course I’m busy! I have back-to-back meetings all day and I’m constantly putting out fires. It’s totally fine if I drop a few balls.”
No. It’s not okay! Rules apply to you the same way they apply to others. These rules create order, fairness and respect. Just because you’re in charge doesn’t mean you’re above them.
And what about the following situation? It’s a common one for new managers or leaders:
You just got promoted to a leadership role. Two of your team members used to be your peers, but now you’re supervising them. Because you’re friends, you let a few things slide, assuming they’ll keep it between you.
But word gets out. It always does! Now others see you clearly playing favorites. It causes resentment and eats away at the trust you’re trying so hard to build.
Remember the manager you agreed to mentor? Here’s what they’re probably thinking after you keep pushing them to the back burner: “You said you would coach me. That was ten months ago! I must not be very important to you. And I really can’t count on you.”
Avoid these traps by putting yourself in others’ shoes. Remember, they don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes for you.
Only that you’re not back from lunch when you said you would be.
Or you’re treating some staff members differently than others.
Or you’re not keeping your word.
Forget what you know about your circumstances. Look objectively through your subordinate’s eyes. What conclusions are they drawing based on your behavior?
Make sure it’s what you intend. And remember, actions speak louder than words.
“The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.” – John Wooden
Commit Less, Deliver More
Which type of leader would you rather be: the one who overpromises to make everyone happy but then underdelivers?
Or the one who intentionally commits to the right things from the beginning, keeps their word and earns the trust of those around them? (I hope you choose this one!)
You can be that leader!
By making fewer — and smarter — commitments, you give yourself the gift of focus. And your focus positions you to follow through on your promises.
Wondering where to start? How about making a commitment to yourself to model accountability?
Then deliver on your promise. You know whose trust you’ll earn first? The one that matters most: your own.
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Carla inspires leaders and team members — and provides real-world tips to become the best version of themselves that they can be. Contact her today.