Accountability – The Too-late Dimension of Leadership


A responsibility matrix defines it. Leaders are expected to assume it. Performance reviews require it. The majority of people avoid it.

While thinking about the interdependence of leadership, sales results, critical thinking, and individual performance, I concluded the vital connection between these four components of success is accountability. I am not talking about the after-the-action kind of accountability when a company does something wrong or Wall Street promises are not met and a CEO says he or she is accountable. While that is admirable, and is better than no accountability, it doesn’t prevent a problem or performance gap–it just pins the blame on someone.

What would happen if we shift the timing of accountability from calling on someone to justify their behavior to asking them to define how they will manage their and others’ accountability as an active part of day-to-day coaching and performance management?

I don’t think this is a matter of semantics. Accountability is most effective when it is a proactive, intentional behavior that is defined when an initiative begins and is integrated and demonstrated throughout a project’s life cycle or regularly discussed during a sales year.

Every year sales leaders define revenue targets and sales professionals commit to achieving them. CEOs give guidance on how their companies will perform. Operational leaders promise greater team performance and higher levels of efficiency. To make it all happen, companies invest millions of dollars training employees to perform better and teaching leaders to coach to expectations.

But throughout the year, when people don’t perform as expected, leaders avoid the difficult conversations, don’t make time available to coach, or they are not held responsible for having the conversations. Performance lags through a quarter, six months, or a year. Worse yet, leaders protect team members from their individual accountability, knowing an individual team member’s performance gap is a reflection of a gap in the leader’s performance as well.

After three decades of corporate life I’ve concluded there is only one group of people who do not embrace and promote accountability as a proactive leadership behavior. That group is the people that don’t want to do what they are expected to do.