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The Art of Accountability

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UCD Business Connections / Ireland

Henry Evans has been advising leading executives and organizations worldwide for many years through his Dallas-based company Dynamic Results and is internationally renowned for his expertise in the areas of emotionally intelligent leadership and high-accountability culture. His recently published book, Winning with Accountability, is management reading in organisations from McDonald’s to FedEx and UPS.

Evans and his team have been trying to redefine accountability as a positive force for the organisations and leaders with whom they work. “I think in western culture accountability has a predominantly negative connotations and that is because it is generally used in a punitive way,” he says. “So after something has gone wrong, after a relationship or a project has gone south, we start to look for someone or something to blame-that’s what we have tended to call accountability.

“We’ve tried to redefine and reposition it in our work and in the way it is used, and our definition is simply that accountability means clear commitments which in the eyes of others have been kept.”

It is a concept that can create challenges for traditional leaders, but Evans emphasises that any accountability model can only work and enhance an organisation’s performance if it comes right from the top down.

“There’s a type of client who I call a ‘first-class client,’ and that might be a CEO, who is flying first class, reads one of the articles we publish and then lands and gives us a call saying ‘we want you to come and fix our people.’

“We always ask ‘where are you going to be in this process?’ and they say ‘well I’m fine- I just need you to come and fix my people.’ We don’t take those clients, because if the leadership is not engaged in the change effort, the leadership will be our biggest obstacle.”

According to Evans, for the change to work, it is vital that the top executives are demonstrating and exhibiting these accountability behaviors themselves, before they request it of anyone else in their organisation.

“The higher you get on an organisational chart, the more responsibility you have but often the less accountability you have,” says Evans. It is something he has experienced first hand in his work with CEOs, company presidents and other high-level executives. “What I find working with those people is that they have the longest list of things to do that no one else knows about, and they are also the least likely to be held accountable or challenged by others when they do have commitments.”

For this reason, Evans says he advises senior executives to proactively and in an unsolicited way “publish their commitments.”

“I encourage them to go to their temas and give them the heads up: ‘Here are the four most important things I need to accomplish this week, here’s what they look like when they’re done, here’s who is doing them and I wanted you to know about it.”

The comfort of ambiguity

The results, says Evans, are remarkable although he concedes that this change in culture will not work for everyone.

“While our clients report lower attrition, I have observed that when an organization does not-by our definition- have a high level of accountability in its culture, and begins to institute our methods, it has some increased attrition at first.

“There are some people who are very comfortable in ambiguity and low accountability, and when they see the tide changing they may self-select out of the organization, and go and work somewhere else.” Evans concedes that it is a trend which has somewhat abated during the current recession when people are more reluctant to jump ship.

“When these people do leave, it tends to create a space that gets filled by people who do want to be part of that effort because, using our methods, the language the executives use changes when they’re making and requesting commitments. When candidates are interviewing, they can hear the specificity with which they speak, and they are either attracted or repelled by that type of language.”

The accountability puzzle

In summary, the ‘accountability puzzle’ as employed by Evans and his team, and laid out in his book, basically constitutes:

Clear Expectations- every request should include a crystal clear result of your expectation, one that the other party can visualize;
Specificity-to avoid miscommunication, include a specific date, time and time zone in your request- the latter because of our more globalized work lives;
Share-true accountability begins when someone else knows about it, and you must invite and welcome people to hold you accountable, whether you report to them or they report to you.

“Using those four pieces of the accountability puzzle, you’re asking people for clear expectations that have a visual association,” says Evans who offers a simple example.

“Say I owed you money, and I said I’m going to pay you back on Friday. That’s a good intention and when you’re looking into my eyes I might really mean it, so the intention is there, it’s pure. But it’s not an accountable statement.

“If you wanted to help me craft it into one, you might encourage me and you might say, ‘Look, Henry, I appreciate you’re going to pay me back that money, thank you, but out of curiosity are you going to personally walk into my office and hand me a check? Are you going to send someone else, are you going to wire transfer it? I might say, ‘I’m going to to a cash machine and I”m going to get $200 and I’m going to go to your office.” Then you say, ‘Great, and when are you coming?’ I’ll say, ‘I’ll see you in Dublin at 1pm Irish time.’

“Once that conversation happens we both have visual associations. When I just said Friday at 1pm, you saw it in your MS Outlook, or your Lotus notes, or your diary-whatever you use. You had a mental picture and with that visual association your attention and retention doubled.”

It all makes a lot of sense. However, as one gets lower down and organization’s hierarchy, how willing might a subordinate be to call their senior to account and encourage them with such questions? “Yes, that is a frequent objection or concern when we’re instituting the method,” concedes Evans.

“There’s a lot of emotional intelligence woven into our accountability method, which is about inviting subordinates to hold you accountable for your commitments and rewarding them when they do. So this is really about creating the safety for people to do so. We talk a lot to leaders about this; about how one violation, one slip, can set you back months, even years, of openness.”

He again illustrates this with a personal example. A former competitive martial artist, Evans remembers one day walking through the lobby of his office and spotting a friend on the cover of a favorite magazine, Full Contact Fighter. “I picked it up and started reading it. My assistant saw me, and she knew I was supposed to be working on a strategic planning update for a client. She asked should I not be working on the strategic planning now. The first words that came to mind, frankly, were not ‘thank you.’ but they were the first words that came out of my mouth.

“That is because she was keeping our agreement- that we challenge each other to keep our commitments. And she was keeping her promise to me and that makes our peformance better, so I encourage her to do that.”

He admits that while some leaders are very self-aware and comfortable with this, others need to be encouraged through the bottom line benefits of encouraging such a real-time information conduit.

“I’ll say to some leaders, at the moment you are the last person to know what’s going on in real time and by the time you get to know, we’re already in a crisis because people are afraid to talk to you.”

And how do leaders deal with a failure by a colleague to meet such agreed commitments?

“You have to begin by looking at the person who doesn’t follow through and ask is this a constant or a variable?” says Evans. “Is this something that happens frequently or infrequently? And I would handle it differently based on the answer. If it is the former, the conversation would not be about that one incident, it would be about our working relationship and the fact that I’m starting to lose trust and I’d probably ask them what they think is likely to happen if I continue to lose trust?

“If I’m the one not following through, there is usually a way to renegotiate the promise before the deadline.” The ‘before’ here is the operative word, according to Evans. Don’t wait until the deadlines is upon you. “That is a strong behavior in terms of building trust.”

The apparent simplicity of the accountability model belies the remarkable changes that it can institute in an ogranization, according to Evans.

Perhaps, when it comes to management strategy, we sometimes forget to look at the simplest of truths.

by Ann O’Dea

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