An Interview with Author Henry J. Evans
In the book “Winning With Accountability, The Secret Language of High-Performing Organizations,” (2008), author Henry J. Evans offers a step-by-step guide to help any organization improve performance by creating an accountability culture.
The book and the method it covers are in use by organizations ranging from multi-national corporations, to U.S. and European Executive MBA programs. In this interview, Mr. Evans answers questions about the system and how accountability can transform an organization.
Everyone is already accountable at some level for his or her job performance. How does your concept elevate accountability to a more crucial state?
“Great question! We provide a simple, accessible, easy to understand framework for making and requesting accountable commitments. By having a shared language, we decrease ambiguity and increase understanding in the workplace.”
Accountability requires a level of trust on the part of everyone involved. What should happen when a task is given to someone who doesn’t live up to expectations?
“We wrote about this in the book. Our next book will address this in more detail and in short: everyone makes mistakes. This should be expected. We feel that people who make redundant mistakes should be treated differently than those who make ‘new’ mistakes. Sometimes when an organization is looking at an individual with consistently poor performance, the organization may wish to ask itself ‘how many poor performers do we have?’ before it starts to drop a hammer on the individual in question. In other words, if you have too high a percentage of ‘poor performers’ within an organization, division, or workgroup, you may want to look at your hiring and training processes before you start singling someone out for corrective action. Additionally, you may have a performance problem with one of your leaders if you have a disproportionate number of low performers on one specific leader’s team.
For those who make redundant mistakes and don’t express a willingness to change, you may want to help them exit the organization. We believe that if you have sound assessment and hiring processes on the front end, this is usually not the case. Our Accountability Method provides a framework for setting and reviewing expectations on the individual and team levels.”
A key component of your strategy is the language of specificity, in both written and verbal communications. Sometimes, though, we are trained to soft-pedal our language in dealing with co-workers. How can we re-train ourselves to be more specific?
“One best practice we recommend is to work through your last few days’ e-mails in your ‘sent items’ and ‘clean them up.’ This means that for every request or promise you’ve made in the last few days, you re-write people and fill in the pieces of our Accountability Puzzle that were missing from your original request or promise. Lastly, contract with your team members so that it is okay for people to check in with one another on the current state of particular commitments. This sounds like ‘Hey Rajiv, I know you are committed to making it safe for others to check in with you. How is it going with your financial projections for the Western half of the United States? I know they are due tomorrow at 3 p.m.’”
You stress the importance of an accountability partner, someone who you trust to keep you on track and check you when you go off track. What are the qualities you should look for when choosing an accountability partner?
“First, your accountability partner should not be your boss or direct report. Your accountability partners should be:
- At a peer level (or outside of the organization).
- Someone who has your best interests at heart.
- Someone you trust.
- Someone who is assertive enough to call [nonsense] on you when you are dancing around an issue.”
Front-loading accountability is a great idea, and yet many tasks and projects are tackled head-on without clear expectations. How do you overcome this in an organization?
“I just left a client organization yesterday after facilitating a day of strategic planning and implementation with them. They keep our Accountability Posters on their conference and meeting room walls for the express purpose of checking in the ‘quality’ of commitments being made in each meeting. They also allow time at the end of each meeting to address action items and lastly, they start each meeting with a review of the action items identified in their previous meeting. We have other best practices as well: try embedding the four pieces of our accountability puzzle in your requests and commitments.”
Your book says that in a high-accountability culture, it is important to first focus on yourself. How can this self-reflection help others become more accountable, other than mirroring the behavior?
“Now for me, this is a deep question. The answer certainly transcends our method and in my opinion, involves some best practices for life. A lot of the work we do in client organizations is getting all members of a team to self-reflect before they begin to externalize the root cause of the challenges they are experiencing. We believe that we have the greatest impact on organizations that allow us to catalyze this type of change. In other words, self-reflection is more powerful as a culture than it is at the level of one (or a few) individual(s) when working towards organizational change.”
Most people are familiar with S.M.A.R.T. goals, but you take it two steps further, with S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals. Why is it important to add “Ethical” and “Recorded” to the list?
“We spend a lot of time on this in our workshops. In short, if you want people to do their best work, what you are asking them to do must be aligned well with the values they thought they were signing up for when they first joined your organization. For example: If all I value is money and my ethics allow me to lie in order to earn it, I will fit very well into a project team which is tasked with making a profit ‘at any cost.’ In my experience, most people don’t fit this description.
‘Recorded’ simply means that accountability is created when someone else knows about your commitment.”
Deadlines worry most people, and your proposal to focus on timelines instead seems much more appealing. How are timelines just as effective as deadlines?
“We don’t mean to convey that one is more important than the other. We do mean to convey that they are different. In school, most of us were taught about deadlines, which is ‘when the work is due’ and we received very little training on timelines, which is ‘when the work gets done.’ We recommend that clients manage their calendars based on what they have already identified as ‘most important.’ We have a process for doing this with and for clients in our Executive Coaching practice.”
Sending accountability up the ladder is a daunting mission for most of us. How can we be truthful about accountability without some trepidation about the process?
“You should have some trepidation when going ‘upstream.’ If dealing with a difficult boss, we recommend using a permissive approach. ‘Hey boss, if I had something to share that might be difficult for you to hear and from my perspective was important for you to hear, when and where would you want me to share it?’ We warn you, if your boss tells you they don’t want to hear it, believe them.”
Your “Glossary of Failure” should occupy a place on everyone’s bulletin board. What are some techniques we can use with our Accountability Partners to make sure we are more specific?
“That’s nice of you to say. Tell people you are working on being more specific and invite them to ask you for more specific information when they hear you being ambiguous. When they do check in, thank them.”
How do you avoid giving too many tasks to your “go to” person?
“Having a regularly occurring and reciprocal feedback loop. An introvert and/or people with certain cultural backgrounds will continue to accept requests from you even when it is sinking their ship with too heavy a load. You need to be checking in (looking people in the eyes) when you are monitoring their workloads. Lastly, we have a theory about what percentage of the time people should be doing what they are best at. The number is 80% and we will write much more about this in our next book.”
Henry J. Evans is the founder and Managing Partner for Dynamic Results, LLC, which provides coaching and consulting solutions to companies and individuals. He provides performance coaching to independent executives, as well as those in national organizations, helping each achieve their desired goals. You can buy a copy of his book here.
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