Overcoming Failure of Leadership: Accountability Tips

In the News, Winning With Accountability

Dallas Morning News / USA 

Accountability and the Failure of Leadership

When it comes to accountability, the devil is in the details. Be explicit in your communication or be prepared to disappoint or be disappointed. That’s the message from Henry Evans, who makes his living coaching executives. 

The Glossary of Failure in Leadership Communication

“People fail to meet expectations when those expectations are ambiguous, even when they have the highest intentions in the world,” he says. The 46-year-old founder and managing partner of Dynamic Results LLC tells clients to banish such terms as: ASAP. I’ll do my best. I’ll get right on it. The end of the day. Let’s do something new and bold. Let’s do a better job. Let’s improve our service levels. Let’s increase sales. These are all part of his “glossary of failure” — murky language land mines that lead to trouble because they lack specificity. “What do you mean you thought ASAP meant next week?” he says in a mock conversation. “It means tomorrow, 5 p.m. Dallas time.”

Dynamic Results is a boutique consultancy with annual revenue approaching $3 million that Evans started in 2003 in Dallas. It teaches corporate clients how to make their organizations more accountable by making the accepted lexicon highly specific.

Specificity in Expectations: A Remedy for Leadership Failure

“In business we use language like We need to beat our competition to market. What does that mean?” says Evans, who now lives in San Francisco. He teaches people to outline a highly focused goal and then reverse-engineer a timeline to achieve it.

The process has to start with the top brass and filter down, he says. Any changes made by mid-managers are apt to be vetoed if the bigwigs aren’t on board.

“We’re working with a $10 billion commercial and consumer products company that wanted us to train 2,000 middle managers,” Evans says. “We refused to take the work unless we had the top 26 executives for six months first.”

In 2008, Evans published Winning With Accountability: The Secret Language of High Performing Organizations as a quick take on the basics.

“This is a 75-minute read,” he says, holding up the 96-page paperback that has more than 70,000 copies in distribution.

Accountability in Leadership: The Four Essential Components

There are four pieces to Evans’ accountability puzzle:

  • Clear expectations.
  • Specific date and time.
  • Designating a person or people responsible for getting it done.
  • Sharing information with everyone who needs to know it.

People should stop and think about fuzzy terms they routinely use. Need help discovering yours? Ask the people you work with. Look at the email you sent yesterday afternoon and see what information potholes you created.

Clear Objectives and Professional Communication

Every year, Evans does a pro bono project. This year’s recipient was Kids-U, formerly Dallas Community Lighthouse, which provides after-school education in low-income housing communities.

Diana Baker, Kids-U executive director, says she learned to clearly state her objective first and then add the reasoning behind it.

“This has helped me not only deal more professionally and respectfully with my staff, but it has also helped me to go straight to the ‘ask’ with potential donors for our nonprofit group,” she says.

Janine Steiner Jovanovic, chief executive of RealPage, a Dallas software provider for rental housing, has been working with Evans for nearly a decade. She and her sales staff have learned to tell customers exactly what results they can expect.

This “has led us to dominate our space and maintain a 98 percent client retention rate,” she says.

Terri Sue Wensinger, president of Snap! Event Productions, thinks Evans’ accountability message might be just the ticket for several corporate events she’s planning. 

Her favorite takeaway: “When you send an email, tell the person when you want something,” Wensinger says. “Instead of saying, ‘This is in your court. Please get back to me,’ say, ‘Please get back to me by 3 p.m. on Friday.’ Then if they miss the deadline, ‘You can say, ‘Hey, you missed the deadline.’”


The Impact of Information Overload on Leadership

Information overload is a huge component of the problem.

We’re being asked to process 30 times more information in a day than people in the workforce handled in 1985, Evans says.

Rapidly rising rates of stress-related illness are proof that our brains haven’t miraculously evolved to process this surge in data, he says. “We’re trying to shove 20 pounds of garbage into a 10-pound bag.”


Henry Evans: Modeling Leadership Accountability

Evans says he’s an obsessive-compulsive personality — highly detail-oriented but not to the point of a disorder.

All of his time mechanisms — including his watch with two time zones, iPhone and computers — are set to the atomic clock. So when he says he’ll call at 11 a.m., you won’t hear from him at 10:59 or 11:01.

“A lot of my clients answer the phone laughing, saying, ‘I knew it had to be you,’” Evans says. “I’m trying to model a standard for them. If you’re in a leadership role, you don’t go up in front of your people and say something haphazardly and then not do it. You lose all of your leadership credibility and you might never gain it back.

“You say, ‘Here’s what I’m doing, when I’m doing it and I’m letting you all know it so that I’m on the hook for it.’”


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