We develop at a young age that follows us into our careers. The behaviors around accountability are the most difficult to approach and sort through. I can think of so many events and memories from my childhood that contributed to how I look at accountability and everything that swirls around it. Accountability is not just a tool managers get to swing when things are not going right. Accountability is a skill that enables each person to have a superpower made up of ownership and the ability to accept and action feedback.
My father is a great storyteller. He could tell the most amazing stories, bringing the character’s life with all the nonverbal animations you would expect from a father telling stories to his young boys. One that has always stuck with me was George Washington and the Cherry tree. A tale of a boy that had to face his father, knowing what he had done was wrong. My father must have told me this story a hundred times as a child. It is not just the integrity that is the apparent undertone of the story. It’s the standup accountability. It is an excellent example of how their shame does not come from having to own up to the mistake. Instead, it recognizes that the act was an opportunity to make a better decision. Strong decision-making is a principle of ownership. Learning not to make the same wrong decision twice is essential.
The fourth-grade year was a tough one for me. I remember having challenges with my schooling. I do not precisely recall why. Looking back, I do not remember having close friends. I started a paper route that was 72+ newspapers six days a week. It was the beginning of where I developed the strong work ethic I have today. Something that also started was my challenging school career. My focus was something that took me into my twenties to develop. I’m so easily distracted. I’m constantly wondering what else would be fun right now. I remember that day fourth grade ended. Back in those days, the report card was just handed to you as you walked out the door. Of course, I had little consideration for what was on it. I was way more focused on the summer ahead of me.
When I arrived home, my mom happened to be there. She had got off work early. She asked about my last day of school. I shared the day’s events and mentioned that my report card was in my backpack, and she went and retrieved it. I wish I could say that this look was one I would only witness once. It’s a combination of astonishment, fury, and disappointment. I received an F in one of my courses. My first, unfortunately not my last. My mother gathered herself and let me know that we would work through this. She was clear that I had some summer school in my future. The constant example that many of us need is not to walk away from our failures. Anything can be learned or achieved with practice and hard work. The big lesson is that there is the right way to own your trajectory and growth and that education is essential. It would be easy to say better luck next year. There is also a way to identify what you could have done better and then prove that you can achieve your goal the next time around.
From these two examples I shared, you realize that I’m likely the most accountable person ever, a boss’s dream employee. My parents would attest to the complete grace and understanding that I showed through these events. Accountability is a long journey, and, in most cases, the receiver reaps all the benefits while their leader takes all the shots. Eventually, through development, growth, and experience, accountability becomes a skill we all learn to use effectively in our careers. I have shared my early learnings from my Mcdonald’s career. However, I could not learn all these lessons at once. Several of them came back around and haunted me for years.
Early in my professional career, working in contact centers, I made a shift from one company to another. I was starting with an up-and-coming telecommunications company, and they were new to the valley. It was an inspiring time for me. I needed the change. My career was going nowhere quickly with my current company. I had an early shift with the new company, and I was not the best at getting up with an alarm. The snooze button had done me in, and within 30 days, I had three late occurrences and a written corrective action to go with it. My new boss was not messing around. He was sure to set expectations and a clear example of how too many occurrences will be handled. I was beyond upset about how it all went.
Excuses will never be tolerated is the lesson that I finally had to learn. It’s not because no one cares. It is because it is all about chance and a lack of preparation. It shows no effort to be intentional and own up to our decisions and actions. There had been previous conversations. It’s not like I did not have context from previous jobs on the impact of late having on myself and those that work around me. The reality is showing up on time is the most basic expectation. It likely was why I had struggled to advance in my previous company. It is the ownership and commitment that comes with being accountable that my employer and all other employers are looking for.
Accountability is the key to opening so many other skills. Accountability is about the willingness to take on the responsibility and ownership that will eventually lead. The primary skill that comes from accountability is ownership. True ownership allows for the opportunity to anticipate and be planful. People that operate with ownership can quickly determine what things are in their sphere of control versus concern and act on them. With improved ownership comes an ability to understand which levers impact results and an ability to perform versus being proactive. Both individuals and leaders should consider how well their accountability meter is working if they find themselves constantly reacting to the things around them.
The willingness to accountability creates openness to feedback. When there is a lack of ownership, it is not just about the impacted results. The actions and outcomes that support those results are not accounted for either. This means that each time poor performance is brought up, it could be a complete surprise to the individual, or at least in their mind, it is a complete surprise. Companies and leaders love to lean into the adage "feedback is a gift" this, simply put, is not valid. The statement only supports one side of the conversation. It means that leaders think everything said is gold or will always lead to improvement. Leaders should consider the learning more than the feedback. Did the feedback drive change? The behaviors of ownership open the door to feedback acceptance. People work best in a collaborative environment. Accepting feedback and the conversation reflects that ownership is far more critical for learning and long-term success. It ultimately leads to the actions that will drive change. Dissatisfaction is still part of the change model. Dissatisfaction is not a stick or a tool for leaders.
As the skill of ownership and actioning feedback are mastered comes confidence. Confidence is what really helps to shape a career. It allows for further accountability leading to that superpower that comes from being a person that creates autonomy in their work. Better acumen is developed, and decision-making more consistently yields positive results. The gained confidence and autonomy allow each of us that control over the work that we do. Autonomy is what leads to innovation and risk-taking. The superpower of realizing skills and how they can be utilized is the value proposition each person brings. Careers are about the journey and the growth and not the list of mistakes and failures they helped to bring on each of the positive changes that have taken place.
How leaders can drive ownership
- Expectations: The most common mistake made by leaders who struggle to achieve consistent results is in how well they set expectations. When performance is not where it needs to be, the first step should always be what is the expectations and how well it has been set. Not set like communicated but set like a foundation. Leaders need to set expectations early and not just in the moment, check in throughout, and make sure that all expectations are measurable.
- Influence: Leaders need to learn to motivate in other ways beyond the carrot and the stick. Instead, leaders should be mindful of how they are developing skills within their team. Understand the motivations of each of their team members and find ways to create purpose in the work that is done each day. The process in how goals are set, managed, and rewarded are also important tactics in supporting daily rigor. Instead of accountability, leaders should recognize that the sword they yield is influence.
- Decision Making: Beyond expectations and skills, leaders need to develop acumen. Many factors and even required politics must be managed in how decisions are made in an organization. The short-term and long-term impacts of decisions must be reviewed with new leaders. Leaders need to help their team members understand the partnerships and follow-up necessary to support decisions that lead to desired outcomes.
Developing the behaviors need to support accountability
Great leaders that want to take the time to take the shots that come with helping others work toward accountability are not as common as you would think. Individuals looking to grow in their careers or fast-track themselves in leveling up can look at some other options to assist in developing stronger awareness and the skills surrounding accountability.
Ways to develop skills to support accountability
- Emotional Intelligence: A lot of our challenges come from not understanding how we use the information of our emotions. Developing stronger self-awareness of our interpersonal skills and empathy are great tools to aid in transforming from reacting to situations to creating intentional and purposeful planning. A book or course can be significant. For best results, seek out a certified practitioner. Having an action plan and measuring results is always the best approach to support development.
- Coaching: Work with a coach that can be objective. It would be best if you found a coach that also understands accountability. A person that can be direct and supports an open candor. You want a coach that can understand the business and draw out the perspective of both sides. Each session should have some homework or take-always. It is best to add goals that can be measured. Everyone needs consistent coaching for improvement. If you are not getting this within your organization, be sure to seek it out on your own.
- Develop a more robust process for planning and goal setting: Often, the challenge with accountability is evaluating how the efforts lead to an impact and if the impact was the one desired. Individuals looking to grow their careers should spend time planning out their goals and desires. Put milestones in place that will help guide the way and show when it is time to adjust the plan. Take time each day to journal the workday, call out insights, lessons learned, and results achieved.
Punishment and guilt are far from accountability. Consider that there are prisons full of guilty people that have never been accountable for their actions. To this day, no authority has been able to hold them accountable. Accountability is a behavior developed from within a person, and it is a state of being. The result of accountability is the key to career success. Learning to be more intentional and accountable for where it takes you.