3 essential leadership accountability tips for CEOs
Leadership accountability feels difficult for executives. This feeling is often based on a misconception that accountability is akin to punishment, according to Vistage speaker and Master Chair Greg Bustin.
But accountability isn’t punishment, he said — it’s a choice.
“How people choose to be accountable is a matter of how important their goal is,” said Bustin, who wrote Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture.
Each December in Bustin’s Vistage group, he asks members to declare a business objective, personal objective, and leadership development objective. He asks them a simple question for each: “What do you want to be celebrating a year from now?” Members fill in a scoreboard to see how far they’ve come throughout the year.
This process is accountability, Bustin said. It’s a support system for winners, something to help leaders remember their goals and promises, and a way to get back on track when they stumble or stagnate.
The Power of an Accountable Leader
When held accountable in a group of peers, leaders often become more accountable at work.
This newfound accountability can set the tone of the culture, according to Vistage Master Chair Cheryl McMillan. These leaders gain an exponential amount of trust and credibility throughout their company.
“It’s all about doing what you said you were going to do,” McMillan said. “It sounds simple. But the simplest things are hardest to do.”
The problem comes when leaders aren’t accountable, McMillan said. This often means broken promises to employees, along with missed and discarded goals. This can foster a culture of mistrust.
But when a culture of accountability sets in, McMillan said that something wonderful happens: Peers hold peers accountable.
“That’s a really difficult level to get to, but it’s a great thing when it works,” McMillan said. “If you can get two key executives who have to cooperate — maybe they’re in sales and ops — and hold themselves accountable without being personally reactive, that’s a beautiful thing.”
Before that can happen, leaders must work on their own accountability. Here are three tips for leaders to become more accountable.
1. Find Your Values
The first step to accountability, Bustin said, is finding your values. Values become behaviors, both for leaders and employees.
“As leaders, we’ve got to be true to our own values,” Bustin said. “The days of ‘do as I say, and not as I do’ are long gone.”
Leaders must be clear about what matters most. Otherwise, Bustin said that accountability will be an uphill battle, as values create a filter for decision-making.
When decisions get tough, as they often do when they reach the level of the CEO, Bustin said to remember that those values “are in place to help you make decisions that you don’t want to make.”
“That behavior then cascades down into the organization,” Bustin said. “Your job as the leader is to be very clear about what you stand for.”
2. Commit and Measure
Commitment to goals is essential for anyone looking to become more accountable, McMillan said.
Two essential questions lead to commitment, she said: What are you doing? And by when?
Whether a leader is asking these questions of themselves or an employee, they should keep asking until the questions are answered and a commitment is made.
Goals should be SMART, Bustin and McMillan agree. That means the goals should be: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
And goals should be captured. There are plenty of electronic programs where leaders can write their goals and track their progress, including Lifetick, Trello, and Goalscape. Old-school leaders may prefer post-it notes, a whiteboard or a sheet of paper.
If leaders aren’t staying accountable — or if there’s an employee who isn’t staying accountable — McMillan said the first course of action is to get curious about why.
This should be a gentle curiosity: “Why is staying accountable to this difficult for me?” rather than “Why do I keep messing this up?”
3. Join a Group of Peers
Some executives can hold themselves accountable without a support system, but Bustin said that takes a lot of discipline and honesty.
Even those executives who can hold themselves accountable will likely find great benefits by joining a group of peers who will help them stay accountable.
“It’s great having people there to encourage you and to ask questions,” Bustin said. “Maybe there’re questions you’ve thought about, but when you hear them coming out of somebody else’s mouth, they take on a different level of importance.”
Any executive who joins a group to improve their leadership accountability can only rely on the group for support, not action. This means staying honest with oneself and one’s group when the goal stagnates or when the actions being taken aren’t working.
This process requires humility, honesty and being willing to do something different if a goal stagnates. But even these moments are valuable, Bustin said. Whether the goal is being met or stagnating, the leader is staying in touch with reality and thereby staying accountable.
“It’s about figuring out what’s going on, what’s important to you,” Bustin said. “What has worked in the process? What has what hasn’t worked? Accountability is a conversation.”