Getting what you want Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

It’s a reality of business that not every project is going to run flawlessly. Problems are going to crop up. What frustrates executives at every level is the inability to pinpoint these hiccups that threaten to derail a project that is otherwise progressing as expected. Roger Connors and Tom Smith, founders of Partners In Leadership Inc., decided to delve into the complex answer to the obvious question with their book, “How Did That Happen? Holding People Accountable for Results the Positive, Principled Way.”

Connors spoke to Smart Business about why there is a resistance to accountability in today’s workplace and what businesses can do to ensure that holding others accountable is a positive part of the work process.

If accountability is an essential practice, why are businesses so hesitant about implementing it?

There are really two reasons. Accountability really begins by clearly defining results. Organizations today have a hard time clarifying and prioritizing what are the most important results they need to work on. We find that nine out of 10 senior management teams have a very difficult time articulating when we ask them, ‘What are the top three results you need to achieve as a management team?’

The second reason is that management organizations and teams have a very difficult time establishing the right manner in which they create accountability. When you usually ask someone the question, ‘When do you hear about accountability?’ (the answer is) generally, ‘When something has gone wrong.’ So, accountability has become something that happens to you when things go wrong. That’s negative and counterproductive.

The book discusses the ‘inner ring’ and ‘outer ring’ of accountability. How do these help change ineffective practices?

First, you have to understand that what you create accountability for is what you’re going to get. The outer ring is designed to help you be really clear about what you’re creating accountability for. I had an experience early on in my consulting career with a medical device company and the focus of the team was really on creating a quality product. But when you went down to the assembly line, what you found were people producing a product that wasn’t highly rated in terms of quality.

When they explored what was going on, you’d ask an assembly line person what was happening and they’d say, ‘Well, all that management wants is to ship the product.’ What management at this company created accountability for, even though they didn’t realize it, was a clear focus on getting the product shipped, not on quality.

When they understood the expectation that (the production staff) had in their minds, the managers were able to shift that expectation. They were able to move forward with that process and create that kind of clarity so that within two years, they were among the highest scored in customer satisfaction in their particular industry. That happened because they created clarity about the expectations they wanted people to understand they had and they would hold them accountable for what they do.

You discuss the need for the inspection of expectations. How can a leader convey to his or her employees that inspection isn’t negative?

We think that the key behind a real positive, effective inspection is to have a two-way conversation with someone and establish upfront that this is how we’re going to check in and talk about progress along the way. When people have that understanding, our experience has been that people actually look forward to the inspection. People are given an opportunity to talk about what they’ve accomplished, as opposed to what they haven’t accomplished. It also creates periodic opportunities for people to talk about the other support that’s needed and to test boundaries that they might be assuming.

How Did That Happen? Holding People Accountable for Results the Positive, Principled Way

By Roger Connors and Tom Smith

Portfolio ©2009,, 252 pages, $26.95