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This post is based upon a chapter in the book “How to become a Talented Performer: A formula for early career success”, that I co-wrote with my good friend and business-partner David Pilbeam. We looked at what businesses said they wanted from the next crop of top performers, in the forthcoming 3-5 year time frame. There were many key areas identified and here, we’ll concentrate on one that stood out as a foundation stone for many of the others: accountability. 

Whilst our book was not focused specifically on leadership it is interesting how much of it resonates in the work of leaders. Here is how we defined people who regularly took accountability for their work: 

‘People who have high levels of accountability take personal and complete responsibility for producing a relevant, timely result that demonstrates excellence’

Let’s dig into that a bit, as there are several important elements that make up the whole: 

Personal and complete responsibility

Individuals who are high on accountability don’t need to do all the work themselves (big mistake!) but they tend to be comfortable taking the ultimate responsibility for delivery. This is an especially important trait in leaders who cannot effectively deny responsibility, as it comes with the title! And yet, we see and hear, way too many times situations where leaders will not step in and own a project or challenge fully. They are too busy considering what happens if the situation goes wrong or fails to be completed. I’m not naive, there may of course be a culture that has built up in a team or a whole organisation that would give leaders good reason to respond in such a way. Such a negative culture can promote this type of an approach. However, it results in leaders playing defence initially and worse than that it can conclude in tireless rounds of the blame-game and importantly the work never gets done or rarely gets done as well as it might have had there been a more positive atmosphere where people are expected to own the whole project/challenge. 

Relevant and timely result

Simple. Produce the result at the right time. Simple in theory. Harder in reality. Yet, those leaders who are high on accountability, will move heaven and earth to ensure that the result is delivered when needed (if not a little before). True leaders know that they cannot deliver all the results themselves and as a result do at least two things really well to ensure that results are delivered on time: Firstly, they know who in their team currently have the right skills and can be trusted to deliver the relevant and timely result. Those same leaders also have an excellent system of monitoring the progress of current work streams. Rarely does a project slip out of their vision and get missed as a result. They avoid suffocating those who charged with delivery but they also refuse to take a laissez-faire approach. It is a fine but important balance. 

Demonstrates excellence

I get so frustrated with myself when I complete a piece of work and then someone points out an error or a sloppy mistake that is usually the result of me rushing. I loathe re-work. I’m certainly not a perfectionist but I do want to do a great job first-time. Great leaders also appreciate the difference between getting the job done and getting the job done right. There’s a case of course, that the most important thing is actually to do the right job right. Right? As a leader set a standard of excellence that is known by all your team/organisation and then start by holding yourself to it, then the team. 


As with much of our advice we urge you to start with you. As a leader you can then role model to your team how you want them to be and have a clearer mandate and opportunity to hold them to account for their performance:You simply can’t do that if they are looking at you regularly failing to demonstrate high levels of accountability.

Get this right however by building a culture of high accountability and it produces several great outcomes for you, the team and your business because it: 

  1. Reduces your time in motivating people to give of their best - they do that themselves
  2. Saves time on root-cause analysis because people own their results and own up to mistakes
  3. Increases the time you have available to lead effectively rather than get bogged down in the detail
  4. It becomes a self-selecting and de-selecting environment where you start to attract high performers and shed those that don't want to take accountability
  5. High performance becomes much more self-sustaining over the longer-term

Performance Edge Partners help organisations develop cultures to meet business need. If you would like help in doing that then please contact us here, we will be happy to help. 

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Posted On
Jul 1, 2016
Posted In
Embedding sustainable change  Engaging people 

John Lewis
Little Hearts Matter