Creating a Company Culture of Accountability and Responsibility

I serve as an executive coach for a number of terrific entrepreneurs. One of their struggles is how to create a culture of ownership and accountability in their business. They are good business people and they know where they should be investing their own time to create the maximum value. However, there are a lot of other things that need to get done in their business as well. By and large, they have good employees who will do what they are asked to do. These business owners, however, are hungry for more than that. They want to have employees who take ownership of their responsibilities so that the owners don't have to manage every aspect of the business. How should they go about doing this?

One key step is to make sure that they are investing time and resources in the right employees. Too often, we leaders spend too much of our time with the "problem children" rather than with the top performers. On a day-by-day basis this approach seems to make sense. Work needs to be done correctly, and the executives and managers of a business are the last line of defense between the company's reputation and the outside world. As a result, we have a few people that we trust to do a good job and we leave them alone to do their work. With everyone else, we hover and micromanage in an effort to make sure that things get done right.

Yet over the long run, it is your investment of time and resources in that smaller number of high-value employees that will pay off. The few always set the pace for the many. Anytime you are seeking to influence an organization's culture, you must first find and influence the pace setters. These are the people who, as a function of both their skills and their attitude, model for everyone else what top performance looks like. By first investing in these people, you create a core group of people whose behavior and performance will set the bar for everyone else.

Your opportunity to put these leaders on your side are limited if you spend all your time trying to fix the problems of average to poor performers in your company, Furthermore, if you are used to focusing on the average to poor performers, you will likely have to retool your own leadership and management approach. Pacesetters typically want a different kind of attention from you than do average and below-average performers. Sub-par performers need constant attention and resources.

In contrast, top performers are content to be left alone. They don't want you looking over their shoulder. If you are going to spend more time with them, they want that time to be devoted to making their working life easier and more effective. These people want you to help them get the resources and connections that they need to be successful. They want you to be a champion for them and their projects. If you are credible, they want you to be their coach and advisor.

Leadership Self Assessment
Here is a quick assessment to analyze how you invest your leadership time.

  1. Write down the names of all the employees for whom you are directly responsible.
  2. Estimate how many hours you spend on average with each person each week/month.
  3. Who are the most effective or valuable people on your list? How much time did you spend with them over the past several months?
  4. Who are the least effective employees on your list? How much time did you spend with them over the same period?
  5. In whom are you under-investing? In whom are you over-investing?

The 80/20 principle, which states that 80% of the value is created by 20% of the people, is alive and well in organizations today. Your challenge as a leader is to make sure that you are first investing time and resources in the top 20%. Just as in financial investing, if you under-invest in your top performing assets, your returns will by definition fall short of where they could be.

As you shift your time to invest in your most valuable people, keep in mind that you are not ignoring everyone else who works for you. Neither are you creating a two-tier organization of favorites vs. everyone else. Rather, you are making sure that your top performers get all the time and support they need to contribute as much as they can to the business.

Some top performers are simply that - highly effective individuals. Others, however, have an inherent desire to help others achieve more. In creating a culture of great employee accountability, these individuals are vital. They are the ones who will willingly shoulder a greater burden for helping other employees step up and do more. As you invest time in these leaders, you greatly expand your ability to influence your team in positive and productive ways.

Once you decide to spend more time with your best people, you need some practical steps to take. Here are two to implement immediately:

Have them set their own goals. If you are focused on strong performers, you don't need to dictate every goal and objective to them. Ask people to come up with their own goals and objectives. Tell them that you will come up with your own list. Then sit down together and compare lists. The exercise will help you to see where your people are coming from and will provide both of you with an opportunity to understand one another's goals and priorities. Make sure to leave the discussion with an agreed-upon list of specific, numerical goals and timeframes.

Don't leave your passenger seat empty. Be very intentional about taking your best people along with you to important events. One thing that separates the best performers from others is their ability to learn through "osmosis." They seem to absorb lessons simply by being exposed to new situations. When you invest time with your best people, it is gratifying because you get to watch your mentoring investment pay off.

Before the meeting or event, talk strategy with your associates. Ask them what they think success looks like for the meeting. Give them specific assignments or cues to be responsible for during the session.

After the meeting, even if it is just on the car ride back to the office, do a post-game analysis. What went well? What could have been better? What are the next actions? Make sure that you both have a list of next actions that flow from the meeting.

Challenge People to Lead. Challenge your best people to be leaders within your organization. Tell them that they are already pacesetters and that you are relying upon them to set the tone for others. Ask them to invest time in their colleagues to help them lift their level of effectiveness. Leaders love attention and challenge. Give it to them, and watch as you all together begin to create an organization that takes ownership and accountability.

Eric Herrenkohl is Founder and President of Herrenkohl Consulting (www.herrenkohlconsulting.com), a management consulting firm focused on creating organizations that drive growth and profits. His work has been published or cited in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Inc.com, Monster.com, Careerbuilder.com, and MSNBC.com.  Eric is also the author of Performance Principles, a monthly e-letter that reaches thousands of subscribers across North America and is re-printed in a number of industry and company newsletters.

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