January 2013

Does the Buck Really Stop Over There...Or Right Here?

Why Accountability is Crucial (and Ten Tips to Help Leaders Get Started

Nobody likes to take the rap for unmet goals, missed deadlines, mistakes, etc. So it's not surprising then that the blame game flourishes. But while pointing fingers may take the heat off of you (at least temporarily), Dennis Haley is adamant that it's not good for productivity, morale, future success, and more. Here, he explains what accountability is, why it's so important for leaders to have, and how they can hardwire it into their lives.

King of Prussia, PA (January 2013)—In our culture, accountability has become scarce. This manifests in our personal lives, in celebrity culture, in politics, and yes, in business. Instead of holding fast to Harry Truman's famous "the buck stops here" attitude, we're more likely to feel that "the buck stops over there." And we're good at justifying that viewpoint, too: It's not my fault we missed that deadline; half the people on the team didn't pull their weight. If accounting had been clearer and more responsive, the project wouldn't have been over budget. If only the client had been more accommodating, we could have met our goal. Sound familiar?

The truth is, for most people the "blame game" is an unconscious default behavior. But, warns Dennis Haley, if you allow it to exist in your organization—especially in your leaders—it will negatively affect your organization's productivity, cohesiveness, and bottom line. It's all too easy for teams to become gridlocked when they're engaged in finger-pointing, Haley explains. At a time when quick, effective, and constructive action is most needed, progress is all but impossible because no one will own up to and take responsibility for mistakes.

"In general, leaders don't point fingers because they want to make others look bad, but because they want to be liked, they want to take the heat off themselves, and they haven't been trained on how not to do it," explains Haley, CEO of Academy Leadership and author of The Accountability Compass: Moving from "The Blame Game" to Collaboration. "Blame shifting can be a subtle practice—almost an art form. And until people realize how destructive it is, they'll keep doing it."

Haley, a former officer in the U.S. Navy and a leader in the business world for over 35 years, has lived the lessons he imparts in The Accountability Compass, and knows from experience why the blame game is so destructive.

Written in the form of an easy-to-read story, his book tells the story of Guy Cedrick, a young executive who must lead a working group that brings together three different organizations, including his own. Despite members' differing expectations, levels of commitment, and internal conflict, Guy must set achievable goals and drive results in order to ensure his company's future success.

After coming close to failure, Guy discovers that a leader's lack of accountability can engender distrust, breed resentment and discontent, and cause crucial problems to go unsolved. Ultimately, he learns that while difficult team members can provide the perfect excuse to admit defeat, a group's leader is ultimately accountable for its success or failure.

"'Accountability' is one of those words that is thrown around a lot; however, most people don't understand what it looks like in action," Haley points out. "That's the purpose of The Accountability Compass—to illustrate how accountability should impact leadership style, conflict resolution, team unification, short- and long-term planning, and more. Being accountable is the polar opposite of playing the blame game, and it's ultimately about accomplishing much more through your own work and through the work of others."

Haley promises that while being accountable won't always be easy, it will help ensure positive results for you and your organization.

"When you make a commitment to place accountability over personal comfort and interests, you'll find that a lot of issues will get fixed automatically, and that decisions will become easier," he comments.

Read on for ten of Haley's tips on what leaders can do to hold themselves and their teams accountable:

  1. Face your own lack of accountability. In order to improve your behavior, you must identify and analyze your weak points. So first, look back at your leadership and pinpoint times when you've failed to hold yourself, or groups for which you were responsible, accountable. You may find it helpful to limit yourself to the past six months or year, at least to begin. Pay special attention to the types of situations in which accountability fell by the wayside, and why. Do you tend to point fingers with certain colleagues in particular, for instance? Is it easier for you to stick to your guns with some clients instead of others?

    "Knowing when and how you're most likely to have an accountability slip-up will help you make sure it doesn't happen in the future," Haley points out. "And remember, even if you're the only person who knows that you cut a corner or didn't put forth your best effort, acknowledging that action is important. Being accountable across the board starts with keeping the promises and commitments you make to yourself because they're the easiest of all to break."

  2. Face your fear. It's tempting to turn a blind eye to the things that scare you—like the fact that you don't understand all of the details of a new project you're about to lead, for example. Whether consciously or unconsciously, you might be so frightened of messing up and failing that you push your most daunting problems to the side. Maybe, like Scarlett O'Hara, you vow that you'll "think about that tomorrow," or perhaps you hope the issue will work itself out over time. However (as you probably suspect), you need to actively confront the problems that intimidate you the most.

    "Diving into trouble with your eyes closed isn't good for you or your organization," states Haley. "No, viewing your problems head-on won't be easy. That's where moral courage comes in. It's a necessary ingredient of leadership and accountability because it enables you to tough it out through situations that may not be comfortable or palatable. Moral courage will help you to address conflict, tackle complex problems, and most of all, do the right thing even when it isn't the easiest option."

  3. Take ownership of all problems (and stop playing the blame game!). It's pretty simple: If you're a leader, the buck does stop with you...regardless of whether the results are good or bad. Stanley Sabato, whose character acts as Guy Cedrick's mentor in The Accountability Compass, describes taking ownership of problems like this:

    "...I found out pretty fast that it didn't matter who I thought was accountable or what I thought of that person. Even if I could see exactly what went wrong and I could assign the blame perfectly, it didn't matter. At the end of each day, every single problem on that job was still mine to solve."

    Haley is clear on this point, too. "As a leader, it's your job to do everything you can to fix every single problem. If you don't, the other person isn't the weak link; you are. The next time you find yourself in this situation, don't point fingers. Instead say, 'Let's all concentrate on helping me fix our problem.' See yourself as the accountable party. And as soon as you realize there's an issue, ask yourself how you allowed this to happen. Getting to the bottom of things in an honest and timely manner will give you the most direct route to the solution, even if it's not comfortable."

  4. Create a leadership philosophy. Put it in writing. In all areas of life, and especially in the business world, people need to know what to expect from you and what you expect from them. When there are no clear standards, it's more difficult to know when a line has been crossed or when weight isn't being pulled. Yes, these truths seem simple enough...but many leaders leave their requirements, preferences, and expectations unexpressed and undefined. No wonder so many employees don't understand why the boss got so angry, and why so many bosses don't get why their teams keep dropping the ball.

    "That's why it's so important to articulate your personal leadership philosophy, or PLP," Haley explains. "Think about your personal values, as well as those of the company you work for. Identify behaviors and attitudes you do and don't want your team members to display. Define your expectations and figure out what your personal 'hot buttons' are. For instance, in The Accountability Compass, Guy Cedrick asks his team to propose solutions when they point out problems and to let everyone know when they'll be late, and he expresses that gossip won't be tolerated. Once you have outlined your own PLP, put it in writing and distribute it to your team. When everyone is on the same page and knows what to do, it's easier to achieve buy-in and to hold individuals accountable for their actions or inactions."

  5. Develop SMART goals. In the same way that a personal leadership philosophy targets individuals and their behavior, SMART goals apply to projects by helping to ensure that all of the details have been taken care of and that the project is on course. According to Haley, SMART goals meet five criteria. They are: Specific, Measurable, Agreed to, Realistic, and Trackable. Used correctly, they'll keep you and your team accountable by assigning tasks and deadlines and by making sure that everyone involved is on the same page.

    "Every task you oversee as a leader should meet these criteria," Haley explains. "No matter what the project is, it will involve various people with different responsibilities. And unless everyone knows, understands, and agrees to the plan, puzzle pieces will fall through the cracks between areas of expertise. Again, you can't hold people accountable unless you and they know what they're being held accountable for."

  6. Get to know your team and assume the best about them. In The Accountability Compass, Guy's mentor tells him, "The only currency you have as a leader is the quality of your relationships with your group members." Words of wisdom, indeed. To keep yourself and your team accountable, you need to stay in touch (without micromanaging!) and get to know each person on an individual basis: what makes him tick, what motivates her, and how everyone communicates.

    "For instance, a 'yes' from three different people might mean three different things," Haley explains. "The first person may mean she will do something, the second may mean he hopes to do it, and the third may mean she will try to do it. You need to be familiar enough with your team to be able to read these quirks, or things will slip through the cracks and you won't achieve the desired results. Over the years, I've also learned that it's a smart strategy to assume the best about your team. When you decide there's something wrong with a person, all you'll notice is evidence to support that you're right. But when you assume the best about that person's motivations and efforts, you'll feel less victimized when a mistake does happen, and you'll more naturally take control of salvaging the outcome.

    "And one last piece of advice," he adds. "If you determine that someone just isn't right for a task or project after you get to know him, move him out. It may not be easy, but to remain accountable, it's crucial to have the right people on your team."

  7. Put people ahead of stuff. When you're the person who is ultimately in charge of a project's success or failure, it can seem like basic instinct to focus your attention on what Guy's mentor Stanley calls "stuff": for example, the technology you'll be using, field-specific details, the exact wording of a proposal, and more. But take a step back and look at the big picture. Chances are, team members are already assigned to take care of these specialized details. Yes, you need to oversee their efforts, but your primary job is to make sure that everyone works together, meets goals, and progresses on pace.

    "The truth is, when you micromanage, people tend to get lazy," Haley says. "After all, if you know your boss is going to take your assignment and more or less redo it, or hold your hand every step of the way, where is your motivation to take the initiative and give it your best effort? So as a leader, don't make the mistake of helping when you should be challenging. Focus on people—mentoring them, developing them, guiding them to meet their goals—instead of on the stuff they're supposed to be doing. That's the best way to make sure that your project stays on track and that no balls are dropped."

  8. Address conflict. Nobody likes conflict. It can be upsetting, uncomfortable, divisive, frustrating, and more. Often, it's our natural instinct to push conflict away and hope it dissipates on its own. But if it crops up in your team, you need to draw on your moral courage and address it...because no one else will. Accountability is about dealing with the bad as well as the good.

    "Conflict is a fact of life," Haley points out. "Another fact of life is that projects won't succeed unless conflict is dealt with. I find it helpful to remind myself that conflict itself isn't bad or good, but there are bad and good ways of handling it. When handled poorly, conflict can doom your team to failure. But when handled constructively, it's often an opportunity to improve processes, fine-tune thinking, and develop skill sets. And remember, when you provide consistent leadership from the beginning, you'll minimize the chances that conflict will crop up at all."

  9. Ask (lots of) questions. When meeting goals and achieving desirable outcomes are at stake, there is no such thing as a dumb question. It's crucial for leaders to understand what's happening, how team members are feeling and thinking, and what needs to be done next. After all, you can't be fully accountable if you're working with partial knowledge.

    "People often assume that leadership is about knowing all the answers, but that's not true," says Haley. "Leadership is about knowing the right questions to ask, and having the moral courage not to stop until you get the answers you need. That's where most people drop the ball—they stop investigating before they understand the situation fully. As you ask questions, make sure your people know that your questions are not meant to incriminate, accuse, or blame them, but to support them. Tell them that you're being persistent because you have taken responsibility for the situation's outcome, and that you need their help. They'll be more fully honest and much more willing to work with you."

  10. Make accountability a positive part of your organization's culture. Striving to become a more accountable leader yourself is good, and when you do, Haley promises you'll see positive results. But don't stop there—try to spread these attitudes and behaviors as far through your company's culture as possible. A great way to start is to begin rewarding acts of accountability. If you haven't already, change the way you respond to and deal with mistakes. Let your team members know that it's okay to come forward when they mess up.

    "No, I'm not saying you should always let someone off the hook when she fesses up," Haley clarifies. "However, if the mistake was 'honest'—in other words, not a result of negligence, bad behavior, etc. (which should be addressed firmly)—don't make the culprit feel even worse than she already does. Instead, compliment her on the moral courage it took for her to admit to her error. Help her to make the situation right and/or learn from it. And point out to everyone involved how taking ownership of problems helps to resolve them more effectively and efficiently. On the flip side, institute a zero-tolerance policy for finger-pointing. Essentially, make it your goal to create an environment in which no one is afraid to make an honest mistake. Remember, that type of fear sparks unhealthy conflict and causes people to stay well inside their comfort zones...and that's not where great things happen."

"Remember, mistakes, conflict, misunderstandings, and problems are going to crop up from time to time when you're a leader," Haley concludes. "But blaming others and looking elsewhere for the culprit won't help you to ultimately achieve the best results. Instead, resolve to be accountable for everything that happens in your team—good and bad. When you adopt a the-buck-stops-here attitude and try to find opportunities for growth in the midst of conflict, you'll get the best results from everyone involved—yourself included."

Dennis Haley is the author of The Accountability Compass: Moving from "The Blame Game" to Collaboration, The Core Values Compass: Moving from Cynicism to a Core Values Culture (2010), and The Leader's Compass: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Key to Success, 2nd Edition (2005). Following his graduation from the United States Naval Academy in 1967 with a B.S. in engineering, Dennis successfully completed Admiral Rickover’s nuclear power training program and served onboard the USS Long Beach, a nuclear-powered cruiser. Leaving the Navy, he joined a small family-owned HVAC company in Philadelphia, PA. Over a 25-year career, he grew this small business into one of the largest and most respected HVAC companies in the Delaware Valley. He also contributed to the community by serving in a number of positions, including the board of directors of Fort Mifflin and president of the Delaware Valley Chapter, Air Conditioning Contractors of America. Dennis then left the heating and air conditioning industry to spearhead a new endeavor: helping others reach their full potential as leaders. He developed the Lead2Succeed™ process that creates the ideal environment for behavior change to take place.