I've been working with a product scale-up business to create the conditions for a culture of greater accountability in their business.

In one conversation we talked about what it really means to hold people to account.

It struck me that this is something that is much discussed in leadership. But there's little understanding what it means in practice.

It often conjures up mental images of a pseudo-legal, adversarial and combative process. A verbal joust that's designed to shine a light on under-performance.

But it shouldn't be like that.

Done well, holding to account increases clarity, creates opportunities for feedback and enables reflective learning.

And yes, it should feel a bit uncomfortable too. It will push beyond existing norms to help professional growth.

A process for holding to account

So to help my client see what I was talking about, I shared my 3Hs model for holding to account:

1. Have clear expectations

Holding to account starts with be able to set measurable and relevant outcomes.

Ensure there's clarity on how a specific role contributes to what the business is trying to achieve.

Three to six clear outcomes seems to work well.

It's enough to capture the diversity of most roles, but not so many that it's impossible for someone to achieve them.

Make sure expectations are framed as outcomes, not outputs.

In a culture of accountability, people find ways to work out what outputs they need to deliver. In low accountability cultures, people are just told what to do.

2. Help people understand consequences

In accountable cultures people embrace being ultimately answerable. They appreciate the consequences of achieving or not achieving that outcome.

Encourage people to think about the consequences for their team, business, client or customer of hitting an outcome successfully.

What does you achieving that outcome mean for those groups? How will they be affected if you don't deliver against the outcome?

And for the person holding the outcome, what are the consequences for them of achieving or not achieving an particular outcome?

If an outcome happens, what does that mean for the individual who's been accountable for that success? What might it mean for them and where might it lead them?

Be careful about making overly extrinsic reward associations here. It's not that simple.

This isn't about generating unnecessary fear or threat if an outcome is missed either. It happens, but an accountable culture means expecting people to reflect and learn from the experience.

Over time, a pattern of not being able to deliver against outcomes is an indicator of a deeper issue. In my experience is usually down to the role, the team member or a combination of those two things.

3. Hold regular review conversations

Find ways of having honest dialogues about how it's going. Do it regularly and frequently.

If things are off-track, talk about ways that the person who's accountable might understand why and take action to make things better.

Ask open questions and encourage reflection. Resist the temptation to solve for them.

Support them to overcome the obstacles to delivering their outcome.

In summary

The 3Hs of holding to account is a simple, easy to remember process:

  1. Have clear expectations
  2. Help people understand consequences
  3. Hold regular review conversations

By building it into your organisational cadence, you can help a more accountable culture emerge throughout your scaling business.

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