I’m sitting in my living room on a sticky summer day next to one of my best leaders and good friends. He’s visiting from the other side of the globe for a company-wide retreat and I invited him over for dinner since in-person time is hard to come by, even pre-COVID.
We’re at my dining table just hanging out when he gets a ping on Slack. I see his face drop and I know it’s not good.
“Oh no, it’s Nadia.” he says.
“What?!” I reply. “She’s our star team member. She can’t be leaving, she just shipped that big project and she’s so happy here.”
“Yep. She’s leaving in two weeks.”
Cue the feeling of being punched in the gut while wondering how it is that my best person wasn’t happy. By assuming all was well because she was so great, I had left room for a competitor to lure her away.
The thing that was missing from my team was accountability. It started with me and flowed through the whole organization. Here’s what I’ve learned since then:
If you don’t have the right accountability measures in place, your business is actually a club. People will be praised and punished based on whim and popularity, rather than on the results they produce.
And the reason many leaders fail to create accountability is because it’s not comfortable.
You want to let your star performers just keep on going. After all, why spend more effort accounting for their results when they’re already amazing and there are people who really need your attention?
But the reason to do this, as I so painfully learned, is because a star performer will only stick around if they feel like they have room to grow. If they aren’t being coached on where they can improve and what challenge might be next, they will be an easy target for one of your competitors, or even a career switch entirely (I’ve seen that happen too).
So you have to do the hard thing and set aside time that you could be using elsewhere to account for the performance of your best people. It doesn’t feel good in the moment but it will save you heartache and so much more time trying to find a replacement down the road.
The other aspect of accountability that’s not comfortable is when someone is underperforming. It just feels easier not to confront poor performance when it’s happening. Most leaders will choose instead to offer vague feedback, ask roundabout questions, be passive aggressive, complain about them behind their back, tell themselves it’s hard to find good people, justify having an underperformer on board because it would be too hard and costly to fire them, and on and on.
The problem with this approach is that it creates a culture of underperformance. As a leader, when you take the easy way out with someone who's not doing well, you are actually the one who is failing to do your job. And your team will see your acceptance of mediocre results as a sign that this is the bar for their work. The top performers will lose their motivation and the level will drop to the lowest acceptable point.
(And you thought it was hard to address poor performance of one individual?! Nothing is harder than turning around the culture of an entire team that now believes it’s okay not to ship great work.)
The place to start with all of this is in your own thought process.
Ask yourself: what is your most important output? Take a moment to reflect on that.
Most leaders wouldn't answer with "creating accountability." That's not flashy or even fun most of the time. But when you're not focused on this basic building block of management, you'll be drawn to working on the thing you're best at that aren't as uncomfortable. After all, you know you're providing value when you write code, work on deals, build relationships with partners, etc.
The problem when you do that is that your people are then working without real accountability. Your business is becoming a club. And you’ll be left in a tailspin when the only people remaining are the ones that don’t want to be accountable.
So the way to change that is to recognize that one of your most important outputs as a leader is management.
Creating metrics., dashboards, and processes will make sure your star performers are recognized as such and that the people who are struggling are aware of it early. It also makes those uncomfortable conversations more straightforward. When you know what’s expected of everyone, and you have a habit of addressing those expectations with each person, performance conversations won’t be a surprise for anyone. And you will be able to nurture your best people.
Creating accountability starts with you as the leader. Embracing the importance of management in your business, and not just doing the things you’re good at or feel comfortable with, is the process.
Are you accountable for your own outputs as a manager: the job descriptions, vision statements, key results, one-on-ones?
If it doesn’t start with you, it’s never going to become part of your culture. And you’ll find yourself feeling punched in the gut far too often.
To help you take your leadership and management skills to the next level so you can create a culture of results at your business, I’m offering two VIP retreats this quarter. Learn more and sign up for the interest list here.