Lead Strong Episode 32: Accountability in Leadership

This episode of Lead Strong saw hosts and Directors of Cappfinity’s Talent Practice, Celine Floyd and Stephanie Hopper join with Davina Whitten-Eisenacher, Head of Learning at Skyscanner and Rebecca Carlin, Senior Organization Development and Workforce Manager at the Leicester Leicestershire and Rutland Clinical Commissioning Group, to talk about accountability in leadership.

Why is accountability a crucial leadership strength?

Accountability is one of Cappfinity’s eight Altitude leadership strengths.  It was identified as a key strength for leadership through a big piece of meta-analysis work where the profiles for leaders across different industries and organizations were examined to identify what makes them successful in their role.  Accountability came out as one of the top behaviors.

In the Altitude model, accountability is defined as a focus on execution, results, and outputs, delivering on promises and honoring commitments.  So, although it may not always be the most popular, it is a foundational behavior for leadership success.

Rebecca explained that in the NHS, knowing expectations for her and her team is paramount for ensuring smooth delivery.  Understanding what the goals are and outlining who is expected to do what ensures everyone is accountable for their part.  It is key to success in every industry because when there is no accountability, things do not get done, the goals aren’t met, and everything remains quite vague.

Even if something doesn’t go to plan, this doesn’t mean it hasn’t been worthwhile.  Davina quoted Arianna Huffington in saying that failure is not the opposite of success, it has a part in success because it presents an opportunity to learn from what went wrong.  Creating a trusting environment where people can fail is also important for accountability.

Being clear about vision and purpose is vital because it ensures leaders know what is expected of them and their teams.  They can then plan how they intend to deliver and be accountable.

How does psychological safety impact accountability?

Leaders need to be accountable for their decisions, even if they result in failure, but they must also feel it is safe to fail and learn lessons from that failure.

Davina explained that because of the amount of change and ambiguity in our lives, leaders need to be resilient and brave.  Accountability lends itself well to these behaviors because the role of a leader is to look around corners, to be on the ball and to see what’s coming.  They are therefore able to effectively navigate, conscious of the decisions that are being made to take their people forward.

Davina also shared the story of a skipper she knew who took a group of amateur sailors out on a race.  Approaching a storm, they consulted with the skipper who presented them with two choices.  They could either go around the storm and possibly end up in the same position as they were now, or they could go through and hopefully secure a competitive advantage.

The element of accountability on the part of the skipper, made it okay for people to feel confident in making decisions that he would then follow.  Building that trust and being accountable led to them saying they would go through the storm and as hair raising as it was, they made it through and were able to get ahead in the race.

Trust and accountability really come through in this story, as well as how that led to people being more likely to follow because they knew somebody had their back, would help them, and see where the learnings were if they failed, but also celebrate if things went well.

If people are clear on what their role is and what they are expected to contribute to the decisions that are being made, they see the influence they have which is important for accountability.

What can leaders do to ensure they’re not overusing their accountability strength?

Being accountable can also mean you display risk-adverse behaviors and often play out a premortem to assess the risks of following a particular course.  However, leaders who over rely on this strength can also lack agility and find it hard to pivot when needed, something which seems fundamental for organizations right now.

So, how can leaders show great accountability, whilst also ensuring they don’t overplay it?  At Skyscanner, they’ve introduced an initiative called ‘Commitments.’  Instead of setting objectives, where these are often set in isolation with one person accountable for delivery.  Commitments open these up to the whole organization, so it is not just one person responsible for delivery, it’s everyone in your team.

Putting Commitments in place involves agreement setting beforehand so everyone knows how they can support the delivery.  Getting commitment from those who are going to deliver, means you can stay on track, but also be agile so you can flex where required.

The Commitments are reviewed at least quarterly and are available to access for everyone across the business to ensure there is transparency throughout the process.  Regular reviews are key.

Rebecca said that the people she sees display accountability well, are the ones who are open and transparent.  They trust their teams to get on with things, but also provide safety by offering support if needed.

All these things are interlinked and at times we may play to our accountability strength more than others, but it is important that we take some accountability where needed.  Being brave and having courage is important, as long as we feel safe to do so.

Leaders often have too many things on their plate to move forward at once.  Technology has enabled us to think we can do everything, but if we can be selective and get things done right then we stand to create a better relationship.

Sometimes as a leader, you must be honest and say right now I am responsible for this, and I can’t take on anything else at the moment.  This can be uncomfortable to do, but when you do that people generally understand.  It’s not a case of saying I can never do it; it’s just saying I can’t do it at this moment in time and knowing it’s safe to say that.

Watch the full episode here.