Performance and Accountability

by Paul C. Donehue

Leading a team requires diligence, interpersonal skills, and a combination of management and leadership aptitude.

While many of those we’ve asked tell us they aspire to assume a team leadership role, virtually every organization we’ve encountered struggles with developing teams. Some teams are dysfunctional; they take too long to accomplish tasks, the work is filled with errors and waste, the costs are excessive and turf wars abound. Others struggle to stay-the-course; as a result, their efforts to make improvements are ineffective and then slowly peter out.


The necessary ingredients for developing high performing teams include:

  • Strong leadership and sponsorship
  • Alignment around a common purpose
  • Task and project management
  • Communication and meeting management
  • Measurable performance targets
  • Identifying the right process/game plan to achieve results
  • Holding people mutually accountable for results

It is often the final bullet that brings about failure, as holding people accountable can be a process within itself!

Based on our research and experience, developing a “culture of accountability” requires clarity in five key areas:

  1. Clear expectations. The first step is to be crystal clear about what you expect. This means being clear about the outcome you’re looking for, how you’ll measure success, and how people should go about achieving the objective. It doesn’t all have to come from you. In fact, the more skilled your people are, the more ideas and strategies should be coming from them. Have a genuinely two-way conversation, and before it’s over, ask others to summarize the important pieces – the outcome they’re going for, how they are going to achieve it, and how they’ll know whether they’re successful – to make sure you’re ending up on the same page. Writing out a summary is a good idea but doesn’t replace saying it out loud.
  2. Clear capability. What skills do people need to meet the expectations? What resources will they need? If the team does not have what’s necessary, can they acquire what’s missing? If so, what’s the plan? If not, you’ll need to delegate to someone else. Otherwise you’re setting them up for failure.
  3. Clear measurement. Nothing frustrates leaders more than being surprised by failure. Sometimes this surprise is because the people who should be delivering are afraid to ask for help. Sometimes it comes from premature optimism on both sides. Either way, it’s completely avoidable. During the expectations conversation, you should agree on weekly milestones with clear, measurable, objective targets. If any of these targets slip, jump on it immediately. Brainstorm a solution, identify a fix, redesign the schedule, or respond in some other way that gets people back on track.
  4. Clear feedback. Honest, open, ongoing feedback is critical. People should know where they stand. If you have clear expectations, capability, and measurement, the feedback can be fact-based and easy to deliver. Is everyone delivering on commitments? Are they working well with other stakeholders? If an effort to increase capability has been put in place, are people on track? The feedback can also go both ways – is there something you can be doing to be more helpful? Give feedback regularly (at least weekly), and remember it’s more important to be helpful than nice.
  5. Clear consequences. If you’ve been clear in all of the above ways, you can be reasonably sure that you did what’s necessary to support the team’s performance. At this point, you have three choices: repeat, reward, or release. Repeat the steps above if you feel that there is still a lack of clarity in the system. If the team or if individuals succeeded, you should reward them appropriately (acknowledgement, promotion, etc.). If some have not proven accountable and you are reasonably certain that you followed the steps above, then they are not a good fit for their role, and you should release them from it.

About the author

Paul C. Donehue is a Senior Associate at Conway Management Company, a management consulting firm that helps improve the way organizations run.