Most business managers preach that the key to success is holding employees accountable for actions, but I have found that successful entrepreneurs are all about holding themselves accountable. They skip the blame and complain game, and make things happen despite major obstacles. As a startup investor, I view any evidence of a victim mentality as the kiss of death.
In reality, the picture is a bit larger than this, as outlined in the classic book “Leading with GRIT,” by Laurie Sudbrink, a well-known business leadership coach and speaker. She defines GRIT® as Generosity, Respect, Integrity, and Truth, with accountability being a major component of integrity. With all these elements, people can move from accountability to total leadership.
To explain accountability, she and I are strong proponents of the Accountability Ladder, which has been included in every Management 101 class for many years. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs never get the opportunity to take this class, and many corporate managers seem to have forgotten, so I’ll summarize from my experience in business the eight basic rungs:
- No accountability, person totally unaware of failures. These are business people, whether they be employees, managers, or entrepreneurs, who don’t have a clue about what is required or the devastation they leave behind. Usually, these people think they are doing a great job, and are totally oblivious to their unhappy customers or cash drain.
- Use blame and complain in lieu of accepting accountability. Some business people always play the victim, finding someone or some natural force as the cause for all their failures. An example of this would be finger pointing at unfair managers, blaming economic downturns, and irrational customer expectations for missed commitments.
- People deliver excuses rather than results. It’s easy for an entrepreneur or an employee to convince themselves that they would have been successful if they had more time, received more funding, or had the proper training to do the job. Usually, the real culprit is procrastination, lack of focus, or low productivity and lack of metrics.
- Wait and hope for a miracle. Entrepreneurs with the mantra “if we build it, they will come,” and executives who don’t communicate their expectations, fall into this category. Employees can’t be accountable if they don’t know what is expected of them. Entrepreneurs won’t be successful if they have a passion, but no plan and no target.
- Accountability starts by acknowledging reality. Business people at this level recognize the magnitude of the workload and the specific tasks required for success. Smart entrepreneurs know they must deliver a quality product, develop a winning business model, and attract real customers. All that’s left is to commit and deliver.
- The next step is to accept ownership and responsibility. Moving forward into the business realities requires courage, commitment, and determination to succeed. If the motivation is not strong enough, it’s easy for people to fall back down the ladder and cover their lack of ownership with excuses, blame, and complaints.
- Apply known solutions to predictable tasks and challenges. Most good employees and executives perform at this level of accountability. They admit to owning the situation and pride themselves on their professional abilities. Yet, when the totally unexpected happens, they may be quick unload the problem up the line, or fall off the ladder.
- Accept total accountability and make it happen. These are the cherished entrepreneurs who succeed despite tough odds, and the employees who come up with new approaches to delight your customers, achieve breakthrough goals, and develop innovative new products for markets you never imagined.
From my perspective, accountability should be the guiding principle for entrepreneurs who seek to change the world, as well as for employees who want to stand out above the rest. Before you start assessing accountability in others, it usually pays to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror. Are you accountable to be accountable?