I was recently involved in a conversation in which I heard the expression "We think accountability is important for everyone but ourselves." This saying really resonated with me, to the point that I'm still pondering it today. Accountability is a key ingredient for any organization, team, or individual to achieve their respective goals. Furthermore, accountability is an important component of effective leadership — setting goals and expectations and holding ourselves and others responsible for meeting them. With this in mind, why do we sometimes want to hold others accountable while coming up with reasons why we shouldn't hold ourselves to those same standards?
Merriam-Webster defines accountability as "the quality or state of being accountable; especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions." So for something that is such a basic concept, what makes it so difficult to practice consistently?
I tend to view accountability through two different lenses: 1) doing what we say we are going to do (by the time that we committed to doing it), and 2) holding ourselves responsible for doing the things we are required to do such as complying with policies. Both of these concepts of accountability have some similarities and are equally important.
It can be easy to come up with what we consider to be legitimate reasons for why we may have deviated from established policies or why our goals were not realized. While external factors, competing priorities, and unexpected risks can all play a part in preventing us from meeting our goals, when this happens, do we own up to it or do we make excuses? Further, do we anticipate such obstacles in advance (within reason) and make contingency plans? And when those events happen that cannot be anticipated, do we reset expectations with the right people?
Interestingly enough, from time to time, I hear people say they do not like to be micromanaged. If you fall into this category, I encourage you to consider accountability as one way to prevent or minimize micromanagement. For example, instead of waiting for your supervisor to follow up on the tasks that were assigned to you, consider proactively reaching out to provide a status update. Or if it looks like you may be delayed in providing a follow-up item to one of your audit clients, perhaps communicate with the client in advance to make him or her aware of the delay and to set new expectations as to when the information will be provided. Scheduling blocks of time in advance and establishing due dates for key activities are fundamental principles to this approach. Proactive communication also is critical.
For anyone in a leadership position, or anyone who aspires to a leadership position, holding yourself accountable allows you to serve as a positive role model to others. Additionally, for those of us in internal audit, what credibility do we have if we try to hold our audit customers accountable for complying with applicable policies and procedures to which we don't hold ourselves accountable (does maintaining current policies ring a bell for anyone, or perhaps timely completion of required training)? Additional areas to consider in terms of accountability include consistently following company travel policies and arriving to meetings on time and ready to contribute.
This is the time of the year when many organizations complete their annual performance evaluation processes. In thinking about our performance, are we likely to own up to the areas where we fell short of our goals, or are we going to come up with explanations as to why we didn't accomplish all that we had planned? Regardless of where you may land with respect to your 2017 objectives, I encourage you to go into 2018 with a fresh perspective and focus on holding yourself accountable for what you want to do in the upcoming year. And, as noted above, when external events happen that are so significant to throw you off course, go back to the drawing board to reset and communicate expectations.
After all, in the words of Thomas J. Watson, who served as chairman and CEO of IBM from 1914-1956: "Nothing so conclusively proves a man's ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself."