Below is an excerpt from our book Startups Made Simple: How to Start, Grow and Systemize Your Dream Business. Learn more about the book here.
Leadership should be easy if you have a clear vision and you communicate clearly to your team what needs to get done and it will just get done, right? Wrong. Welcome to human behavior in the 21st century. You would be amazed at how hard this can be in the modern workplace. Business is suffering from an accountability crisis in my opinion. It is sometimes hilarious the extent to which some employees will go to avoid accountability or even making the most simple of decisions and how leaders let them get away with it.
Remember, if your employees are also not owners in the company, there’s little motivation for them to work beyond the bare minimum unless they are incentivized in other ways. I would estimate that 80–90% of employees do not like to be held accountable or go beyond the bare minimum. This is not me being mean or pessimistic, it’s just the new normal and the reason why the definition of a good leader can be different depending on if you’re an owner or employee. Employees often think someone holding them accountable is being a jerk, or at best, too demanding. Ask anyone who manages people for a living, and you will not likely get much disagreement on this.
Most employees don’t understand the sometimes existential terror of owning a business, making payroll, the threat of lawsuits, being responsible for the livelihood of others, and the dozens of various other issues business owners go through. A lot of people only want their paycheck and to “clock out” at the end of day and not think about work. (And business owners are certainly jealous of this some days!) There’s nothing wrong with this, but we do need to find a good middle-ground between “clocking out” and having basic accountability for the job during working hours. We don’t expect them to be responsible for the company, just accountable for their particular job so you can count on them to get the job done.
Building an Accountable Team
How do we fix this? Almost every modern book, article, or guru tends to hold the employer responsible for this and recommends all kinds of engagement tools to make people want to do their jobs. I’m sympathetic to this mindset, especially in poorly run companies where you have dysfunctional management, unclear goals, or five different bosses.
However, I’m going to recommend something radical for a startup with limited resources: Hire people with an accountability mindset from the beginning and then build accountability into your company. You don’t have the time or resources to prod or beg people to do their jobs and deliver on promises; you need people who can get things done correctly and on time.
- Hire for accountability. If you want people to be accountable, make sure you hire for it. This means putting exactly what needs to get done in the job description along with the standards they will be held to. Mention accountability in the job description, in interviews, and when training. Make it clear this person is accountable for the defined results, and if they do not achieve them, there will be consequences. People who like to be held accountable will usually tell you, and in fact, are eager to demonstrate that.
- Define accountability. Related to the above, it would be insane for you to hold someone accountable for something that is not clear, defined, and measurable. Make sure you’ve written and trained on exactly what you expect, what standards you have, and how you will measure them. For example, if you have a receptionist, describe how visitors are to be greeted (what to say, how quickly you greet someone, etc.) and seated, or how phones are to be answered (what to say, number of rings to pick-up, etc.). You can only blame yourself if you’re not clear and haven’t defined correct behavior.
- Use the language of accountability, and get it in writing. Vague language gets vague results and confuses. Don’t say “get that to me ASAP;” say “I need that by close of business Thursday.” Don’t say “we should fix this;” say “okay, write me up a one-page summary of this problem and your recommended solutions and have to me by close of business Friday via email.” When assigning tasks, make sure you both agree what the final result looks like and it’s written down, whether it’s a final design or 20 cold calls per day, it needs to be something concrete that you can say: Is this done, yes or no?
- Reward accountability. There’s a lot of disagreement on the effectiveness of bonuses, gifts, and “spiffs” to employee motivation and accountability, but I believe they are effective if used properly. If you can reward the staff for work done correctly (no missed deadlines or standards) and especially beyond the standard (for example, great client testimonials), then I think that’s one way to help build an accountability mindset in a small business.
- Correct lack of accountability. Nobody likes to punish anyone, and in fact, I think a lot of accountability problems are the leaders’ fault for allowing bad behavior to continue; they don’t like holding people accountable themselves! As discussed in The New One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard, correction can be as simple as a quick conversation, a written warning, and a well-known, documented “three strikes” rule that means you will likely be terminated if we have to revisit a problem after three times.
- Pay and treat them Well. As we’ll discuss more in Step 5, you can’t expect to pay bottom dollar and get top-dollar performance. At the minimum, try to provide the many non-compensation benefits I recommend. If you’re a complete jerk, then you’re going to have a hard time, as we’ve discussed earlier in this chapter.
- Teach the Founder Superpowers. As mentioned many times, if you can create a founder mindset in your staff with things like Agency, Productivity, Good Decisions, Good Communication Skills, etc. then they will naturally tend to be more accountable because they will start thinking like a founder, which means thinking like a problem solver.
A depressing fact for employees who don’t like accountability is that outsourcing and other market pressures are only going to make jobs more competitive, so there will be little room to hire people who can’t get the job done. There are literally millions of educated, English-speaking people coming online every year from all over the world, and they’re incredibly eager to work. There are now overseas accountants that charge $5/hour online, yes $5/hour, which is one tenth what I used to pay a bookkeeper just a few years ago.
While I don’t personally prefer this, in the fragile startup phases, you sometimes need to look overseas for the help you need if you cannot find it or afford it domestically. Personally, I recommend building accountability into your organization, and if you can hire great domestic people, they will outperform the overseas employees, and many times the cultural fit is so much better that it’s worth the added expense. Either way, there’s little excuse for hiring staff who don’t believe in accountability.
This was an excerpt from our book Startups Made Simple: How to Start, Grow and Systemize Your Dream Business. Learn more about the book here or see our previous excerpts here.