I was giving a keynote speech at a Fortune conference a few years ago. Jim Collins had just left the stage to a roaring standing ovation. He had made the case for being “disciplined” in managing people and following through on measuring performance. It made sense to the audience. Once I got on stage, I asked the audience a question, “How many of you have goals for your teams that are written down?” Only 10% of the hands went up! How in the world do leaders plan to hold people accountable to achieve goals that are not even written down? 

According to our research for Power Score, we discovered that only 8% of leaders are good at holding people accountable. Why do so many leaders struggle with accountability?

The biggest rookie mistake in holding someone accountable is to be vague with goals. Using vague words does nothing to help coach and develop, but instead it angers colleagues. When you do it wrong, it stinks for everyone. Tension, stress, hurt feelings, bad results, and a culture of defensiveness is created rather than a culture of performance and personal growth.

Great leaders don’t make their teams guess at what their goals are. If you want to hold someone accountable, you need to be specific with goals, and to use numbers that others provide to measure performance. One of my mentors gave me this advice — “Make sure you have clear goals, in writing, so your consultants know what ‘great’ looks like. Then have somebody other than you collect data on their performance. Then you can sit down as a coach to review their results vs. their goals.”

Failure to write goals down leaves too many opportunities for confusion. It makes it near impossible to hold someone accountable for delivering a result when you failed to articulate the result you seek.

When you do it right, high performers will know how well they are performing, and will continue doing what they are doing. Low performers will know they are not performing well, long before anybody has to sit them down and have a conversation.

Specificity with goals, transparency with results, objectivity with numbers, and regular follow-ups are your tools for holding people accountable and running your team at full power. 

Dr. Geoff Smart

Geoff Smart is chairman and founder of ghSMART. Geoff is co-author, with his colleague Randy Street, of the New York Times best-selling book, “Who: A Method for Hiring”, and the author of the No. 1 Wall Street Journal best seller “Leadocracy: Hiring More Great Leaders (Like You) into Government”. Geoff cocreated the Topgrading brand of talent management. He is the founder of two 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations. SMARTKids Leadership Program™ provides 10 years of leadership tutoring, and the Leaders Initiative™ seeks to deploy society’s greatest leaders into government. Geoff earned a BA in Economics with honors from Northwestern University, and an MA and PhD in Psychology from Claremont Graduate University.