Leadership : Walking the Walk – A Readers Guide to Accountability

Brian Canning's first foray into the automotive industry was as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington, DC. Over the next several years, he enjoyed a successful management career that ultimately led to his overseeing several stores and then the entire sales region. Currently, Canning works as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Management Institute (ATI), where he interacts with shop owners and managers in the automotive service and tire industries. He adds that he is a passionate student of leadership in all of its forms.

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You have the perfect business plan, your location is great, you have knowledgeable and experienced staff, you have provided training to all staff members, your marketing is cutting edge and your business is failing. What could possibly have gone wrong?

A P&L or other monthly statement will assist you in identifying where to begin your investigations. It is very typical for our clients to have a labor operation, a parts operation and a tire operation. As separate entities, which of these areas fell furthest from expectations and which is having the greatest negative impact on overall performance? The answer to these questions will normally yield a game plan and a road map. What do we do now?

The next obvious step is to determine what went wrong and who was responsible. The ‘what’ part is typically easy but assigning responsibility can often be a minefield of emotions and hurt feelings. If we were not clear in what we expected, if we were not clear in our communications and most importantly if we did not check progress along the way, we are entirely responsible as leaders for the less than spectacular results and cannot hold staff accountable for the shortfall.

In another life I was a student at the Non-Commissioned Officers Academy in Ansbach, Germany. This was a course for would be sergeants and taught the basics of leadership. I remember a four step process described there about situations such as those we are working with. One thing the military was great for was holding people accountable for actions or lack of actions and I still use this process today. The steps are:

  • assign the task
  • set the standards
  • check progress
  • make sure the standards are met and task completed

Use of this process will demand that you, as the leader, assign the task and define expectations and to whatever degree you are successful here, you will be able to hold others accountable and nearly always count on the results. I would again emphasize that checking progress in the midst of all this is critical but the day that you are finally willing and also able to hold your people accountable, is the day that you will begin to see the changes in your business that you need to see.

I have a great client in a small central North Carolina town who, undoubtedly, got tired of hearing me nag at him every week and consequently developed a very effective method of holding his people accountable. In a multi-store operation, he was flirting with the bottom of the barrel and knew that his people were capable of far better. He first investigated the issue and found there were distinct problems with his labor operation. He had trained his people, verbally discussed his expectations and set his staff free to accomplish all the great things he knew they were capable of.

Within a few weeks things had taken a decidedly negative turn. He investigated right down to the individual, broke his expectations out into ten or so performance areas, and began having weekly meetings to discuss the results. Almost immediately, once each individual saw that they were being held accountable and that they would be subjected to weekly performance reviews, cooperation and consistency grew and performance has improved dramatically. His perfect plan is now actually working and all because of his holding his people accountable to the weekly result. None of this was going to ever occur unless he inspected what he expected and insisted that his standards be met. Given the opportunity and finally understanding what is expected, people will almost always do the right thing. Occasionally they will not and we have a solution for that as well.

Very often I hear of good employees who suddenly become rebellious or ignorant and fail to complete seemingly simple assigned tasks. Very often I find out we were less than diligent and way less than thoughtful in assigning the tasks and as painful as it might be to accept, the failure is ours. If growing the business is important to you, and it should be, it is very important everyone know and agree upon what is expected. Employee manuals and job descriptions are invaluable in this effort but ultimately you, as the leader, need to look your people in the eye and make sure they are hearing what you are saying. If you ask for a duck, you need to get a duck. A chicken that quacks will not do.

We have now defined the job and set expectations for implementation and performance. In the process of this we have answered any questions that might have come up and we have checked progress along the way. It is now entirely reasonable that we begin to hold staff responsible and accountable for the result. You get to both praise excellent performance and demand better when your standards are not being met. As an assist to the final outcome, be very lavish and public in your praise. Be very explicit and direct in your criticism but always do this in private.

No matter what their contribution, no matter their position or rank, all employees will benefit from the guidance and respond to sincere and public praise. There are those rare hard cases that no matter what we do, they do their own thing. Like everyone else, these people need to be held accountable. If they refuse to change or modify their behaviors, we need to have a very direct and final solution with their name written all over it. Be reasonable in your expectations and demanding of the outcome. These are your dreams and your vision and a half hearted effort is not good enough.

Accountability is not a weapon. It is the result of effective leadership and good communication.

Ó Copyright Brian Canning 2007

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