How to drive strong ownership, commitment, accountability and passion in your team

As a leader – here are five practical things you can do to deepen the level of ownership, commitment, accountability and passion in your team:

  1. Make sure people are engaged in setting the goals early on. This practice would most likely be applied differently depending on the size of your team, and how dispersed it is. In a small team, it is easy to engage people in the strategy or goal-setting exercise. In a large organization, this principle will have to be implemented in steps. Step one – would be to get your senior team engaged and aligned. Step two – bring the middle managers on board. And step three – update and include the rest of the team. The application may be different, but the principle of engaging everyone in the goals early on is always relevant. This is because the more people feel listened to and engaged in setting the goals the more they will feel a sense of personal ownership and accountability toward them.
  1. Promote a culture of open, honest, authentic and courageous communication. The more your people feel they can speak their mind, especially addressing what is not working the more they will naturally gravitate toward feeling and behaving like loyal owners of the business. Regardless of what senior leaders often think, people will only speak up if they believe their leaders genuinely want them to. If you want to deepen ownership and accountability throughout your organization, you have to start with yourself and your senior leaders. You and your leaders need to show that you are open to honest dialogue, including feedback and criticism about yourselves.
  1. Instil the language of accountability as the norm. The language of accountability sounds and feels very different than the typical language of compliance that permeates throughout most organizations. In an environment of compliance, people tend to tolerate and indulge in excuses, justifications, blame and reasons why things can’t be done, why they didn’t get done or why they aren’t done with excellence. In contrast, the language of accountability is all about clarity and action. People make clear requests and promises. And these get responded to with clear and authentic acceptances, declines or counter-offers. People always know where things stand and they value integrity and honesty over appearances and political gain.
  1. Deal with failures, mistakes and shortfalls in an empowering way. In most organizations when people underperform or fail, senior leadership tends to look for someone or something to blame. The problem is that when people feel there is a witch-hunt going on to find a scape-goat they react by hiding, protecting their behinds, even lying. As a result, teams often don’t get to the source and root-cause of the failure in the first place, so they find themselves repeating the same failures in one way or another over and over again. If you want to create an environment of authentic accountability deal with all failures, mistakes and shortfalls only in an empowering way – don’t entertain the ‘blame game’. In fact, don’t be concerned with ‘whose fault it is’. Instead, be obsessed with learning from past failures and correcting the issues. Ask your team questions like: “What was missing?”, “What was in the way?” and “What can we change, correct and improve?”. You’ll see that your people will be excited to contribute to the investigation and as a result, you’ll come up with new ideas and solutions that will take you to new heights. In addition, you will strengthen your people’s sense of ownership and accountability to your vision.
  1. Highlight, recognize and celebrate displays of accountability. Most leaders don’t do a great job of acknowledging and recognizing their team members for a job well done on any day. I am not referring to the formal corporate human resources recognition programs that occur at best once a quarter or a couple of times a year. I am talking about creating an environment of day-to-day verbal recognition. People respond extremely well to genuine recognition. It makes them feel noticed, appreciated and valued and that causes them to want to do and contribute even more. If you want to create a powerful culture of ownership, commitment, accountability and passion, go out of your way to recognize small, medium or large displays of ownership and accountability. Make it a daily routine and practice. It’s so simple!

While I have directed this list to “leaders” and “managers”, these topics are so universal and basic that anyone in the team, no matter what level or position, could suggest them, promote them and bring about positive change with them…. especially if they are eager to make a difference and are willing to be courageous.

The more you try to control the less control you have

Most managers who micromanage their employees suppress their spirit and performance.

Employee’s performance is directly tied to their sense of ownership, commitment, and accountability for the success of their organization. Their passion, ownership, commitment and accountability are reduced when they feel distrusted, disrespected and under-valued from a leadership and/or professional standpoint by their manager.

By micromanaging their people, managers generate an environment of compliance and fear. And that typically cause people to play it safe and “cover their behinds” instead of stepping up and going beyond the call of duty to take ownership, risk and initiative.

Managers who micromanage their employees are focused on the wrong things. Instead of trying to control their people they should be providing leadership and confidence to their team by identifying their next strategic objectives, inspiring their employees to take them on, and ensuring that the organization has the wherewithal to execute them.

In fact, micromanagement puts in motion a dynamic of a self-fulfilling prophecy: The manager relates to his people as uncommitted, incompetent and/or unreliable. The people, in turn, play it safe and don’t take ownership, risk and accountability. This confirms the manager’s view and he continues to micromanage.

The issue lies with the manager. Most managers who micromanage and control their people do it because of their own insecurity and fear of failure, and not because their employees are, in fact, incompetent or uncommitted.

In order to strike the appropriate balance between being on top of things while not suppressing their people, managers must put the following building blocks in place and manage them effectively:

  • Build a team that they trust in terms of commitment and competency. And establish a dynamic of authentic, honest and courageous communication within their team.
  • Align their team members around their vision of the future – a clear vision and/or set of objectives that all team members clearly understand and are on the same page about; a future that everyone feels genuinely passionate about, committed to and accountable for, as their own.
  • Orient their team members around results and deliverables rather than tasks and activities in order to build an environment of real accountability (accountability can only exist when there are clear measurable results to manage).
  • Ensure that roles, accountabilities, expectations and processes are completely clear to all team members, in order to eliminate the chance of ambiguity, excuses or mischief in this regard.
  • Lastly, put in place a simple and effective mechanism and process for tracking all key commitments, deliverables and promised results on a monthly and quarterly basis in order to eliminate confusion or lack of accountability.

Managers should be structuring their management team – no matter how senior or junior – as the cabinet accountable for achieving the collective future, not just ‘each to their own’.

If someone is not performing up to an agreed-upon standard or expectation, managers must be willing to have a straight and honest conversation that either elevates the individual to a higher level of performance or makes it clear that someone else needs to be brought in to do the job.

If the manager has built a strong team dynamic of honest communication and authentic ownership toward his future there will be no need to micromanage because his team members will be operating in a very powerful and responsible way toward making results happen.

I once heard someone describe the role of a leader as:

Hiring the inspired or inspiring the hired.”

Well, I agree with that, and I would add: in the absence of real ownership and honesty, no amount of micromanagement will be effective anyway.

Taking responsibility makes the difference

I was working with a large technology company on transforming their organizational culture and elevating their business results to a new level. We started the change initiative with the senior leadership team, getting each of the leaders to whole heartedly believe in, and own the process and its objectives.

We then extended the process to the top 100 senior managers by holding a multi-day session that also included the senior leaders.

Like many companies, there was history and baggage with regard to change. There were past attempts to improve the basic organizational dynamics that everyone was frustrated about, such as transforming the silos, politics and ‘blame game’ between functions and levels into genuine alignment, trust and collaboration, bringing clarity to everyone’s roles and responsibilities, and changing the overall sentiment in the organization that the senior leadership was not ‘walking the talk.’

In that initial session, the managers had the opportunity to express to the senior leaders what they were most frustrated about and what they wanted to see a change in, including in the way the CEO and the senior leaders behaved and operated. The senior team listened openly and together with the managers they committed to improving things.

The managers left the session really excited and hopeful about the future. However, they also left with high expectations of their senior colleagues regarding the continuity and follow through of the process.

The senior leaders were determined to drive changes in culture and business processes and performance. They set up task teams to drive the strategic commitments and they started – slowly but surely – to upgrade and change key employee related policies and processes.

The problem was, however, that the senior leaders did not do a good job communicating down to the managers what they were doing and the progress they were making. The managers who took part in particular activities knew only about those activities, and those who weren’t actively involved had no awareness of any progress. And, even those who saw segments of the progress felt it was too small and too slow.

With no communication and updates, managers became increasingly frustrated, skeptical and discouraged about the change. Negative hallway chatter increased and there was a growing sentiment of criticism and invalidation of the senior leaders and the change initiative for its lack of traction and progress.

Needless to say, even though the CEO and senior leaders felt good about the progress in the change initiative when it came time for the next in-person session with the managers, they were extremely nervous and worried about their ability to re-engage the managers in the next steps of owning and leading the change.

This true story does have a good ending…

The meeting with the managers was very successful because instead of ignoring sentiments and putting on a fancy presentation, the CEO and his senior leaders generated a dialogue that was very honest, authentic and courageous in which they referred back to the initial meeting and acknowledged what they had committed to at the time. They also shared what had progressed since the beginning, and also what hadn’t. They recognized the managers for the progress and took responsibility for what hadn’t progressed, including the lack of communication and update along the way. They also, committed to specific areas to tackle next in order to accelerate the change.

Not only did the CEO and senior leaders take responsibility, but they did it in a genuinely open, vulnerable and courageous way. This touched the managers and enabled them to get beyond the past, quickly and regain their faith, commitment, and ownership in the future of the change.

From the several lessons I took from this powerful, inspiring and transformational event, I want to highlight two:

First, it was another reminder of just how powerful and magical open, honest and courageous communication and dialogue can be.

Second, that no matter how challenging or frustrating things may be, when leaders take responsibility for what they said and committed to, what they have done and what they hadn’t, in a genuine and courageous way, this transforms almost any level of skepticism and doubt below them.

In fact, if I had to capture the blueprint of the conversation that makes the difference it would look like this:

  1. Acknowledge what you committed to in the first place, including what people may have expected out of what you said.
  2. Share what you have done, achieved and accomplished and where there have been small, medium or large progress.
  3. Acknowledge what you have not done, and do it without excuses, justifications or stories.
  4. Commit to what you will do moving forward in order to continue to drive the commitments you promised in the first place.
  5. Invite you managers or team members to join you and co-own the game moving forward – But, DO NOT start the process with step 5, because without taking responsibility first for past successes and failures you don’t have a high chance to succeed.
  6. Keep your commitments. Learn from the past, correct errors and improve your process.

People will forgive you once or twice. In fact, they will trust you even more if you demonstrate learning from history, especially your mistakes and failures. However, if you don’t, you will lose the trust and your credibility and it will be extremely difficult to recover from that.

Stop stating the obvious and start taking a stand!

I was attending a leadership team meeting where the topic of the discussion was bringing clarity to the roles and responsibilities of three of the key functions in the company who work closely together.

The lack of clarity in these roles and responsibilities was causing internal and external angst; team members were competing for deals, projects and who is the lead in each scenario, and customers were feeling confused about who they should go to with their opportunities and challenges.

Needless to say, this reality was hurting the company as a whole in terms of efficiency, ability to scale, morale, business results, and reputation.

Instead of dictating and mandating the answer the CEO wanted the senior leaders to reach an agreement through consensus.

The dynamic of the debate was contrived and awkward because even the leaders who had a stake in the outcome and therefore had a clear bias toward how they wanted the roles to be divided and defined, were holding back and conveying their thoughts in a diplomatic way.

People kept highlighting the challenges and dilemmas instead of clearly stating their thoughts about their desirable solution. There was a lot of: “Well, the problem is that each of us has strong exposure and contact with our key customers…” or “The problem is that we all do this today, and we all are good at this…” or “We need to figure out a way to define clear boundary lines without demotivating our people, promoting cross-selling to our customers, for the good of the whole….”  etc. etc.

The conversations dragged on for hours. It was ineffective and, to be frank, it was exhausting and brutally painful.

Unfortunately, I see this dynamic in key business conversations and meetings all the time – people state the obvious instead of taking a stand about the way forward.

One reason for this is that people think there is a right answer to any given dilemma or issue. This is simply not true, especially in this day and age. Things change so quickly. There are so many examples of the obvious becoming questionable, the fashionable becoming obsolete and the unexpected becoming the norm.

There are no right or wrong answers, only possibilities, and choices. The role of leadership is to make these choices and then be responsible for carrying them out. That is what taking a stand is about. Pure creation.

The other reason is that people lack the courage to take a stand. They fear that if they clearly state their stand about such critical and sensitive topics such as strategy or organizational structure their idea may not get selected or if their idea does get selected it then fails. In addition, they fear they’ll be viewed as ‘forceful’, ‘self-serving’ or ‘political’. They are concerned about what others would think of them and how their clear stand could hurt them in the future. The phrase ‘career limiting move’ comes to mind…

But, if you want things to move faster, your meetings to be briefer and more productive and your experience of day-to-day business interaction to be much more satisfying, then be more courageous, clear and assertive about the future you want and stand for.

Just don’t be arrogant or get too attached to your answer, especially if you are part of a team. Someone else’s suggested way may be a better fit for what the team needs. Be open to that.

Instead, promote a dialogue where people spend less time on pointing out the problems (which got you into this dialogue in the first place) and spend more time on taking a stand regarding solutions and directions that enable you to create and fulfill your future.