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Ask, Do NOT Tell Leadership: How Do I Create Accountability

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

"Leadership is influence." — John C. Maxwell

As a former Chief of Communications and Marketing and a consultant for over 15 years, I have had many conversations about accountability. I have failed and succeeded as a leader, and helping others is a thrill in my life. Here is one email discussion I had with a company CEO.

Client Question:

I own and run a company, but my leadership skills are sometimes lack. My Senior Team refers to me as Mr. Softy because I do not discipline those who breach company policies. I am having difficulty with my VP of Sales. While he does bring in new accounts, he consistently enters them incorrectly and causes all sorts of problems for production staff. My team keeps telling me to let him have it, but I am unsure what to say. How do I make him accountable without simply firing or threatening to fire him?

My Answer: 

Congratulations! You are already proving superior leadership wisdom by seeking solutions aside from threatening job loss. Any accountability you want would never develop from firing or threatening to fire. Exceptional leaders build responsibility and empower their employees by asking them questions. My philosophy of leadership is asked, do not tell. Although you have found the VP of Sales causing the current problems, ensure you have all the facts. This could be an excellent opportunity for accountability for this employee and all your employees.

I suggest holding a company-wide meeting focused on the big picture of how sales orders are processed. Use the situation with the VP of Sales as an example, and ask, Is this order representative of how this company functions? Everyone will agree, or the disagreeing parties will have an exciting discussion. Sometimes, your role as a leader is to stay out of the middle and ease. The managers of your various departments understand the facts better than you do, and it is perfectly ok to admit this. Enter the meeting with an open mind. Even if your employees begin arguing and finger-pointing, they will eventually work through the facts. You may need to pepper the conversation with questions but try not to give answers.

Once the group has pinpointed the actual problem and the individual(s) involved, begin discussing solutions. Ask, how would you like to solve this? Even if you have solutions, outstanding leadership requires you to trust others to develop their answers. Given that this is the first time you have undergone this process, I suggest you stay in the meeting. Continue only to ask questions, and if asked your opinion, refrain from giving it. Remind your managers that you trust them to run their departments and make money for your company, so you trust them to solve issues like this. Initially, this entire process may be extremely time-consuming and frustrating for everyone involved. Be confident that you are moving in the right direction! Your employees will soon become more energized as they feel empowered, and the time will prove worthwhile. By the end of this process, you, too, will find your power and realize you built accountability by merely asking questions. Remember: Ask, do not tell.

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