Are You Having the Right Accountability Conversations?

In my professional work, I often look for interesting patterns of behavior and recurring themes. I was reflecting this morning on a conversation I had four months ago with a past senior executive coaching client who reached out for advice about a direct report on her team who was promoted at the beginning of the year. Among other things, this direct report is struggling with delegation, operating in the weeds and failing to empower his team. He is a doer and hands on leader with a track record of getting results through his own efforts, but he struggles to let go and was not known as a developer of people. He defined his success through getting things done, even if it meant doing much of the work himself. His boss defined success through team performance and personal growth.

Having dealt with many similar situations and conversations like this over the last several years, I asked this senior leader to describe in detail the types of 1:1 conversations she has with her direct report. She described the typical business review conversation where they discuss how he is doing, progress on attainment of goals he is responsible for, how she can support him and overall business results. They occasionally have personal conversations and she also has encouraged him to delegate more. She shared that this somewhat generic conversation was fairly typical in their 1:1 meetings and that she has seen little change in his behavior since he began reporting to her.

Why is this relevant?

This conversation theme has caught my attention of late because, too often, we unknowingly enable less than desirable behavior and poor performance in our team members by the quality and content of the conversations we have in our 1:1 meetings. Leaders should hold team members accountable for the behavior and performance they expect and sometimes it requires a subtle, but important, shift in the accountability dialogue between leader and team member. To put it simply, leaders should be very clear and specific about the outcomes they seek if they want behavior changes. If the same old conversations are getting the same old results, it is time for a change. Here is what I encouraged the senior executive to do in their 1:1 meetings going forward:

  • Only discuss how the team is doing and their success, instead of focusing on his individual achievements.
  • Ask for specific examples of how he is empowering the team and coaching them to success.
  • Ask him to share, with specifics, how members of his team are executing on projects. Consider asking his team members to directly present to her on their projects and/or doing skip levels to hear from the team about what/how they are doing.
  • Ask how he is developing each of his direct reports. Is he aware of their needs/career goals? Give him a reasonable window of time to create development plans for his direct reports and be ready to discuss them.
  • If he attempts to shift the conversation back to his personal efforts, keep the focus on the team.
  • Don’t make any overt statement about the change in your approach. Just do it in an authentic and natural way.
  • Consistently keep this pattern up in the 1:1 meetings and observe if the behaviors of the direct report begin to match the recent shift in conversation expectations.

I touched base with this former client again last week to follow up and see how things were going. She was extremely pleased with the changes she was seeing in her direct report, but honestly felt surprised that this simple shift in the dialogue could have such a dramatic impact. I shared that in my experience as both an executive coach of senior leaders and former senior executive, we all typically tend to conform our daily actions around what we perceive as the expectations and priorities of our boss.

Think about it…

She was asking him about what he was doing, what he was working on and how he was going to achieve his goals. She assumed he knew she wanted the team to do more and be fully engaged, but the language she used reinforced his natural tendencies to be in the weeds and reluctance to delegate. He had not really been asked to develop his people before now and struggled to do it. When she began making the conversation all about the team’s efforts, his empowerment of the team and how he is developing those he leads, he was able to shift his performance into a different gear and is now bringing the team along with him. He has modified his behavior and how he approaches his role to meet the new and clearer expectations of his boss. My former client said he has quickly shifted from a manager who got things done to becoming one of the best people leaders on her direct team. This is a true story and I have seen it played out numerous times over the years.

If you are a leader reading this post, reflect on the performance gaps on your team and carefully consider how you are engaging with your team members. Are you holding them accountable for the right things? Look in the mirror and ask yourself if there is a possibility you have been unknowingly reinforcing the very behavior you wish to change through your 1:1 conversations. The example conversation talking points I shared earlier in the post can be modified for almost any performance issue and are not just for delegation, empowerment and people development issues. Talk clearly and specifically about the outcomes you want and you are more likely to get them.

Good luck!

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