What Really Makes an Executive Team a High Performing One?

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“I just don’t get it,” Dev, a CEO of a Fintech company said to me, shaking his head. “I thought I was a good judge of talent. I thought I brought in some really top-notch leaders. And yet, eight months in and we’re still swirling around the same topics with no resolution. And anytime I ask why we can’t get to resolution, I either get blank stares, a series of excuses, or people pointing fingers at each other or passing blame on to people who aren’t in the room.”

I knew Dev’s issue wasn’t the caliber of talent on his team – I had assessed several of them and knew they were rock stars. The issue was the team didn’t know how to hold itself accountable.

Team accountability has been the topic of numerous articles over the past few years, in “The Best Teams Hold Themselves Accountable” (HBR, 2014) Joseph Grenny suggests that good teams are accountable to the team leader, while great teams are accountable to each other. Oftentimes, a collective of high-performing individuals such as Dev’s team will default to the former, especially in the absence of agreed-upon norms, processes, or role clarity. But perhaps the most critical element to ensuring all individuals on the team hold “accountability” as a personal value and are committed to doing what they say, accepting responsibility for their actions, and helping each other fulfill their commitments to the team and to the business. With that as a foundation, practicing accountability is far easier, provided team leaders attend to a few other critical elements:

1. Role model accountability. Leaders, accountability starts with you. Your team members are looking to you to set the tone by practicing the desired behaviors that will foster a practice of accountability. Modeling behaviors such as admitting mistakes, taking responsibility for actions, receiving feedback with an open mind, and providing feedback with a desire to help others is table stakes. You also have to work at not moving the goal posts, not flip-flopping on decisions, and most importantly, not letting your position of authority become a crutch for the team.
2. Set clear expectations, and continue to manage them. When executive teams are moving fast and under pressure (and what team isn’t these days?), they can often assume expectations are clear. But without having an upfront discussion about expectations, how can we truly know expectations are clear and everyone has agreed to them? The team leader must make it clear that it is expected (and okay) for team members to hold each other accountable. Team members also need to discuss expectations of each other.
3. Clarify roles, responsibilities, and scope. Individual mindsets and behaviors are key drivers to embedding accountability but are not enough. There are structural mechanisms to enable team accountability, such as assigning responsibility, clarifying scope, and defining timelines. One simple way to create more accountability through structure is defining a RACI (assigning people to be Responsible for completing a task, have final Accountability over successful delivery, Consulted on elements because of their unique perspective, and Informed because it could directly or indirectly impact them).
4. Reinforce the behaviors you expect. People are more likely to repeat behaviors when they are rewarded for them, and less likely to repeat behaviors when they are corrected. Celebrate when someone shows vulnerability, or brings a challenge to the team meeting, or calls out an elephant in the room and offers a solution. Call out when team members pass the blame or finger point.

My final piece of counsel to Dev was this: Be patient with the team. Don’t expect a surge in team accountability overnight. Continuing to intentionally role model and encourage the team to practice will make accountability an enduring cultural artifact within the executive team.