Accountability

One of the best talks I’ve ever seen was a short one by Senator Cory Booker at Brooklyn Beta in 2012. In the Q&A section, someone asked how he keeps his team accountable. His answer stuck with me, and I use it often when I’m working with apprentices or coaching design teams and agency owners.

Senator Booker shared his simple formula for creating accountability between two or more parties. There are three levels:

  1. Stated standards. Having stated standards is the foundation of accountability. One can only be held accountable if both parties agree to the same standard.
  2. A system of measurements. Both parties need to agree on a way to measure if they’ve met said standards.
  3. Effects: either positive, negative, or both. Both parties need to agree on what will happen after those standards are met and/or those standards are not met.

Without those three things, you can’t have accountability.

I once coached a creative director—let’s call him Tom—and his three designers. Tom was unhappy with the quality of the designers’ work and thought he needed to spend more hands-on time with them. The designers all agreed that they’d value more of Tom’s time but were skeptical about that actually happening since Tom was often pulled in many different directions.

“I want you all to hold me accountable to spending more time with you,” Tom said confidently. Then he moved on to another topic.

“Hang on a sec,” I interjected. “How can they hold you accountable for that? What are you actually committing to?”

“Well, I’ll set up reviews with each of them twice a week.”

“When will you do that by?” I asked.

A bit taken aback by being put on the spot, Tom thought for a few seconds, then replied, “By the end of next week, I’ll put review times on everyone’s calendars.” (Standards that can be measured.)

“Awesome!” I said. “What should happen if you don’t send those calendar invitations out by the end of the week?”

“Oh, I’ll definitely do it,” Tom quickly retorted.

“That’s great,” I replied, “but what happens if you don’t?”

A designer quickly jumped in. “Then we get to carry on what we do as usual, but Tom doesn’t get to complain about it.” (Effects.)

“Sounds fair to me,” I offered. “Tom, what do you think?”

Quiet for a moment, Tom reluctantly conceded. “ Yeah, that sounds fair. I guess I gotta put up or shut up, right?”

Accountability is about motivating each party to do what they commit to. It’s a bit awkward to get used to at first, but with practice, you’ll find it more natural to implement with your colleagues, bosses, clients, and even friends and family.

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