“We have an accountability problem!” Craig* fumed as he paced around the office. I sat on the hard-backed metal chair, pad balanced on my knees, pen in hand, ready to take notes on the looming problem that had prompted Craig’s call to me.

On the phone, he’d said his team lacked accountability. He wanted me to come in and teach his junior marketing managers a seminar on being accountable.

But how did he define accountability at the agency? And was it really an accountability problem or something else?

desk with sign saying leadership

Identifying the Problem Correctly

Being a marketing consultant is often like being a doctor or perhaps a teacher. I’m called in by companies to address what they perceive is a problem only to find that the identified “problem” is just the tip of the iceberg.

‘Accountability’ is one of those buzzwords that companies like to use (and misuse) today. To most, it’s synonymous with responsibility. To be accountable for one’s actions means to take responsibility for them.

Sounds clear, right? But it loses clarity in a corporate environment when responsibility for a project outcome is often diffuse.

picture of a workplace with accountability issue
Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash

Dependent Accountability

I like to say that in the workplace environment we have dependent accountability rather than individual accountability. Dependent accountability means what it sounds like: an employee’s individual accountability is dependent upon circumstances, people, and things around them.

An individual can only perform his or her duties in the workplace properly and take responsibility for them when:

  • The culture supports accountability and values it above other demands such as urgent deadlines.
  • The entire team is held accountable, rather than a handful of individuals. If one or two people are constantly allowed off the hook when called upon to be accountable for their actions, the entire framework for accountability disintegrates.
  • Systems are in place to measure, monitor, and protect people’s time so that they can accomplish the tasks given to them. If you’re constantly overloading someone’s task list with more than they can reasonably handle, you’re setting them up for failure, rather than success.
  • Roles are clear. If roles are diffuse, scattered, and no one is responsible (or everyone is responsible) confusion results. Workers don’t know what is expected and instead of completing the task or sticking to a deadline may decide it’s not their job anyway and move on.
  • Incomplete knowledge: If workers do not understand how to complete a task or think they know but their knowledge is incomplete or inaccurate, they may procrastinate and miss deadlines.

Measuring Up: Setting Workers Up for Success

In Craig’s case, his team of junior marketing managers wasn’t being irresponsible. On the contrary. The people I met with among the creative team were bright, ambitious, and deadline-oriented. They were clear on their roles and responsibilities although there was a certain amount of finger-pointing and simmering anger at the sales team, who the creative group felt over promised on their marketing campaigns.

Craig had called me in to consult with his company because of customer complaints. As a medical marketing agency, Craig’s team relied heavily on direct mail to market the hospitals and doctors they represented. Direct mail provided a personal and private way for them to reach patients with medical information, for example.

Yet the last several direct mailings hadn’t reached people in time for them to take advantage of the offer. The last three mailings had been for free smoking cessation seminars at the local hospital.

The mailing includes a dated coupon for discounted smoking cessation therapy visits and medication to assist with quitting nicotine addiction. But the dated offers hadn’t reached patients in time, leading to the client, the hospital, very angry with the agency.

“My team isn’t being accountable for the mailing!” Craig said.

Training Needed

It quickly became apparent when I met with the team assigned to the hospital account that they very much felt responsible for the mailing’s failure. They really took it to heart.

Craig’s shouting made it worse, not better.

“We did everything right!” Jennifer* said to me behind closed doors over coffee when I met individually with the creative team. She pushed the mailing package across the conference table. It was an attractive, eye-catching package that I would have been proud to create, and I told her so.

“Thanks,” she said. “We did meet our deadlines. Each of us gave it our all. But it still got there late.”

“When did you mail it?” I asked.

Together, Jennifer and I huddled over a calendar and she walked me through the team’s deadlines. Each team member had hit their deadline, no problem.

The real problem was the deadlines they had agreed upon. The team of bright, ambitious young people, so used to working on digital campaigns, didn’t realize that traditional print and direct mail take weeks, rather than days, to reach their target audience.

They’d cut their deadline too close and the mailing had been dropped at the post office with almost no chance of arriving on time.

It was training in traditional direct mail that the marketing team needed, not lectures on being responsible.

Roles, Responsibilities, and Systems

Another area lacking in the agency was an accountability system. I’m not talking about a project management system (they were using Asana, which is fine) but a system by which each team member had to check in with the others.

We implemented a modified version of Agile with a weekly 15-minute stand-up call so that the entire creative and sales team could give quick updates. More importantly, Craig attended. I had to twist his arm – hard – to get him to attend the calls.

Leaders, if you’re reading this, don’t be a Craig; attend the stand-up meetings. Look at your project management system. Stay on top of what your team is doing and guide them if they go astray.

Craig needed to hold himself accountable and stop blurring the lines among the team members. One problem that constantly got in the way of the creative team doing their job was Craig’s penchant for pulling someone off of a project to work on another account rather than allowing them to finish the first tasks. This ended up making it difficult for anyone to feel or take ownership of the mailing.

I spoke privately to Craig and didn’t mince words, showing him how his behavior and his attitude towards accountability itself was part of the problem.

Between lack of training, incomplete knowledge, and blurred boundaries, Craig’s agency had a systems and management problem, not an accountability problem.

Don’t Make Accountability a Scapegoat

Don’t let accountability become the scapegoat of your company. Roll up your sleeves and dig deeper into any problem you’re tempted to call an accountability issue. Before claiming accountability as the issue, check on:

  • Roles
  • Responsibilities
  • Training and knowledge
  • Systems for ensuring tasks and deadlines are clear
  • Projects and workload

Only if everything ticks all the boxes can you return to accountability issues, and then address them. Addressing the wrong problem just creates more problems. It’s like taking an aspirin for appendicitis; it won’t help the pain in your abdomen and it might delay treatment, which can kill you.

Take Action

Ready to take action? If you’d like to discuss training needs, contact Seven Oaks Consulting. We offer professional development custom-tailored to your staff needs.

* The names and some details of the actual case were changed to protect client privacy. The story is, however, based on an actual case study.

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