Accountability 101: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Developing an Accountable Organization

May 6th, 2020

6-min read

By Scott Ford, Chief Operating Officer at Techstars

Books, blogs, and magazine articles tell us how important accountability is, but teams and companies still struggle. “I don’t have time.” “I don’t want people to think I’m mean.” “I don’t know where to start.” “Why can’t people just hold themselves accountable?” These are common questions that leaders struggle to answer because they don’t have the skills or tools to effectively manage teams. 

It doesn’t have to be hard. I’m as busy — or lazy, take your pick — as the next person, but I’m told I have some skills in this area. One thing I’ve learned over time: It starts with you. As a leader in your organization, the mirror is your best friend: What are you doing to hold yourself accountable? If you’re not willing to commit to “walking your talk,” you can’t expect others to do so with any conviction.

I didn’t understand the concept of accountability at that age, but I did understand donuts.

I’m going to share my techniques and strategies with you. But first, a story.

What’s At Stake? 

As a 7-year-old entrepreneur, I went door to door with my cousin selling carpet samples as doormats. I didn’t understand the concept of accountability at that age, but I did understand donuts. A donut truck drove around the neighborhood every afternoon. Each morning I decided which donut I wanted and figured out how much I needed to sell. If I didn’t meet the goal, I wouldn’t taste the spice of a cinnamon roll or feel the glaze flake off as I took the first bite. I didn’t always get the donut. More often, my cousin missed his goal and asked me to loan him money for his donut. Because I had less organizational savvy back then, I didn’t hold him accountable. Resentments grew, corporate goals went unmet, and our doormat empire didn’t even last the summer.

The Helms Donut Truck

I started another business in my basement 25 years later. The stakes had somehow changed from donuts to a family and a mortgage. I had cofounders counting on me. While my day-to-day role as CEO was strategic, I also had to figure out a way to sell our services. My cofounders weren’t salespeople either, but we started by reluctantly establishing a weekly sales quota. Each Monday at 10 am, we met to share whether we had achieved our weekly sales goals and our plan for the week ahead. Accountability comes fast when there is nowhere to hide. Not only were everyone’s achievements written on a whiteboard for all to see, we had to stand in front of our team and say it out loud. 

“It’s not my job” isn’t a phrase you’ll ever hear me say.

Principles of Accountability

Whether you’re in the nowhere-to-hide early stages of starting your company, or further down the path where things can get less clear, the principles of accountability are the same.

01. Hold Yourself Accountable

If you’re not all in, then no one else will be either. “It’s not my job” isn’t a phrase you’ll ever hear me say. You might see me roll up my sleeves and ask, “How can I help?” “What can we do to make this right?” or “What can I do better to support you next time?”

02. Establish Clear Objectives

This is probably the most challenging part of creating a culture of accountability. If you get the objective wrong, then you confuse the team and fail at the task. Take your time to really understand what you’re trying to accomplish. As an example, to increase sales by $100, do you want to make a $1 sale to 100 customers, or a $10 sale to 10 customers? These are very different goals. Figure out what you’re really trying to achieve, then make sure the goal is time-bound and measurable.

03. Align Goals with Your Overall Strategy

If the company’s objective is to have revenue of $10 million, then each team and employee should have goals to support that objective. The sales team needs to have a pipeline goal. The service team should have a goal to reduce churn. The marketing team should have a goal to produce the appropriate materials. The legal team’s goal might be to turnaround sales contracts within 48 hours.

04. Create a Dashboard

Record your goals, share them, and review them regularly. The last thing I want is for someone to show up with a complete miss at the end of a quarter. I’d rather see the trends along the way so I can intervene and help correct the course before it’s too late. This could be as simple as a weekly or monthly stoplight chart you create in Excel or Sheets.

05. Trust but Verify

I hire great people and then give them the authority to get their job done. When they say they’re going to complete a task, I believe them. But as a manager, it’s still my responsibility to hold them accountable for completing the task, and further, for meeting the high standards we set for ourselves.

06. Hire Slow, Fire Fast

At some point, you’ll make a hiring mistake. Just admit it and make a change quickly. I’m not going to sugarcoat this one — it’s hard. I was once scared to fire an employee because I thought he was the only person who could do his job. When I finally made the change, a surprising thing happened: Productivity across the team increased. People raised their hands to learn his role. When I owned up to my mistake, they jumped in to support me.

Schedule Out Accountability

In practical terms, how does this really work and how much time does it take? Let me show you the tools and techniques I use here at Techstars.

Weekly

  • 30 minutes: one-on-one meeting with each direct report. We use a shared Asana checklist that has two categories: things to discuss and action items.

  • 5 minutes: Technology team stoplight report

  • 5 minutes: Operations flip chart review (see Annually)

Every 2 Weeks

  • 45 minutes: cross-functional Operations team leader meeting. We use a shared Google Doc that has three categories: topics, key takeaways, and action items. This meeting is recorded, so anyone who isn’t able to attend is expected to watch the recording before the next meeting.

Every 6 Weeks

  • 3 hours: cross-functional executive review of all Techstars departments. We use a two-page Google Slides template. I stand in front of my peers to share wins, blockers and asks for assistance. This is our opportunity to identify any misalignment or delays so we can proactively work to correct them. In addition to live questions, we have a Slack channel to record additional questions from remote staff. 

  • 1 – 2 hours: Operations deep-dive quarterly KPI (key performance indicator) reports from each team, used to create the executive review report above.

Once a Year

  • Two 2-day offsite meetings to discuss strategic objectives for the following year. Using this information, the Operations team works to develop its yearly strategies and KPIs. Over the course of several weeks, I spend another day or two refining the goals and ensuring alignment. Once completed, we create a flip chart that lists each team’s goals, owners, KPIs, and how each goal aligns with the overall Techstars’ strategy. We keep this to around 10 total objectives. The final output is a physical booklet for every team member to put on their desk.

Building an accountable culture and organization isn’t hard, but it does take work. It’s not all as straightforward as doormats and donuts, but the easiest way to build this behavior into your company’s DNA is with consistency. If you don’t take the time to review the data and provide meaningful feedback, it becomes busywork. You have to be accountable to your teams — you need to look into the mirror. If you schedule time to review progress each week, month, or quarter, your teams will not only follow, but seek out ways to do more.

#Leadership

About the Author

Scott Ford

Scott Ford is Chief Operating Officer at Techstars.  Scott is responsible for creating and implementing strategic plans, generating operational efficiency, maximizing profits, and ensuring that business processes and cross-functional teams are aligned and streamlined.  Previously, Scott was President and COO of Rapt Media, which was acquired by Kaltura, and VP, Global Operations & International Sales at ZOLL Medical Corporation.  Scott also co-founded and sold On-the-Block Auction.