Accountability in Leadership: Build Leadership Accountability with the 5 C's Framework

By Cathy McCullough

Accountability in Leadership: Build Leadership Accountability with the 5 C's Framework

From a leadership perspective, there’s a real thirst for increasing leadership accountability. accountability in leadershipExecutives have recently asked me various questions that linger over the concept of building team accountability to help them achieve their strategic plans while creating high performing teams:

“How do I build accountability in teams?

"How do I increase accountability in leadership?"

What else can I do to get people to do what we need them to do?”

“How can I hold a team member to be held accountable and still be seen as a good leader?”

"How do I balance leadership accountability and personal accountability when building a team?"

"Creating a culture of accountability is hard, how do I provide constructive feedback without being the bad guy?"

Building team accountability requires that we understand a few dynamics because it’s more complicated than we might recognize.  It goes beyond the responsibility for the outcomes, which is obviously important, but effective leaders know that they need a culture of accountability in their teams that provide the inputs needed to achieve the expected team performance.  Holding people accountable is one of the most important things that a successful leader does, but it is also one of the hardest.

First of all, teams - by definition - are made up of individuals. We can’t forget that. What’s needed is an understanding that society tends to truly value individual contribution while also (and separately) valuing team contribution. This interesting contradiction causes a great deal of confusion as to which should be valued the most. The secret alchemy, then, is to simply sort out the confusion to start building accountability in the workplace. Without accountability in a team, it is much more difficult - and stressful - to achieve your quarterly plan.  Each team member needs to be accountable for their actions, so that the team can achieve results as laid out in the plan.

We can do this if we recognize where the individual plays a more vital role and where teamwork plays a more vital role. For instance, when there’s sudden chaos or an emergency of some sort, you want one or more individuals to step up and take the lead. When, on the other hand, you need smart thinking to solve a problem or transform a process, teams are better. Successful strategy execution has to allow each of your team members the flexibility they need to make decisions and be held accountable for the results.  Leaders at all levels are responsible to holding people accountable and regularly review progress with their teams.   

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With that said, though, the individuals who are placed on a team matter. In an HBR article, Gratton and Erickson (November 2007) noted that the “greater the proportion of experts a team had, the more likely it was to disintegrate into nonproductive conflict or stalemate.” These kinds of teams are not teams. They are groups of individuals coming together under the façade of working as a team. They’re still a group of individuals. 

Yet, most individuals in team formation want to do what they’re supposed to do. Their intent is generally good. The missing link is that what the team is supposed to do gets lost in translation. It’s assumed that they just know what to do, which is why our leadership development program is so popular as it provides actionable advice to develop accountable leaders and teams.  Accountability training for leaders provides a positive return on investment as it builds accountability throughout the organization.

Hopefully, your company isn’t full of one crisis after another. If it is, then celebrating the individual might be your default solution. But for most companies, the continual journey is around improvements, innovation, and problem-solving. With that said, we can see the relevance with accountability in a team environment.   Lack of accountability spreads quickly through the organization and limits productivity and kills morale.

The missing link is that this 'team' of individuals needs to know what they, as a collective whole, are accountable for accomplishing. Personal accountability doesn't always translate to a accountability in a team. As a leader, it’s your job to provide them with a definition of what it is you’re holding them accountable for doing and increase your communication to increase accountability.

To do this, consider using The Five C’s for Building Team Accountability:


5cs Framework for webinar banner

1. Common Purpose: Set the stage for any team initiative by talking about the ‘why.’ Why are they here? Why are they working on this project, or this special task force? Connect what you need the team to do with why you need them to spend valuable time doing it. What’s the point? Why does it matter? We always tend to tell a team of people what to do; many leaders are good at that. As a result, the ‘why’ gets completely ignored.  The sign of a high performing team is the ability to rally around a common purpose.

2. Clear Expectations: What is it that you ultimately need the team to do?  These are the accountability questions leaders to set clear expectations for the team.  You need to tell the team over and over again, so that all of the team members are clear on what is expected of them. It often takes several repetitions before the entire team can communicate them effectively. 

  • Clarify: Are you looking for one specific viable solution to a company-wide problem, or are you asking the team to jointly agree on three potential solutions to present? Do you expect them to define a roadmap for the one (or three) solutions, or not? Do you need them to present a list of pros and cons with their solution(s)? How do you want to be kept informed along the way? An email every Friday afternoon? A white paper three times a week (Side note: Please don’t do this last one), or what? Whether it’s an intact workplace team or a task force, use the Job Scorecard as a tool to help prompt your thinking as to what you need the team to be responsible for doing.
  • Accountable Leadership: If it’s a special task force (vs. an intact workplace team), who’s the person who’s driving the train. In other words, who’s ultimately accountable for making sure that what the team needs to do gets done? It doesn’t mean this person is the only one doing the work; it simply means s/he is on top of it. The same would hold true for a new initiative for an intact team. You, the leader, shouldn’t think you have all the power to check how things are going. Instead, who on the team can take the leadership role to make sure the transition gets moving, and keeps moving? Who’s accountable for driving the train?  Do you accept responsibility when it is required?
  • In your mind, what does success look like when you achieve a goal? Setting up a metric for what success looks like clarifies the degree to which people are supposed to do something. Otherwise, you can get a checkmark that says, “We did it.” But, was it done relative to the expectations you had in your head? Define (clearly) what success looks like. (Side note: Try to avoid having a due date as a success metric. Any of us can produce a ton of mediocre work by a deadline.)
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 Communicate & Align: As time passes, as part of their leadership development, it’s a leader’s job to keep a team focused and aligned so that everyone’s involved and moving in the same direction. How are they going to do what you need them to do? What resources might they consider using? Keep everyone focused. Over and over, communicate with them, ask questions, remind them why what they’re doing is important, etc. Your job as a leader is to keep them all rowing in the same direction, especially when rolling out annual plans and your quarterly plans. Communication and alignment is what provides life to any team because it’s what fosters longer-term sustainability.

4. Collaborate and Coach: Set the stage for collaboration all along the way so that adjustments can be made in real time. Monitor progress and coach your people. Don’t tell them what to do. Coach. Listen to them (80%) and talk with them (20%) to increase your team performance. Nurture them to converse with each other. Be a resource for them. What roadblocks need to be removed, and how can you help remove them? If what you’ve tasked your people to do is important, then it deserves your support.  Collaboration is at the heart of a great weekly team meeting which is where the accountability rubber meets the road.  Did everyone do what they said they were going to do?

5. Consequences: Most people see consequences and they immediately think of a negative connotation. We overlook that consequences can also be positive. Make results and consequences visible. Talk to your team strategically vs tactically, which is usually done through questions vs. statements. Secondly, for some reason, leaders are the first to let people know when something’s not right or if it’s gone awry. But when things go well, it’s almost as if the success is glossed over. The consequence of that, though, is that you help create a remedial culture. People are only noticed and given attention at weekly team meetings when things don’t go as expected. So work to give equal (or more) weight to what’s gone right. Celebrate

Need some help getting started?  Rhythm Systems has programs that can help you build accountable leaders and teams so that you can execute your strategy with less drama!

Team Accountability Vs. Personal Accountability (Video)


Leadership Accountability: How to Hold Team Members Accountable 

  • Which of the Five C’s do you find the hardest to do?
  • Which is the most important, and why?
  • Take our team accountability assessment to see where you stand, and how you can improve.

Rhythm Systems helps mid-market companies accelerate growth through their suite of strategy & execution software products.  If you're interested in increasing accountability in your organization with Job Scorecards download our free tools and templates on this page.

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Want more information on Team Accountability? Check out these additional resources:

The Power of Systems and People: Accountable Leaders and Teams leadership development program to improve team performance.

Take Our Team Accountability Assessment to see how your team stacks up.

Why You Need a Peak Performance Plan for Your A-Players

Leadership Accountability Definition in Management

Level 5 Leadership - How to be a Level 5 Leader

Team Accountability Begins with Personal Accountability

How top CEOs Close the Strategy Execution Gap

Follow Up: The Key To Leadership Development

Building Team Accountability: Job Scorecards

10 Signs of an Accountable Culture [Infographic]

Growing Team Accountability in Your Organization

5 Steps to Having an Accountability Discussion [Video]

Learn more about accountable leaders and teams.

Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

This blog was last updated on March 19, 2020.

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