Accountability is rarely far from my mind when I am coaching leaders. Often times the topic appears as elusive and desirable as the Holy Grail: “If we could just figure out how to hold people accountable, we’d get so much done.”

Accountability is not the solution, yet effective leaders do need to define and demonstrate it to their team members. Keeping it near the top of the to do list is hard, of course.

Fortunately (or not?), news about leaders who have failed to hold themselves accountable surrounds us most weeks. For those of us in the United States, the most recent example is Joe Paterno, the newly fired Penn State football coach, who learned that one of his assistant coaches was molesting a child and passed on the information—and did nothing else.

Joe’s failure to hold himself and a direct report answerable is an example of how dramatic and destructive disregarding accountability can be.

Paterno’s mistakes remind us of two best practices.

1. Timing matters. Move fast when correcting (and praising).

If you observe a behavior that needs to be changed, give feedback—soon. The same applies when you want to recognize productive conduct. Act on it before the context is lost and while you can remember details.

If you find that you’ve waited and the memory is faded, choose to still coach the employee, and come clean that you should have spoken earlier. “I should have given you this feedback earlier, after I observed this behavior. I apologize. In the future, I will share my thoughts more promptly, allowing us to work together towards changes.”

2. Delegating doesn’t mean you’re done.

Passing on a task to someone else doesn’t mean you are done with your part. When you delegate, when you hand off a task or information, you and the team member must discuss how you will check in. Not if you will do so.

If the team member has deep experience with you and the organization, the two of you may decide that you will routinely allow the person to carry through alone and only circle back at the end. You check in less frequently with a senior member of your team vs. a less experienced or less tenured member, yet you still check in, especially if the situation is a delicate or controversial one.

I don’t feel a leader demonstrates less faith in an individual when he checks in. I see it as demonstrating support and, in the words of The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner, modeling the way.

The buck does stop with you.

A final thought for leaders: make yourself ultra available. Tell your team members—not once but once a week—to come find you when they need you. If you are ultra available, they will be more likely to try to get to you when they need to.

“When you need me, find me.” “Email, call me, text me.” “Swing by my desk.” “What help can I provide? What do you need from me?”

And when you get calls from team members, thank them: “Thank you for calling and checking in.”
Dan Pink wrote a recent blog entry with an example of ultra availability. That is modeling the way.

© Leila Bulling Towne  2011

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About the Author:

Leila Bulling Towne is an executive coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She helps executives and their teams lead with ease. As the executive’s problem solver, Leila’s techniques emphasize tangible, strategic steps for managing during downturns and the climb back up.Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Women’s Health, and many other publications. She is also a video host for CBS Interactive. For more information and a FREE report, “The 5 Leadership Themes For This Year,” visit