Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

The Foundation of Accountability

For the past several months my email in-box has been full of requests from clients to put together a special program on “Accountability.” In just that past few weeks I have zig-zagged across the country delivering custom sessions to State Farm, Verizon, Harman, and Abbott Labs. It is obvious that with the current business climate, companies are trying to do more work, with less people… greatly increasing the pressure on every employee to deliver what is expected of them – on time and done superbly.


Although there are a number of factors that contribute to creating a culture of accountability, I would like to take a few minutes and share with you what I believe is one of the most critical: Specific and Measurable Expectations. Why are quantifiable goals and measurable performance expectations so vital?  Because they give people a clear direction and take ego out of the equation, both of which reduces stress, confusion and conflict.

 When people are given ambiguous goals such as… “Increase sales, reduce inventory, shorten cycle times, reduce defects, be more innovative… try harder” with no specific, measurable and agreed upon standards… it is a recipe for pain.  They put in lots of effort, work overtime, run like crazy, but because there is no clear finish line there is no way for them to win the race! In order to hold an employee accountable you need to fully communicate exactly  what you expect of them, how you will measure success or failure, and then make sure they have the information, skills, tools, resources and authority to get the job done. 

My favorite example for this idea is Charlie Trotter’s, one of the top 10 restaurants in the world. It is said that at Charlie Trotter’s the chefs do not give instructions like cooks, but like diamond cutters. They don’t just say, “Give me some carrots.” They request carrots that are whole, rough chopped, sliced, finely sliced, large diced, small diced, finely diced… and their assistants know to the millimeter exactly what each type of cut is supposed to look like. No guessing, no hoping, no confusion — exact, precise, specific.  The robust communication of clearly defined and quantifiable performance expectations, creates the foundation for a “repeatable process” of delivering the desired results – each and every time.

 The other very important reason for giving measurable goals is that it takes opinion and emotion out of the equation when dealing with performance issues.  If you say to an employee “I just don’t feel like you are giving it your all,” you are begging for an argument as to why they feel they are working extra-hard and deserve a raise! But if you have measurable goals you can say, “We agreed that you would increase your sales by 20% this month and I see on your report that you are only at 11% growth, what are your plans to make sure you get that other 9%?” Now you can have a meaningful discussion about numbers and facts, not assumptions or feelings. Now it isn’t you versus the employee, it is the two of you together trying to fix the numbers.

 So here is the point: Before you can hold any employee accountable, you must first make sure that you have taken the time and effort to create clear, specific, measurable goals and given them all of the tools, time, support, resources, and training necessary to succeed. If you are completely comfortable that you have done this, and they are still not performing up to standard, you now have the ability to have a frank and focused discussion revolving around facts and data – not opinion or emotion. Doing this for every employee is the foundation of creating a highly accountable culture of disciplined execution in your organization.

Hope that helps a little — take good care — John


  1. Love it.

    Here’s an article called “SMART Goals: What They Are, Why They Are So Valuable (and why so many struggle with them)” expanding on this topic. I couldn’t agree more John. Bravo. Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time-bound (SMART) goals are the way to go.

  2. Dear John,

    How have you been? I noticed you have a new article to share about “Accountability”. In Asian culture, it makes little differences in observing such culture compares to American and European. In another words, lack of accountability is everywhere in the world be it in Fortune 100 companies or a small local companies in Malaysia here.

    I agreed some points on “specific and measurable expectation” which equivalent to S.M.A.R.T goals. However, what I practices and preaches usually I have included it as reflecting 80/20 Rule. I often ask what would be the 20% you are doing impacting the 80% of the ultimate results? It makes people think very hard and not to waste too much unnecessary time spend on things that will not yield results.

    Empowering is another key thing, a very powerful word. It lies on trust level between employers and employees. Without given any empowering to people that perform the execution as an employer should not be too demanding. This is what quoted by Carlos Ghosn as the person who turn Nissan into a company to profitable company.

    Accountability best reflect to organization that I have experienced with Ritz Carlton Hotel. They are one of the best hotel that stays on top as the level of empowering down till a janitor or a tea-lady. The level of commitment in providing excellent service cannot be compromise. I think they set a very high standard in relate to accountability.

    In relating to Accountability is best to keep it as a discipline or habit in focus very clear and specific top 3 goals. Then proceed with work on the lead measures e.g. 80/20 rule. State a very compelling scoreboard and get everyone to look into it as part of the things they will look forward in coming to work. The next part would be getting everyone to meet at the table for a quick check on the status and explore possibility to get any team-members to expedite the progress. This process will go on as a loop to get everyone on their toe as part of the discipline. Discipline will turn into a habits where in long term as part of one culture. Toyota is a company which very proud with their culture.

    I’m not sure you share the same view as me. I believed this is worthwhile to share among the consultants, coaches or change agent around.

    Look forward your comment.


  3. You are perfectly on track — excellent feedback – thank you so much for continuing to add value to this blog! John

  4. Derek Lewis says:

    Excellent point, John. I believe the process is as important for decision makers as it is for the executors.

    Just like a great business plan forces an entrepreneur to pluck their dreams out of the clouds & lay them out in black & white, creating “specific & measurable expectations” inevitably pressures a team leader to figure out what they really want.

    It’s a discovery process for the leader, as well as an effective communication tool to the assigned team member.

    Please continue to share your thoughts. As always, your collected knowledge is an inspiration.

  5. I like what Jim Rohn says about clear, measurable and specfic goals. He notes that without that all important designator – “within a reasonable time period” – we would have alot of 18 year olds sitting in pint sized, elementary school desks. We learn how to operate under these principles during our years of formal schooling. Why do so many assume that the principles no longer apply when they get into the world of business? People are fascinating.

  6. Dan Wrona says:


    Brilliant! This is exactly the first lesson I extend to college students when training them on accountability. You cannot hold someone to an expectation that you never asked them to fulfill in the first place. Students grasp this idea, nod their acceptance and quickly respond, “Ok, great. Clear expectations. Got it. BUT, what do I do when they fail?”

    Even with clear lines and hard facts, we can carry our own apprehension, emotion and stress into confrontation. Ignorance is easier, so it becomes a more attractive alternative. In the long run, accountability fails because the stop-gap never takes place.

    I am sure this never happens in the business world! But it is especially prevalent among the current generation of college students (your readers’ future employees). It is reported that they have rarely been challenged, confronted or critiqued on their performance. Lacking experience, role models and good examples, they fear confrontation and never equate it with “healthy correction.”

    My question for a future blog is: what is the framework for delivering (and taking) a healthy dose of confrontation? How do we train student / community / business leaders to master this art?

    I have my own ideas, but I would love to hear yours!