The Accountability Ladder:
A simple yet powerful tool to drive insights, awareness and action.
April 1, 2020

By Marc Effron, President, Talent Strategy Group

We see significant and positive signs that companies are fully committing themselves to better Talent Management. Our 2018 State of Talent Management report finds that 85% of organizations larger than $5B have a formal Talent Management department and 76% of companies report that their CEO supports their company’s Talent Management agenda. HR leaders are actively building their capabilities in Talent Management. We’ve graduated more than 3,000 of them from our Talent Management Institute alone.

Yet despite that progress, even the most progressive organizations aren’t seeing the Talent Management outcomes they originally expected. Some of the most basic processes – goal-setting, coaching – aren’t being executed with the quality and consistency needed. Talent production processes remain slow and inefficient.

Our experience with clients across industries and geographies shows us that the challenge to successfully execute Talent Management doesn’t lie with process design or training. It exists at a more fundamental level. While companies have designed simpler processes and enrolled their CEO, they’ve failed to answer a key question for their leaders: Why Should I?

Why Should I?

Your company’s leaders have big goals, a full calendar and a rational mind. Most of them understand the value of Talent Management and genuinely want their team to perform at a high level. The challenge is that few companies actually hold their leaders accountable to flawlessly execute the Talent Management fundamentals that produce those outcomes.

Without that clear accountability, busy leaders either explicitly or subconsciously ask themselves the question, “Why Should I?” They already have 100 priorities and they’re now being asked to add even more. If they hear a compelling answer to the “why should I?” question, they’ll move your request higher on their list. Too often they hear nothing, so they quickly learn that there are no consequences if they don’t set big goals, transparently coach their direct reports or increase the depth of their team.

If you believe that your leaders are accountable for these outcomes, it may help to clarify our definition of accountability. Accountability means that there is a consequence if a leader takes or doesn’t take action. We call this “consequential accountability” to separate it from the long list of items people claim leaders are accountable to achieve.

The power of the consequence tells leaders how important it is for them to complete an action. If the only consequence is that the leader will know that they’ve completed or not completed an action, you have little leverage over their behavior. If the consequence is that they will either be fired or promoted if they complete (or don’t complete) an action, you have near-total control over their behavior.

If you believe that your leaders already have accountability with consequence, ask yourself if every leader in your company has set extremely high-quality goals – few, big, challenging – for each of their direct reports. If leaders aren’t consequentially accountable for fundamental and powerful actions like goal-setting, it’s doubtful that they’re accountable for more critical actions like accelerating the development of their highest potential leader.

Getting to Consequential Accountability

A company can “push” or “pull” its way to consequential accountability and we find both actions contribute to effective Talent Management. Pull accountability draws or gently guides people towards a goal. A company’s Talent Philosophy, which I’ve extensively written and spoken about, creates pull accountability by signaling the company’s preferred way to manage Talent. Pull accountability can also be found in a CEO who models the company’s desired behaviors and publicly encourages other leaders to do the same.

Push accountability directly tells a leader what they must do to get a positive, or avoid a negative, consequence. It’s a large stick that should be used cautiously and only when an activity is critical to the success of the business. In theory, push accountability should include both positive and negative consequences, but we typically see companies only use the latter.

The larger an accountability’s consequence, the more it should focus a manager’s attention. This suggests that we should only assign large consequential accountability to the most critical activities. If every accountability has draconian consequences, managers will operate in a highly defensive mode.

We use the Accountability Ladder with our clients to assess if there’s enough accountability to drive leaders to the desired outcome.

The Accountability Ladder:
The Accountability Ladder describes the hierarchy of consequences if someone achieves or doesn’t achieve an outcome. It’s intended to be illustrative, not comprehensive, and it provides benchmarks for the impact of different actions. It’s a quick and easy way to both understand how much accountability your leaders have for action and to audit whether it’s enough accountability to change their behavior.

The Ladder includes different types of consequences – peer pressure, cultural pressure, financial impact, career impact. We recommend that you set consequences at the lowest level required to incent managers to complete the task.

The Accountability Audit:
Clients often express frustration that their leaders aren’t executing Talent Management activities as they’ve directed. When I ask them to list each activity and assign it an accountability number, it becomes clear how little incentive their leaders have to act. In very few companies do Talent practices rank higher than a 3 on the Accountability Ladder, and we find a minimum of 6 or 7 is typically required to spur action.

You can use the quick audit below to better understand if your leaders are likely to complete the Talent Management activities you are requesting:

Use the results of this assessment to understand where to increase the pressure on leaders to complete Talent Management activities. Any rating less than a 3 is not likely to convince a leader to act.

Moving Forward

A first step to increase accountability is for your executive team to agree on a company Talent Philosophy. A Talent Philosophy is the executive team’s view about the best way to manage Talent to achieve the strategy. It sets a clear direction for how leaders will manage performance, behaviors, transparency, etc., and includes a specific section on accountability. The Talent Philosophy will help you to both define accountability and communicate its importance.

Next, conduct and report the results of your Accountability Audit. Your results should provide compelling direction for where and how to turn up the accountability dial in your organization. Share the results with your line executives, get their insights about how they’d like to enforce accountability and ask which measures they’d support.

Let’s take advantage of the recent strong progress in Talent Management and ensure that companies extract the true power from their process and mindset changes. The Accountability Ladder is a simple but powerful tool you can use to drive insights, awareness and action.

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