“Accountability” is on every Corporate Buzzword Bingo sheet. It’s like “strategy,” “synergy”, and “collaboration,” in that it means different things to different people in different situations. Let’s start with Webster’s definition: “Answerable or responsible to the level of being called to account.” With that in mind, focusing on 1) delegating accountability, 2) accepting accountability, and 3) calling those accountable to account are the keys to improving the way you lead.

Delegating Accountability

A manager asks a marketing associate and their agency partner to implement an advertorial test. (An advertorial is paid advertising that looks like an editorial.)

“We need a one-month, two-market comparison test of whether this advertorial builds business at a statistically significant level so we can expand it. I trust you two to create the advertorial, design, run, and read the test within our current advertising budget. I don’t need progress updates, but do come back to me the day before the test starts so I can approve your plan. To be clear, I will approve whatever you show me. But this needs to be my risk, not yours.”

In this example, the manager delegated accountability for the project to the two people. But he also kept accountability – and the risk. Unlike something that is given and transferred, accountability is both given and kept at the same time – shared.

This is why two critical elements in delegating accountability are trust and communication. While the manager in our example is still going to be held to account for what he delegated to the marketing associate and agency partner, now, instead of delivering it himself, he is trusting them to do that.

Trust and confidence are closely related. The more confidence the manager in our example has in the people to whom he delegating, the easier it will be for the manager to trust them to deliver, and the more confidence they are going to have in themselves.

Communication when delegating is about clarity around direction, resources, authority and accountability.

Direction is about what needs to get done and why. Concepts like objectives, desired results and your over-arching intent fit in here. (e.g., “test of whether this advertorial builds business” in the example above.)

Resources are important because scope is a function of resources and time. The more clarity you can provide on what human, financial, technical and operational resources they can call on as needed, the easier it will be for them to get done what you need when you need. (e.g., “within current advertising budget.”)

Authority comes with boundaries and guidelines. It’s counter-intuitive, but the clearer and tighter the boundaries and guidelines are, the easier it will be for others to make decisions. Knowing what decisions they can’t make and which lines they should not cross, allows them to focus on what they can. (In the example above, the manager dictated the test protocol and what was to be tested, giving the associate and partner effective decision-rights over everything else.)

Finally, be clear on what, when and how you’re going to call them to account. Spell out the standards of performance, time expectations and the positive and negative consequences of success and failure. (e.g., “builds business at a statistically significant level so we can expand it” in one month.)

Accepting Accountability

Delegation has to be a two-way conversation. Accountability has to be offered and accepted. On the one hand, acceptance is the mirror image of offering. At the same time, the people accepting the accountability should make sure they understand and agree with the:

Direction including objectives and desired results – and especially the intent around why this task, project or program matters and how it’s going to impact other things.
Resources as adequate to deliver the desired objectives, results and intent.
Authority and what decisions they can and cannot make, and what guidelines they need to follow.
Call to account: When, how, and with what consequences.
Calling to Account

It doesn’t end there. You have to call those to whom you delegate to account. You have to track their results and make sure positive results get positive reinforcement and negative results get negative reinforcement. This goes to the ABCs of behavioral change. The delegation steps described above are important antecedents. Calling to account brings in consequences.

By the way, the advertorial test in the example worked, building business +50% in a month. The marketing associate got promoted and the agency was awarded the work to expand the program nationally – with similar results.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #680) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.