Accountability is key to any business’ survival and your success. How do you ensure effective and rigorous accountability as a founder or business owner?

Image: Christina Wocinte at Unsplash

One thing you probably don’t miss if you no longer work for a big company is the number of meetings. But, have you ever stopped to wonder why large corporations hold quite so many meetings? Well, one benefit of good meetings is that they aid accountability by providing an opportunity for review and looking forward. A monthly sales meeting allows people to report how they’ve done not just generally but also against targets they set at the last meeting. This kind of accountability helps everyone to see if everyone else is doing what they said and, if not, to work out to work out why and how best to address it.

Bigger companies have these systems set up and baked in but, as a founder/ business owner, you need to build them in yourself. “Ah!” you might say, “That’s easy! This is my business –  I’m accountable to myself.” But to say that is to miss an essential truth which is that, ultimately, all of us lack the objectivity to hold ourselves accountable in a truly effective way. Most of us, left to ourselves make one of two big mistakes – we flog ourselves or we flatter ourselves. Both approaches lead to flawed and sometimes failed businesses.

Bigger companies have accountability systems baked in but, as a business owner, you need to build them in yourself

Let’s look briefly at both classic dangers. Firstly, the tendency to flog yourself, holding yourself and your business up to unrealistic standards and targets which when (surprise! surprise!) you fail to hit them sends you off on a vicious cycle of recrimination and more failure.

At the other extreme, you might flatter yourself, cutting yourself too much slack and lacking the rigour needed to check how the business is really doing against challenging targets. We flatter ourselves when we find ourselves continually revising the targets down or making excuses.

All of us lack the objectivity to hold ourselves truly accountable…we tend to either flog ourselves or flatter ourselves

In order to ensure that you build in heathy and productive accountability which drives sustainable growth, you need two things. The first is regular and consistent review systems for both setting and measuring targets. Many founders and business owners effectively make do with a combination of large macro goals (“double customer numbers in next six months”) and short term to-do lists (“submit proposal by Tuesday”, “call supplier tomorrow”, “send out newsletter”, “clear inbox” etc.).

An accountability system is what bridges those two perspectives (big macro goals and short term to-do lists) to help you drive and measure progress towards larger goals and make any necessary adjustments before it’s too late. So, for instance, a regular monthly sales review with clear actions is a system. That review will help you re-adjust your goals if necessary and will make sure your daily lists are rightly populated and prioritised.

There are obviously some key metrics any business needs, most obviously cashflow. If you’re going to keep the lights on, you need to have targets for and track money in and money out. However, as a founder, you can also work out other metrics for you and your business – you could plan for and track what you’ve learned, skills gained, time saved, quality of customer/ client contact, whatever makes sense for your business.

As you use your system to review your progress against your targets, it’s helpful to ask what’s worked and what hasn’t. A helpful tip here is to look out for any surprises – positive or negative – and then ask why things look different from what you expected. Sometimes the answers will be obvious – perhaps unexpected circumstances like a global pandemic or unplanned change in your personal situation – and other times you will learn valuable lessons about yourself, your clients/ customers and your business.

Finally, it’s great to have a system to set what actions come out of your review. Perhaps there are things you decide you need to stop, start or continue as a result of your review. Perhaps the review gives you a good opportunity to pause and review your progress – something which founders often do not set aside time to do but which is vital to encourage you to keep going when things are hard. Whatever these actions are, they can be translated into targets or desired outcomes ahead of your next review.

An accountability system is what bridges big macro goals and to-do lists

If you’re a sole proprietor/ solo business owner, you may be asking how to conduct this kind of review on your own. Should you call a meeting with yourself, set the agenda, play devil’s advocate and defend your own approach? You’ll be glad to know that there is no need to adopt multiple personalities and role play!

Which brings us to the second pillar of accountability, other standpoints. In the short term, a business coach can be a great way to kick start this process of accountability but I would suggest that you involve others –  maybe a mentor, maybe a supportive friend of family member although you do need to be careful here, maybe another entrepreneur for whom you do the same thing – obviously it needs to be someone you trust. Once you bring in consistent other standpoints, work out your targets and questions and then ask them to commit to holding you to them, give them permission to ask other questions; if appropriate, offer to do the same for them.

Most importantly, see this accountability as the gift it is and be grateful for and to those who help you in this way. Don’t bite their head off when they make observations and suggestions! Instead, create and make the most of chances to review your progress and work out what to do next – healthy accountability is the lifeblood of any business which seeks to grow sustainably. If you want your customers and clients to give you five star reviews, it helps if you are able to conduct five star reviews yourself.

Five star reviews