An important question

As a schoolgirl, I was pretty horrendous at meeting deadlines for handing in homework.  At the time, I didn’t realise the more I was rebuked and reminded I was going to ruin my future, the more resistant I was to do the work at all. At that stage of my life, I asked no questions. Much less what I eventually discovered was the most important question.

Luckily I scraped by. Progressing to the world of work, I didn’t have a problem meeting deadlines or getting things done.  I was pretty driven.   Also, I was driven because I wanted to do a great job.  I quickly got into the habit of setting myself a “TTD” (things to do list).  I liked nothing more than ticking off my tasks.  Deadlines were like a big red flag spurring me to action.

On becoming a manager

On becoming a manager, I encountered a problem which my frustrated teachers would have relished.   I found not everyone was as driven as me.  In fact, in the early days, team members would pitch up late at meetings. They would even  miss deadlines to complete tasks which put whole projects into jeopardy.  I tried everything I could and although some of my team rose to the occasion, I found I was spending much of my time chasing up work, making sure people were getting things done on time.  Even worse, I found deadlines being missed without a raise of an eyebrow by some of the team and even with a casual acceptance.  I was mystified. I still had not yet realised I had to ask the most important question.

Meeting deadlines

Working alongside senior managers across different organisations, I realised getting things done on time and to the standard required was a BIG problem.  It wasn’t just about meeting deadlines; it was about the quality of work and also a lack of right actions.  I realised some people inherently didn’t quite get “accountability”.  Even worse, some managers didn’t either. I pondered this for a long time and one by one a number of factors came together.  One day I finally got it. It was a big learning curve and one which made me change the way I led my team.  This dawning once I had it, resulted in me leading hugely successful teams which achieved great results.  It involved asking the most important question.  What I learned was this:

Asking why?

People do not accept accountability because they do not see the “Why” in what they do.  Lacking purpose, they are resistant to being told what to do because what they are told to do holds no meaning. As a result, they remain in their comfort zone and limit their effort.

Don’t get me wrong:  I don’t think people consciously or deliberately hold that stance, but it exists and resistance shows up like this: They will say:

What then happens is a constant reshuffling of policies, processes, resources and a call for more or better training.

If you have even a small problem with accountability in your business then you are simply meeting resistance.   There are some simple actions and a culture you can develop which can get great results and turn the tide of people being willing to be held accountable forever.  The biggest priority is helping your people to answer the most important question, that is “why?”

Finding purpose

Help employees find meaning in your vision. on  Agree how they will play their part and uncover the reasons why their contribution is meaningful to them, so they are emotionally invested.


Don’t make people accountable.  Give them responsibility for achieving outcomes, in a way they want to achieve them in a timescale agreed with you both.  Build in consequences if they don’t legitimately achieve.

Notice and Act

Notice what happens.  Reward great performance, review faltering contributions and follow through on consequences.  There is nothing so disempowering for your teams when you have set up an agreement on roles and responsibilities and because of a lack of attention, you appear indifferent or ineffective about acting on results both good and bad.

I received a letter from my 15-year-old son’s school informing me he hasn’t been handing his homework in.  The problem with a 15-year-old is he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.  Of course, knowing what I now know, the first thing I did was ask the most important question, and help him to find out his “Why”.  It took some doing, but once he identified a purpose which meant something to him, the change was remarkable.

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