What Bobby the Idiot Can Teach You About Accountability

Leaders often ask me how to keep people accountable. The first thing we usually need to discuss is what accountability actually means – and it’s usually different from what they think.

Accountability is not about looking for someone to blame when things go wrong, or nailing that person to the wall. That is a very controlling approach to leadership. When I think of controlling leaders, my client Sally always pops into my mind.

Sally was a managing partner of a public accounting firm. She hired me as an executive consultant because her firm was experiencing a lot of turnover – they were having trouble holding on to their good people. As well, she wasn’t happy with the performance of the people she had, and she wanted me to “fix them.”

She was having a meeting with her direct reports, and she invited me to sit in and observe. Sally, by the way, is a very successful executive, and watching her at the meeting I could see why. She was a real dynamo. Man, when she walks into a room, you know she’s there. And that’s partly because she never stops talking.

One of the biggest issues with her leadership style in that meeting was that she was the one who was usually doing all the talking and not much listening. It was all about Sally. (Have you ever been in a meeting with someone like that?)

When she did ask for people’s opinions, it was obvious she was just waiting for the chance to deliver her next monologue. Even though she would occasionally ask, “Hey, what are your ideas?” even as she listened she’d be physically inching forward in her chair, itching to jump back in. Next thing you know, it’s all about Sally again, and now even their ideas were her ideas.

As the meeting progressed, I started noticing people getting disengaged, one by one. Bobby, who was in charge of business development, was one of the quietest. This was especially noticeable because a big part of the meeting was focused on a marketing initiative that the firm was rolling out. Yet Sally never called on him, and he never spoke up.

After the meeting, when Sally and I had a debrief, the pattern continued – with Sally doing all of the talking, and me just doing the listening. Sally’s comments included, “Wasn’t that a great meeting?”

Huh? Were we at the same meeting?

“Wasn’t that terrific,” she continued! “Look at all the things we got done. Boy, didn’t we have a lot of good ideas?”

And do you know what else she said? You’re not going to believe it.

“Isn’t my team great?”

How would I know? They didn’t say anything!

Now it was my turn to talk. “Sally, can I ask you three questions?”

“Well, yeah, okay,”

I told her that I couldn’t help but notice that she never called on Bobby, even though he was the one in charge of business development. And do you know what she said? (Maybe the title of the article gave it away.)

“Oh, Bobby’s an idiot.”

Scratching my head on that one, I asked my second question, “Who hired Bobby?”

“Well, I did.”

She’s on to me a little now, and says, “I can hardly wait for your third question, Alan, what is it?”

“How much does Bobby the idiot make per year?”

She didn’t answer at the time, she just said, “Alan, I got it.”

I later found out that Bobby earned $150,000 a year. And she wasn’t letting him do his job! Sally wasn’t capitalizing on the strengths of her people. No wonder people were leaving, and no wonder they weren’t attracting top new talent. No wonder the people she had weren’t living up to their potential or performing at high levels.

Now that you have a clear picture of a controlling leader, imagine now a caring, respectful, loving leader. What I’ve seen is that caring leaders have a much easier time keeping their people accountable.

Instead of talking, they listen. Instead of blaming, they help solve. Instead of dismissing, they include. Instead of limiting, they empower.

Which kind of leader would you like to be?

Alan M. Dobzinski has more than 25 years of business experience and knows what works. If you’re ready to hear some honest feedback about your leadership style, he’ll give it to you. Straight up. Contact him today to get started.