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By Darryl Stewart
Hands pointing at each other

Figuring out who’s actually accountable

As human beings working under the direction of another person, one of our most basic needs is to know what is expected of us. If this has not been communicated and reinforced with us over time, we will rarely be engaged. Inevitably, no matter how good our intentions are, when confronted with a constantly moving set of expectations, we will default to the standard operating procedure for poorly led team members everywhere. That is to say, we will come to work, do the bare minimum required of us, and then go home. And usually, at some point, we will add looking for another job to our daily to-do list.

To be a great leader, there is nothing more important than making sure everyone on your team knows what is expected of them. If you don’t do this, you almost shouldn’t bother with anything else.

I know this well and I thought I was doing a good job at setting expectations. Then I did an exercise with my team recommended by Verne Harnish in his book, Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It…and Why the Rest Don’t. The exercise was to first create a list of all the areas of accountability in our company, then hand the list out to the team and ask them to put the initials of who they thought was accountable beside each area, and then compare the lists.

The results were comical. I had to laugh (at myself) over how badly muddled things were. Some people thought others were accountable for areas that I thought they themselves were; some people identified themselves as accountable for functions for which I did not think they were; and senior leaders’ initials were beside too many things – areas for which I thought accountability had been clearly delegated. What an eye opener!

Basically, our organization had outgrown our old casual way of setting expectations by simply talking a lot about them. We needed to get more sophisticated and Harnish’s book taught us what we needed to know.

My suggestion to senior leaders is to make a list of all the areas of accountability within your organization. This is a list of your functional areas and the processes your organization must follow. Then, ask your team to write in the initials of who they think is accountable for each area.

A sample list of functional areas and processes in many organizations:

  • Head of the organization
  • Human resources
  • Controller
  • Information technology
  • New employee orientation
  • Talent development/Learning
  • Customer advocacy
  • R&D/Innovation
  • Content creation and publication
  • Product development 
  • Sales to cash 

Notice I have used the term “accountability” throughout this article. Accountability falls to the ONE person who is to “count” or to know everything that is going on in that area. This is the one person who raises the alarm when there are problems; the one who people recognize as someone who understands the area fully, tracks progress, and makes sure goals are met. It does not mean they have authority to make all decisions in that area. That is another matter and perhaps the primary cause of our comical results. We have since taken the time to understand the difference between accountability and authority and to make sure that all our functions have people accountable for them and that we all know who they are.

Solving the issues that this simple exercise brings to the surface involves a lot more that can be covered in a short article. If you suspect that your results might be like ours were (a mess!), it might be better to hold off doing the exercise until you have some idea of how to solve the problems it could expose. In this regard, I highly recommend Harnish’s book. I am also happy to share our experience with our readers. Feel free to get in touch with me.


IBEX Payroll extends our profound respect and immeasurable gratitude to all the ancestors and keepers of the land on whose traditional territories our work takes place. We acknowledge that we are on Treaty 1 territory, the traditional gathering place of the Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene people and the traditional homeland of the Métis people. This land is sacred, historical, and significant. 

Every time we acknowledge this truth, we have an invitation and an opportunity to reflect on the wrongs of the past, what we do in the present, and what we can do to continually honour the people whose lands and water we benefit from today. 

This statement only acts as a first step in honouring the land we reside on and its peoples, and must be paired with education, understanding and informed action.