“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

– General George Patton, American Military Leader

“High expectations are the key to everything.”

– Sam Walton, Founder of Walmart


A few years back, when I took the leadership reins of a team, I sat down with one of my young and ambitious analysts, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Ok, I need you to be accountable for these analyses and reports, and I expect you to always give me your best work, day in and day out.”

To which he responded, “I’ve been waiting for somebody like you…it’s about time somebody demanded the best from me because I’ve got a lot to give.”

At their core, people want to own something and be good at what they do. If you create clear accountabilities and set high expectations, you’ll typically harness a lot of untapped potential in people. And if you don’t, you’ll more often than not get the bare minimum out of people.


What are accountability and high expectations?

Accountability is the ownership, including the actions, decisions, and improvement of a particular responsibility, function, process, or area. When you tell somebody, “You are accountable for..”, it taps into their pride, ego, and sense of worth. Creating and communicating clear accountabilities for people and teams is one of the simplest and most effective motivators in the strategic leader’s toolkit.

While accountabilities define ownership and responsibilities, high expectations set the bar for performance, and serve as the turbocharger to accountabilities. Setting high expectations fires people and teams up to reveal and realize their potential.


What are the best practices to create and manage clear accountabilities & high expectations?

Do it early

The most effective time to create clear accountabilities & high expectations is early on in managing somebody. If you wait too long and have been accepting poor performance, it is a lot harder for the person to take you seriously, as they will view you as inconsistent. One of the first things to do is set a high bar and clean up accountabilities, and then be consistent with these expectations. When I take over leading a team, I always state, “my expectation is you give us your best work,” and then I go about understanding and cleaning up accountabilities.


Call job duties & responsibilities…accountabilities

People are hired to do a job to the best of their ability. If you describe a particular job as a bunch of tasks or responsibilities it dulls the job down. It is much more impactful to describe a job as a set of accountabilities that a person needs to own. Below is a simple example.

o “You’re job duties are to talk to customers and answer questions. “
o “You are accountable for making happy customers.”


Find the accountability holes

Coming into a new situation, I often find neglected and poorly performing areas, processes, or functions due to shared responsibility, or just pure lack of awareness. The fastest way to improve these areas is to make someone accountable for them. When you find an accountability hole, fill it up with someone.


Communicate accountabilities & expectations to the organization

Strategic leaders tap deep into the pride of people by making people accountable to their peers, customers, and stakeholders publicizing and communicating their accountabilities. For example, in an all-hands meeting you can sincerely acknowledge a team and call out their accountabilities and expectations, such as “I want to recognize the digital team who owns delighting our customers with an awesome experience that showcases our products, educates them, and converts them into customers. Their goal is to increase web sales by 100% this year, and they are currently on track to hit it. Let’s give them a round of applause.”


Expectations = SMART goals

Setting high expectations should be done by utilizing SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound). A customer service team can be asked to deliver great service, but how will they know if they succeed or not? If the customer service team was asked to have less than a 2% call abandonment rate, a 90% first call resolution rate, and a 95% customer satisfaction rate, then they’ll know if they succeed or not.

Reward success, starve failure

Accountability also means taking ownership of the success or failure of one’s actions. While failure leads to learning, it is a fallacy to set expectations that failure is acceptable. Strong organizations reward success and starve failure. If people are successful, then they should get more responsibility, resources, and incentives. If people are failing, then their responsibility, resources, and sphere of influence should shrink.


When there is confusion, use RACI

RACI is a simple framework to clarify roles and responsibilities within a project, process, task, or function. RACI is an acronym for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed. In a project, process, task, or function it is important to clarify who is:

• Responsible – The team members who do the actual work to achieve the task, project, process, or function.

• Accountable – The one ultimately accountable for the proper completion, oversight, and results of the project, process, task, or function.

• Consulted – Those people who should be consulted with to get their ideas, buy off, and help with the project, process, task, or function. They are often subject matter experts or stakeholders.

• Informed – Those team members who should be kept up-to-date on the progress of the project, process, task, or function, but do not have an active role. They simply need to be informed.

It is best to use RACI before a project, process, task or function starts. Often, you use a RACI Matrix to clarify roles for a project, process, or function, organized by who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed.

Example of a RACI Matrix


raci responsible accountable consulted informed




 Learn more about Joe Newsum, the author of all this free content and a McKinsey Alum. I provide a suite of coaching and training services to realize the potential in you, your team, and your business. Learn more about me and my coaching philosophy.
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