Accountability Starting Point: Set Clear Expectations

Few executives will admit it’s too much trouble to Set Clear Expectations, even for their direct reports

If it’s true for you, make sure you’re prepared for plenty of confusion and mediocre results.

When I talk to executives every day, there’s hardly a conversation that doesn’t include the same 2 things:

  • “Why aren’t I getting more done?”, and
  • “Why aren’t my people getting more done?”

There are several simple and proven leadership tools that can save your bacon many times over.

Don’t stop just because you’ve heard this before

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before … but I’ll bet your descriptions of goals and objectives, and the Clear Expectations you’ve set for your team members … don’t follow this outline very closely.
It’s an “oldie but goody”, but if you’re saying, “that old thing again”, I’ll give you 5–1 if you can come up with something better for setting goals and objectives.In fact, I’ll give you 10–1 if you’re actively using it whenever you set goals, objectives and expectations.
If it accomplishes exactly what you need … why aren’t you using it?

“I want to top expectations. I want to blow you away.”

Quentin Tarantino

Why aren’t our people getting more done?

As with the common cold, there’s probably no cure … but there are some things we can do to manage the symptoms.
One tool that will alleviate many of the symptoms is very simple:


I routinely hear complaints about the lack of accountability within an organization … and when I ask if clear expectations have been set so that there is no misunderstanding about what needs to get done … I usually get the thousand yard stare.

I really don’t have the time to do all of this

What do you think you’d find if you compared the time it takes to SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS … to the time you spend chasing people down who aren’t doing what they’re being asked because they’re not really clear about what they’re supposed to do?
When this comes up, I often see someone tap their forehead and say,

  • “I know exactly what they’re supposed to do and they know it, too. I’ve told them a dozen times.”

For others, a goal is simply a mirage. They use phrases like, “It’s just a goal” when they describe it.
You might just as well tell the listener not to pay any attention at all.

How can you be sure you’re clear?

When I say to executives …

  • “Shall we go and see if it’s as clear in their head as it seems to be in yours?”,

… our conversation turns to whether any of this has been written down so there is a clear and indisputable reference point.

  • “As soon as I get a chance I will write it all down ….”

… is a typical response, but tomorrow never comes.
It speaks volumes about why your expectations aren’t being met!

Let’s be a little about it

Each of these 5 letters identifies a special attribute … but in this case, the whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts.
Don’t stop here and say,

  • “I got this. I’m well aware of this S.M.A.R.T acronym.

I’m sure you are … but keep reading because I want you to capture the essence of HOW YOU CAN APPLY THESE TERMS in a meaningful way when you’re setting those CLEAR EXPECTATIONS.
If you set goals and objectives for your organization and the individuals in it, using this simple S.MA.R.T. acronym, you’ll truly have a chance to build Accountability among your direct reports and across your teams and/or organization.


What is the SPECIFIC goal to be achieved?
Avoid being too general.
The more precise the target, the greater the commitment to follow through. It isn’t enough to say

  • “We need more sales in your territory”.

Say something like,

  • “You need to increase sales in your territory by a minimum of 6.5%.”


The goal or objective must be measured in terms of cost, quality, quantity, and timeliness … here’s a news flash … something that can actually be measured.
Executives really struggle with this one, particularly where the objective is a “soft” goal. Consider this example:

  • “I need you to be more active in the industry.”
  • “I need you to be more supportive of your teammates.”
  • “I need you to focus more on developing your people.”

Yes, the theme of those expectations is pretty clear, but how success will be measured is AWOL.

What gets measured, gets managed.

Once again, it isn’t enough to say

  • “I need you to be more active in the industry.”

You need to be more specific, something like

  • “Find three opportunities to speak to industry groups and three more industry conferences and meetings to attend, at least one of which will allow us to set up a booth or table to meet prospective customers.”

You can measure that.
Think creatively to come up with away to measure success.
Remember: Whatever gets measured, gets managed.


Goals should be jointly established rather than imposed.
When clear expectations aren’t agreed to in advance, you’ll learn why that’s important during the very first performance review.
It won’t take long for that conversation to turn to confusion and misunderstanding about what the goals and objectives were in the first place.
If they’re agreed to, written down and regularly refreshed, it’s pretty hard for one of the parties to say they didn’t understand the objectives.


The goal needs to be “realistic” so it can actually be achieved.
Using our earlier example, it’s probably unrealistic to say,

  • “Raise sales in your territory by 75%”, or
  • “Speak at 15 industry events this year (unless that’s someone’s primary job).

Set realistic goals that provide a challenge and stretches the employee, but make sure they’re attainable.
If they’re not, no one will pay much attention and you’ll venture into the quicksand of “It’s just a goal”.


A well-defined deadline for when the project must be accomplished adds a sense of urgency … but it’s often more valuable to set a TIMELINE rather than a deadline.
This allows you to follow up BEFORE the deadline to make sure things are on track and if not, to re-negotiate the deadline so everyone can succeed.
If you’re only tracking deadlines, you’re likely to catch up to it a little too late to help.

If this is too much trouble … the climb will be steep!

When it comes to achieving Accountability within your organization, there is no substitute for SETTING CLEAR EXPECTATIONS.
If you do this, you’ll will take THE most important step in leading and managing your people … because there will be no doubt about what’s expected.
When those are firmly set, it’s much easier to get more done … for everyone.
Question: How does Accountability work in your organization? Have you found a tool or approach that works well for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below to start a conversation.

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