If you want a high-performance culture in your company, you’ll need accountability in leadership. Accountability is one of the most important leadership traits. If leaders aren’t accountable, who will be? The culture of your organization, after all, is a mirror reflection of what is modeled from the top. To build this positive trait within your company from the ground up, it’s important to understand how accountability manifests during the hiring process and, more importantly, what interview questions can help identify the right candidates. 

What Is Accountability, Really?

Accountability means that a leader is responsible for their own actions. It’s taking care of the projects, team and initiatives that they are tasked with and assuming responsibility for whatever happens — good or bad. It goes even further than mere actions, though. Accountability is allowing visibility into what you do so that others can assess your performance. In other words, it’s answering for your actions.

Accountability involves responsibility, but the two terms are not synonymous. Responsibilities can be delegated to someone else, while accountability cannot. When something goes wrong, the buck actually does stop with the person who is accountable. 

In every corporation, the board of directors plays a vital role in holding the CEO accountable. Beyond external forces that demand answers, however, it is equally important that leaders be introspective in this regard. They must continually evaluate and improve their own performance, thereby ensuring that they are truly accountable. 

Accountability in Leadership

Accountability is a vitally-important trait for your leadership team. Leaders who exhibit this trait are committed to their professional relationships, they want to ensure that they deliver on their promises and they want to be perceived as an individual who is true to their word. This, in turn, leads to consistency in overall performance. 

There’s another reason why accountability is a great trait for leaders. Conventional research suggests that you’re more likely to achieve your goals when you voice them to others. You’ll improve your chances even more by sharing those goals with the right people. Who might that be, you may ask? Someone that you perceive to be of higher status. This could mean a mentor, a boss or the corporate board. 

In this competition-driven world, results matter. Accountable leaders drive great results.

How Does Accountability Manifest?

The best leaders understand that accountability must be visible to stakeholders. Leaders exhibit accountability when they do the following:

  • Make visible commitments so that others can keep them on track
  • Share progress along the way through check-ins, dashboards, KPIs and other communication tools
  • Seek and accept feedback so that the team supporting them feels empowered to help the leader accomplish milestones and goals

How to Identify the Trait

The strongest and most accountable leaders are easy to identify. They may come in all shapes and sizes and exhibit a variety of leadership styles, but they share a number of personality traits in common. These include the following:

  • They set clear and specific expectations and document them carefully.
  • They build plans with input from others.
  • They respond to requests and follow up on emails. 
  • They learn from their mistakes, and not because they shy away from making them.
  • They build in feedback mechanisms, including candid mentors.
  • They share the glory of their successes.
  • They don’t place blame or make excuses; rather, they look for solutions.
  • They are continuous learners; they review and evaluate past experiences.
  • They expect accountability in others.
  • They delegate tasks to others with clear communication and concrete expectations.
  • They use accountability language, which is specific and definitive, and they also use phrases such as success outcomes, lessons learned, empowerment and personal agency.
  • Things don’t happen to them; they make things happen.

Interview Questions to Identify an Accountability Leader

There are several interview questions you can ask that will help you identify accountable leaders. However, the question to avoid is, “How would you define accountability?” There are two reasons to avoid this question in an executive interview. 

The first is that this is a leading question. Any high-level candidate worth his or her salt will give you the answer you want. There are better questions to ask. The second reason why you should avoid this question is that it is patronizing. Ask questions that will tell you what the candidate does or has done in the past. Actions will tell you more about whether they are an accountable leader than any dictionary definition they may throw out there.

Some of the best questions really aren’t questions at all. They are prompts that allow the executive candidate to provide proof of their leadership capabilities. Here are five that can help you assess the accountability trait:

  1. What did you learn from your biggest failure?

What the answer reveals: Upon the completion of each milestone and project, accountable leaders perform a post-mortem to capture lessons learned. They also take time for self-reflection. It’s important for them to understand how they did and what they could do better. The best candidates will have a thoughtful answer to this question. As a follow-up, ask how the reflection changed over time.

  1. Tell me about a mistake you made and how you handled it.

What the answer reveals: This is similar to the last question, but this time you’re listening for a proactive approach to problem-solving. Did the candidate blame the circumstances or others, or did they take responsibility for their responses and demonstrate resilience and personal power?

  1. How has your leadership style changed?

What the answer reveals: The best leaders evolve as they learn more about themselves and how to generate even better results. Accountable leaders, perhaps more than most, are continually learning. They take valuable lessons from other experiences and apply them to their current situation. Even the least experienced young executives have prior leadership experience from which they can learn.

  1. Tell me about some negative feedback you received and how you handled it.  

What the answer reveals: Criticism isn’t always easy to take, but accountable leaders will always learn something about themselves, even if the criticism seems unfounded. Their response will tell you a lot about them. What did they do with the feedback? Did they make changes? Or did they go on the defense, unwilling to consider the opinions of others?

  1. Tell me about a time that you failed to meet a commitment.

What the answer reveals: Accountable leaders may miss a deadline or a target. However, they always have a plan to recover. It is not sufficient to say that the deadline or target was unrealistic. Maybe it was, but that could just demonstrate an inability to set reasonable and achievable goals. Once the unrealistic target is set, then what?

A Word about Silence

Allow plenty of time. Don’t rush to fill in the awkward pauses and the silences. Most candidates will fill in the blanks with great information if you give them the space to talk. Of course, in addition to these questions, you’ll have to ask role-specific questions as well. 

The Y Scouts Leadership Model and Accountable Leadership

When you’re ready to hire your next executive leaders, not just anyone will do. Accountability is a quality you’ll want in your leaders, regardless of their leadership style or function. Asking the right questions during the interview process will allow you to identify the proof you need to be confident in your decision. 

At Y Scouts, we can help you find your next leader with the key accountability traits you need. We’ve designed our leadership model to take a radicalized approach to executive hiring. This simple yet powerful model boils down the most desirable leadership qualities into three major themes, including the following:

  1. Learns relentlessly
  2. Develops others
  3. Drives results

If you’re looking for your next executive hire, we can help. Contact us to learn more.