Developing accountability in your staff is simple, consultant John Spence told a gathering of accountants here -- but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

In a wide-ranging keynote address that kicked off the American Institute of CPAs’ 2014 Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference, consultant, author and simplicity expert Spence told attendees that, “The talent you can get, grow and keep on your team is your major differentiator.” Engaged, accountable employees are more important to your firm than your clients, he maintained, because that kind of employee will treat your clients well.

At the same time, however, lack of accountability and disciplined execution on the part of employees is the biggest issue facing businesses today, he explained, before outlining the five steps to creating accountable employees:

  • 1. Clarity and authority. You need to be 100 percent clear about what you expect your employees to do, and what you’re holding them accountable for -- and you need to make sure they have the authority to do that work.
  • 2. Responsibility. After making sure they understand what they’re accountable for and that they have the authority to do it, you have to make sure that they completely agree to accept the responsibility.
  • 3. Track and post. Once they undertake the responsibility, you need to track their progress toward their goal, and share it with them -- and potentially their fellow employees -- on a regular basis, so they know exactly where they stand against their goal. “Tracking and posting isn’t about punishment,” Spence clarified. “It’s about teaching and helping.”
  • 4. Coach, mentor and train. All along, you need to make sure that your staff have the skills they need, and correct any mistakes.
  • 5. Reward and/or punish. Finally, Spence stressed the importance of rewarding staff for living up to the responsibility you placed on them -- though it needn’t involve money, he added. Extra time off, a free meal, or a handwritten thank-you note can also be valuable rewards. You also want to make sure that there are consequences if staff don’t live up to their responsibilities. 


The unaccountables

For those employees who, for whatever reason, can’t or haven’t become accountable or are otherwise underperforming, Spence recommended his “Four Pieces of Paper” method.

Rather than fire them outright, explain the precariousness of their position, and then give them four pieces of paper:

  • On the first, they should write down what they’re going to do prove that they should be allowed to stay with the firm. It should include a time period -- 30 days, 60 days, etc. -- and both the employee and the manager should sign it. “This isn’t a contract,” Spence explained. “It’s a promise between two professionals.”
  • On the second, they should write down what you need to give them to help them achieve what was written on the first piece of paper, whether it’s training or equipment or authority. Again, both parties should sign it.
  • On the third, they should write down a small reward that they would like for achieving their goal. This should be signed as well.
  • Finally, they should write down what should happen to them if they fail -- and both you and they should sign it.

At some point toward the end of the time period specified on the first piece of paper, the manager should assess how far along the employee is toward their goal. About 15 to 20 percent of employees are usually significantly along and likely to succeed, Spence said. The rest can be “made available to industry” -- though you usually won’t need to fire them. Simply ask if they think they’ll be likely to achieve their goal in the limited time available, and most will self-terminate, Spence explained.

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