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Guest view: In business, accountability starts at the top

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My dad had something written down on a piece of paper and taped to the lamp on his desk for years. The author is unknown (at least to me), but the message is powerful:

"People think it's hard to do the right thing. It's not hard to do the right thing. It's hard to know what the right thing to do is. Once you know what is the right thing to do, it's hard not to do it."

Leaders know that it's right to hold members of their team accountable. Yet many find it difficult to do so. Employees who carry their weight and behave appropriately lose respect for leaders who don't hold others to the same standards. When they lose respect, they lose their will to put in the discretionary effort it takes to do the job exceptionally well.

Some members of the team quit, both figuratively and literally. They quit being loyal. The quit being respectful. They figure, "why bother? It obviously doesn't matter." Some may self-select out of the organization (which is code for leaving to find a better leader), or their performance diminishes so much that they get fired. They go from hero to zero quickly, and turnover is expensive.

The more senior the employee, the more expensive it is to lose him or her. Research shows that it costs between 30 percent and 50 percent of starting salary to replace an entry-level employee. For high-level or highly-specialized employees, the costs run as high as 400 percent of annual salary. These costs include recruitment fees, decreased production or productivity, lack of knowledge transfer and decreased morale, just to name a few.

The bottom line: leaders must hold themselves and those around them accountable to meeting performance standards and, perhaps even more importantly, demonstrating the behaviors that reflect the organization's espoused values.

Here are three things every leader should do:

Make and own hiring and employment decisions for your team. Leaders must own their decisions, including the mistakes. Saying things such as, "the lawyer said I had to" or "human resources said no" reflects a lack of leader accountability and a poor excuse for a bad decision. Lawyers and human resources professionals are key providers of critical information leaders need to make informed decisions. But leaders make the decisions, and they accept the consequences of those decisions.

Coach employees on a regular basis. Nothing should ever come as a surprise during an annual performance review. Conduct regular check-ins and day-to-day performance feedback that includes actionable takeaways for employees. Companies need not retain poor-performing employees, but they owe it to the people they hire to ensure they've given them every opportunity to succeed.

Be accountable for your own actions. Leaders need to reflect on their own behavior and business decisions, and they need to admit when they've made mistakes. They will, by example, be teaching employees to be accountable for their behavior and business decisions. Foster a culture where employees know that if they aren't making mistakes, they aren't taking risks. If they aren't taking risks, they aren't challenging themselves or the organization to do better.

At the end of the day, the leader sets the tone, and the team spreads it like wildfire. So what kind of tone do you want your employees to spread? When we foster the right culture, the business results will speak for themselves.

A former associate general counsel for The Hershey Co., Claudia Williams is founder of The Human Zone, a firm focused on leadership development and employee engagement.

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