I like Jürgen Klinsmann, the head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team, a lot. I recently met Klinsmann and asked him why the U.S. hasn’t produced any world-class players — entrepreneurs’ footballing equivalent of a “unicorn,” as coined by Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures back in 2013.
And his answer wasn’t the one you’d expect. Casual sports fans often claim, “Our best athletes choose American football or basketball.” Even hardcore soccer supporters usually say, “The youth academies and infrastructure in the U.S. aren’t in place to compete with the factories producing talent in Europe or South America.”
Klinsmann’s answer was entirely different. He focused on one concept and one concept only: accountability. “There needs to be more accountability in the United States, and only then will we be able to produce world-class players. When soccer players in the U.S. are criticized, held accountable, or even recognized as much as the other major sports in the country, they’ll have that drive and an understanding to improve and reach those higher levels.” Without accountability, there is little drive or incentive to be great. People are a product of their environments.
The same is true when building a business: accountability improves your overall level. If you are constantly measuring yourself and accountable to someone or a group, you will produce better results. For a startup executive, accountability is key, especially today. I think Klinsmann would likely agree with this view on accountability from Harvard Business Review:
The youngest members of the workforce, especially in the U.S., have grown up in a sheltered environment; they expect praise and recognition and can be indignant when it is not forthcoming. They are not particularly open to critical feedback. No surprise, then, that at a time when talent retention and engaging employees is de rigueur we get silly advice to management such as, ‘Don’t give employees a hard time about their weaknesses, celebrate their strengths.’
It’s OK to give people a hard time, as long as you also praise them for a job well done. If you’re constantly measuring things and are held accountable, you will do better work and more often than not, you won’t need to give anyone a hard time.
According to Jeremy Neuner, 40 percent of America’s workforce will be freelancers and temps by 2020. We’ll be managing more and more people who are telecommuting, freelancing, consulting and just logging in from faster and faster Internet connections at more and more expensive local coffee shops. If we instill accountability now, it will be much easier to maintain it later — even if our interactions are less physical, and more virtual moving forward. I’ve seen quite a few startups struggle with scaling a virtual workforce when accountability (and proper communication) isn’t in place.
To be successful and create those next unicorns, accountability is a must. How can you instill more accountability in your organization? Here are three quick ways.
- Get organized. There are a number of free project management tools like Trello. Teammates and colleagues can create virtual “boards” and “cards” to see the progress being made on work projects in a collaborative, real-time environment. There is no place to hide. That transparency feeds into the importance of accountability. Furthermore, it recognizes progress and instills a sense of energy and movement into an organization. Everyone is accountable to each other, to themselves, and to a common mission.
- Prioritize like there’s no tomorrow. Many technology startups have mastered accountability within product development, specifically through agile development. Our Scrum masters keep us accountable. Our priority lists keep us accountable. We meet on a week-to-week basis and assess the progress we’ve made. It’s formulaic, transparent and collaborative. But you don’t need to be a Scrum master to prioritize. When you start to prioritize as a team and as an individual, certain work just doesn’t fall through the cracks anymore. When people are stressed or overworked, they often try and dig out of their work by being reactive and fighting fires. But if you’re proactive and have a set priority list, you’ll be headed in the same direction as the rest of your teammates. You’ll be able to dig yourself out of stressful situations because you will have already decided what’s most important and what you should be collectively accountable for.
- Set clear goals. Get detailed about goal setting and communicate continuously. It’s much easier to be successful with clear, data-driven goals. If you’re growing your sales organization, you may “need more leads,” but what does that mean? Setting a clear goal alongside your colleagues (10 leads per month? 100 leads per month? 1,000 leads per month?) and communicating continuously to achieve that goal results in a metrics driven culture. Work together to create a challenging milestone, put that number in the sand, and check in weekly. Taking ownership and providing the authority, budget and resources to accomplish goals together is healthy and leads to happier, more accountable workers than a mere assignment would.
Outside of ruthless prioritization, the key to scaling a startup starts and ends with accountability. People stay on track by keeping others on track. Feeling that pressure can bring the best out of many entrepreneurs and startup employees alike.
A version of this post originally appeared here.
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