Accountability versus Responsibility 

June 29, 2023

By Allison Iantosca

She is smart. And talented. Still young enough in her career to have decades of impact ahead, but old enough to have the reality check of professional scrapes and bruises.

Not much will get by her anymore. And now she sits in the enviable position of being a senior leader…earned through sheer grit since the day she walked out of higher ed. 

In the early days, she learned to sniff out opportunity and follow it with gusto. She simply said yes more than no, put in longer hours than any other colleague and pushed every assignment to the brink of perfection…and then tipped it right off the edge. It didn’t occur to her that she was making a name for herself; more that she was rising to the occasion. That hard work pays off. That preparation and presence were practical and promotable.

A few more years in, she began accumulating direct reports. Managing accounts. Expected to get work done with a team, no longer able to rely on just herself. This seemed ok. She got her own office, got a fancy title, got more money.

At forty, maybe forty-five now, her team loves her. She continuously comes out highly ranked in every review cycle and is able to lead with grace and humility. She never seeks the limelight and is always the first one in and the last out. She’ll do anything to help her people succeed.

But she wonders if the Team couldn’t do a little more? Why do they miss the mark so often? Why can’t they meet her standards? It doesn’t seem like much, really, to push it a little harder or a little longer or make it all just a little bit better. Effort. Excellence. Why are these things hers alone? 

She loves process. So, she creates spreadsheets and accountability check ins. To teach her team what is expected. It is exciting. For a while. But she notices that her workload has doubled. She is spending more time holding the team accountable for their work than getting her own done. She manages parallel to-do lists. She sets multiple agendas. She ensures nothing is missed. It’s…Too…Much. 

This juncture in a career is a tough one. What once made her wildly successful is no longer useful or, actually, meaningful. A singular to-do list executed with her own standard of excellence is one thing. Trying to translate this expectation to a team of people is a whole other thing. It’s enabling at its best and, at its worst, creates the nasty inevitability of burn out. 

But a profound shift can happen when this particular type of hardworking leader is able to move from an accountability mindset to a responsibility mindset. 

Success by being “accountable” means I tell you what to do. You check boxes and report back to me. I hold a shared list with you. I am ultimately in charge, but I need you to execute what I can’t. 

Success by being “responsible” means this project is yours. You hold it entirely. The to-dos are yours to get done well and right. You own the success or failure. I am here to support you and catch you if you go way off the rails but, ultimately, it’s up to you to bring this home. 

Quite different, eh? 

So, I invite this forty-something-beyond-capable-master-of-task-excellence to become responsible for a team that is responsible for individual work. Step back. Toss the to-do lists. Have each person bring their reports to you. Watch the whole of the project synch up with each individual piece. Create the vision. Conduct the full orchestra. Don’t seek to play each instrument. 

Rest up. Hold the vision. Shift the workload. Be there just in case. Follow up from behind instead of pull from out in front.  Be there for them instead of asking them to be there for you.

It’s okay to let go a little. To take your foot off the gas. To hold the map but ride shot gun. You know a lot now. You’ve earned the right to lead by being and not by doing.

Allison Iantosca is a Gestalt International Study Center (GISC) trained coach certified by ICF with extensive leadership and management experience. She is an Executive Coach and is the Owner and President of Boston based FH Perry Builder.

*Photo Credit: Nik, Unsplash

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