Executive Education

Leadership Lessons in Creating a SMART Culture of Accountability

Creating accountability for others is accountability itself. However, holding people accountable is often lost on leaders. Before leaders can create a culture of accountability, they need to understand what it means within the confines of their organization. This is due to accountability’s subjective quality, which can vary within organizations and among different people.

To create a culture of accountability, you need to have some underlying or foundational understanding of expectations (or policies and procedures) within the organization. To hold individuals accountable, they must first understand what’s expected of them. Expectations require being specific in a way that’s measurable and attainable in a realistic and timely setting. The mnemonic “SMART” provides a foundation for accountability.

If you’ve been introduced to SMART prior to reading this, chances are you remember it as a goal setting exercise. However, SMART can be used as a management technique that’s applied to any function in the organization to support a culture of accountability. In this context, it stands for specificity, measurability, attainability, realistic review, and timeliness.

Culture is made up of the ebb and flow of people within an organization, and it’s primarily driven by its leader’s ability to create a path for the entire organization to work towards a common goal. Within the organization, there may be microcultures that are built on the overall foundation, but more specific to the areas of influence each group of individuals has. Regardless, culture needs something to give it an ability to be positive and sustainable — something consistent — which is SMART.

  1. Using SMART for accountability.
    When we develop strategies and tactics using SMART, we create the foundation for accountability. Your team needs a foundation of understanding to be able to differentiate wrong from right. This differentiation isn’t from a legal, ethical, or moral perspective, but from a policy and procedural perspective that’s communicated to hold employees accountable and give them ground to stand on.Leaders who employ SMART create the path for this type of organizational culture because everything that’s going on has been created with specificity, measurability, attainability, realistic review, and timeliness. These five aspects of task, tactic, or strategy action create instant accountability.
  2. Using SMART as a verb.
    After laying the SMART foundation, how do we use it as a verb to relate a continuous thought process that can be taught, practiced, and challenged in all aspects of business? When leaders challenge team members to engage in SMART, they’re holding them accountable to the culture of using SMART. Accountability happens when leaders empower their employees with the understanding of SMART and then hold them to that.This process may look something like this: Asking a team member to go back to their work to provide more details (specifics), a timeline (measurable), to identify how the team will accomplish this goal (attainable), detail how it can be accomplished as it has been presented (realistic), and consider if this is the right time and place for the team to pursue this (timely). In this way, leaders build a culture of SMART and hold their team accountable.
  3. What SMART is not.
    When leaders create a culture of accountability based on SMART, it doesn’t need to become disciplinary action. A culture of SMART and accountability forces each team member to engage in tactics that immediately support the foundation of culture and provides a resolution to any gaps or issues that weren’t adhered to. When a team member fails to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, or timely in their thoughts, planning, or action, leaders can use accountability to be specific in their corrective action.
  4. Using communication for accountability.
    To support a culture of accountability, leaders must also practice transparent communication. The more leaders use SMART to communicate, the faster they train their team to be consistent in the SMART process and the more engrained the culture of accountability becomes. Part of transparent communication is conveying tasks in a SMART way. Proper delegation of tasks is one of the most common conflict areas in which organizations struggle with accountability.Often, leaders struggle because they don’t understand why the tasks they delegate aren’t done as they wished and then they don’t understand how to hold the team accountable for this deficiency. This continuous cycle of a perception of poor performance creates stress, which in turn makes accountability negative, disciplinary, or even leads to permanent termination.

    When leaders embrace SMART and use effective communication to deliver and receive information in a SMART way, gaps or deficiencies can be quickly identified. Most of these gaps or deficiencies stem from ignorance in understanding some aspect of SMART. By ensuring each aspect of this process is covered at both ends (delivery and acceptance of information), we create a culture of accountability that can be positively sustained.

Additionally, we create efficiencies because a culture of accountability reduces rework, duplication, mistakes, and other issues caused by tasks and information not being conveyed in a SMART way.


Written by Brian Smith, PhD.

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Brian Smith, PhD
Brian Smith, PhD, is founder and senior managing partner of IA Business Advisors, a management consulting firm that has worked with more than 18,000 CEOs, entrepreneurs, managers and employees worldwide. Together with his daughter, Mary Smith, he has authored his latest book, Individual Advantages: Be the “I” in Team (BookBaby, March 2, 2021).


Brian Smith, PhD is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.