July 20th, 2022 | By: Wil Schroter
When things are going well, everyone wants to take credit. When things are going poorly, everyone wants to point a finger elsewhere.
While startups don't have any monopoly on finger pointing and blame shifting in an organization, we deal with this way more as startup Founders because let's face it, stuff goes wrong all the time!
But if we know going in that problems are going to be rampant, it's as important as ever to build a culture of accountability in our startups so that everyone is 100% focused on driving outcomes.
It's impossible for our team to be truly invested in the outcomes of success (or failure) if we don't believe we're accountable. As an employee, if I work really hard, or very little, and I get the same paycheck, what's my real motivation for working any harder?
Our startups are powered by motivation, mostly because we're nowhere near "maintenance mode" which most large corporations are. We need our team to be willing to run through walls to achieve the impossible, but if those same individuals don't really feel connected and accountable for the effort, it's hard to believe they are going to be truly motivated.
Conversely, if we sit down with someone and say "You own this — the success or failure is 100% on your shoulders." then we're way more likely to see someone truly care about the outcome. While money is a motivator, so is personal pride, and that comes with ownership.
The two hallmarks of accountability are "ownership" and "consequence." We need to have both in order for accountability to matter. Ownership means that if something goes wrong, we own it — we don't point to someone else. Consequence means if something goes wrong, we bear the cost of that mistake.
If we foster a culture without ownership or accountability, then we're directly taking away the foundations of responsibility across the organization. The last thing we want is a startup where no one feels particularly tied to outcomes and whatever happens just sort of happens.
We can change that by giving everyone ownership and by way of that consequence. Consequence doesn't have to inherently be "punishment" by the way, it can also signal reward. The point is that whatever the outcome, the person in charge of it owns it.
There's no way to build this culture of accountability if we don't practice it ourselves. If we're constantly coming up with excuses or shifting blame for things going bad to someone or something else — we'll never establish this culture.
As Founders, we're inherently accountable for the fact that our whole lives are often leveraged on this one startup, but that doesn't mean we're automatically acting accountable. We easily default to "Oh, we couldn't raise money" or "That person we hired didn't perform" as if it's some external event that we had no input on.
Every event in a startup, good or bad, is our fault — period. If we couldn't raise capital, that was our lack of ability to fundraise. If the markets tanked and less capital was available then it's our fault for not building a path to revenue and sustainability. While many external factors always exist, accountability always lands with us.
As with so many aspects of leadership, the culture of accountability is directly reflective of our own accountability. If we own up to all of our outcomes, we pave the way for the rest of the organization to do the same, and ideally, do it well.
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Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.