How to fix leaders’ uncomfortable accountability between strategy and KPIs

By job title alone, leaders are inherently accountable to lead their organizations through strategy execution. But the term “accountability” is so overused in business and government it has become just another example of corporate jargon.

 So, let’s first set the context by unpacking “accountability”:

  • The dictionary definition reads like this: “required or expected to justify actions or decisions; take responsibility”. 
  • If we tried to explain the word to a 10-year-old, we might say: “if someone is accountable for something it means they can be relied on to take care of it, and if anything goes wrong, they will do their best to fix it.”
  • Putting the definition in business context: “a leader can be relied on to improve the performance of an important goal, and if it is not improving, they will do their best to figure out why it’s not improving and apply resources to fix it”.

The “accountability disconnect” between strategic goals and KPIs

It is common for a leader to own at least one strategic goal within a strategic plan; however, it is much less common for that same leader to own the KPIs (also known as performance measures, metrics, indicators) associated with that goal.  

Can an organization’s performance be expected to improve if no-one is accountable?

Of course not. We know that, firstly, strategic change is hard and requires leadership and, secondly, meaningfully quantified measures drive focus and behavior. So, we need to sort out this uncomfortable relationship and make accountability less threatening and more compatible with driving our organization’s performance improvement.

So why do so many leaders avoid owning measurement?

The usual driver of this disconnect between goals and measures is the general belief that when a leader is accountable for a performance measure, they will be the one blamed or face consequences if performance doesn’t “hit” the target. It is these emotions (fear of blame and anxiety of failure) that create the uncomfortable relationship between goals and measures, making leaders avoid ownership of associated KPIs.

For example, if the company’s profit doesn’t meet target, the board holds the CEO accountable. If the percentage of customers’ problems that are solved on first call is too low, the customer service manager is held responsible. If the percentage of help desk calls not answered within three rings is too low, the help desk officer is held responsible.

All too often, these leaders pay a personal price for the transgression.  This price could be the loss of bonuses, loss of promotional opportunities, feelings of humiliation, low self-esteem, and unworthiness. 

Leaders choose short term gain for long term pain

These emotions in a leader can produce reactive behaviours such as the CEO cutting costs across the company; the Customer Service Manager changing the definition of “solved” to get a better “first call resolution rate”. The Help Desk Manager encouraging technicians to spend less time with existing customers so they can answer the call in three rings.

What happens in all cases is the measure will improve in the short term. But there are unintended longer-term consequences, including when performance in other areas is sabotaged:

  • When costs are cut, quality of service goes down
  • Changing the definition of “solved” (manipulating the KPI data) means the problems come back into the pipeline again and cause bottlenecks
  • Rushing customers to end calls sooner makes customers feel frustrated and dissatisfied.

Accountability itself, is usually not the problem. It’s what we hold people accountable for when it comes to performance measures and KPIs that is.

Holding people accountable for “hitting” targets sends the message that leaders have full control over the results of strategic goals, all the time.  But they don’t.  Results are the product of how the work gets done within the business processes and systems, and people have to work within the constraints of these processes.

90% of the constraints on an organization’s performance are in the processes, not the people”.

W. Edwards Deming, the famous “Father of Quality”

Leaders own the processes, so do have the control and influence needed to improve them!

It’s natural to want to defend ourselves when we are held accountable for something that feels unfair, but this tendency to defend is not the accountability outcome we want.  

The accountability outcome that will serve the organization better is this: “The leader, as goal owner, will take care of performance improvement, they will make sure they know what performance is truly doing with the associated KPI, and they will take the lead in improving it over time”. 

It is possible to redefine a leader’s accountability for performance in a more constructive way, a way that drives the right behaviours and helps the organization truly make evidence-based decisions during strategy execution.

Use these 3 fixes to drive a new healthier accountability with strategic KPIs

1. Hold leaders accountable for monitoring important results, not their task lists

Once a leader is given responsibility for achieving a specific business goal, they can be trusted to routinely monitor improvement by using a quantified performance measure (KPI). Leaders focus on what they are trying to achieve (the results of all their work) instead of ticking off the tasks and projects completed.

2. Hold leaders accountable for validly interpreting their measures over time

Once a leader is responsible for monitoring their strategic goal’s performance measure, they can be accountable for interpreting what that measure is telling them about the business result it measures. They seek the truth from statistical feedback on how the results are performing, instead of fudging the figures.

3: Hold leaders accountable for initiating action when action is required

Once a leader is responsible for interpreting a performance measure that shows what performance is doing over time and looking for signals of change, they can be accountable for deciding what kind of action is needed. Leaders and their teams will work ON their processes, looking for root causes of what might be holding performance back.  They don’t let their emotions drive poor behaviours such as gaming the system to make performance appear better than it is.

“High performance organizations don’t use measures for judging. They see measures as a tool in people’s hands, not rods on their backs”.

Stacey Barr, Evidence Based Leadership, Prove It!


Clearly, this model of leaders’ accountability for performance depends on well-designed measures that quantify strategic goals. Well-designed measures are based on the strongest and most feasible evidence that can prove the strategic result is truly improving over time.  Though many organizations may not yet have the performance measurement process, skills and competencies needed to design and properly use these kinds of measures for decision-making, it is one of the most important investments leaders can make for both their employees work satisfaction and for their own ability to lead.

Get started here:

Watch Stacey Barr’s talk about evidence-based leadership and her book Prove It!
Download PuMP Performance Measurement Blueprint White paper

This article was adapted, with permission and license, by Louise Watson from Stacey Barr’s section in Prove It called: What is a KPI owner accountable for?