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How to Lead Your Team With Autonomy and Accountability

Chris Bee

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When it comes to work, there’s nothing better than being a part of a high-performing team firing on all cylinders, cranking through projects, overcoming challenges and having fun along the way. It can be equally demotivating to be on a team where everyone is dragging themselves into the office for yet another day of mundane tasks. I’ve had the good fortune and opportunity to be part of both types of teams. While there are many factors that go into team productivity and happiness, I’ve found the high-performing, happiest teams almost always operate with a high degree of autonomy and accountability. Let’s dig into how these concepts can be applied to your team as a manager or leader at your company.

Autonomy

Transfer of Control

Most high-performing employees crave autonomy and some level of control. Regardless if you are managing engineers, designers, PMs, sales people or other managers, to get the best from your team, they need to have enough space to make decisions and own their success (or failure). By allowing the team and individuals to drive their own priorities, innovation will thrive and goals will be more likely achieved. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be company-wide goals or an occasional top-down initiative, but what teams are expected to achieve and deliver on in a given time period should be driven by the team and people actually doing the work, not from leadership. Leadership should be focused on clearly communicating the big picture strategy, the vision and mission and then be asking the teams and individuals for a plan to get there.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” — Steve Jobs

This relinquishing of control can be tough for many leaders. The tendency can often be to get into the weeds to help solve the problem, see how things can be done faster or how we can do more with less. While this is all good-intentioned, without the day-to-day knowledge of the happenings with a given project or team, leadership direction can sometimes lack information and outweigh more informed decision making from the team or directly responsible individual. Instead of diving deep into a problem space, our primary function as leaders in this context is to:

  • Make sure the team or individual has clear goals that align with the priorities of the company or given problem
  • Drive the schedule for reviews and check-ins
  • Ask good questions and hold the teams accountable to commitments

A small caveat to autonomy is that there needs to be consideration given to the amount of domain knowledge and experience the individual has. If a manager or employee is new to a given task/project or more junior in their role, they will likely require a bit more hands-on support and coaching as they are learning or ramping up. The approach here should still be to grant autonomy but have additional check-ins and more upfront coaching to help guide them along the way.

Set the Vision & Mission

For people to feel engaged with their work, they must believe in the vision and mission for the company. When I first joined Uber, I came into the most engaged workforce I have ever personally worked with. People there all understood the vision for the company and how it was making a real impact in world. The energy was palpable. As a new manager there, my job to inspire the team was easy. The mission for our division was clear. My experience there was an exception, of which I was happy to be the benefactor of. Typically, setting a compelling vision and mission for your company is more difficult and takes some deliberate work to form it. If you are in a larger company, this will be defined already, but it’ll likely be up to you or your manager to define the vision and mission for your division if there isn’t one that is already set.

A vision statement describes the desired future position of the company, from a customer or greater good point of view.

A mission statement defines the business objectives and the approach to reach those objectives, ideally from a customer point of view.

Here is a list with some good examples of vision and mission statements.

Regardless of the specific product that your team works on, you need to be able to paint a compelling story to your team and recruits why the work that your team does is important. You should also be able to articulate the interesting technical, product, business or design challenge that is being solved by your team. Work on it until it is crystal clear and easily summarized to anyone curious.

Get Out of the Way

When you think of your role as a manager, it is sometimes helpful to think of it more as a consultant than a decision maker. There are times where you need to make a decision because it is high risk or you need to unblock progress, but people on your team shouldn’t feel like they need you for their day to day work. That said, they should know they can reach out to for advice or input at any time. There are often lots of different ways to accomplish most things and part of the work as a leader is to help people fully vet their ideas and choose the option that they believe the most in, even if that is completely different than how you might have solved the problem.

Accountability

Planning

Accountability starts with a plan. When I was at Amazon, they were very good at having team and group leaders create written half-annual plans that were reviewed with leadership at each level. Once plans were discussed, debated and committed to, the teams had the autonomy to execute. There were check-ins along with way to report status and make any adjustments, but the ownership of the plan itself and decisions that needed to be made were lived with the team. This process worked really well to keep everyone aligned on the strategy and priorities. If your company doesn’t have a formal approach to planning, I strongly suggest trying to create one, at least for your team. Without a regularly reviewed plan and goals, things can often feel randomizing and short-sighted.

Goals Setting

One of the most classic and often underused tools to help with accountability and overall motivation is goal setting. Most managers and organizations do some form of goal setting, but in practice, it can often be a pretty loose process that feels more like a burden than an inspiring set of achievements your future self will be proud of. However, when used correctly, goals become the backbone of accountability and achievement for your team and company. There are 2 types of goals — team goals and personal goals.

Team Goals

For team level goals, OKRs are are a great framework. If your org is new to OKRs, there is lots of good information out there about setting OKRs. Felipe Castro’s overview is a good start. John Doer’s book on the subject is one of the best resources out there. Once the team and company understand the framework, your role as a leader is to work with team to set OKRs and the definition of success, but then let the team decide how to get there.

As it is impossible to focus on everything that your team may want to do, you need to define the themes that are most important for the team to focus on each given cycle. These themes could range from a specific customer problem, to a few key metrics, to quality, to tech debt. The key is to keep themes at the high level so that the team can define the specific goals and projects to get there. Setting up a planning and review schedule that includes a full day offsite where you’ll discuss themes, strategy and your team goals is some of the administrative work you’ll be doing every planning cycle (typically quarterly or semi-annually).

Personal Goals

To start, personal goals should feel personal. This means they should be written from a personal perspective in a way that inspires that person individually. I’ve found that using an OKR-like framework for personal goals is a great format where the Objective is the inspiring personal mission/vision and the Key Results are the specific initiatives that the person will be accountable. This approach gives people an easy way to tie back the day to day work they are doing to a career objective they have established for themselves, increasing their personal connection to their work and overall motivation.

Once a given cycle starts, you need a system for accountability. As a manager it can be tempting to let goals slide after they have been set, but the best performers want to be held accountable and lower performers need to be held accountable. Typically, simply a regular check-in on progress against goals, both at the team and personal level on a monthly basis is all that is needed. The key is to make sure that people have plenty of time to prepare for these meetings, including explanations of why goals are on-track, off-track, met, not met or need to be deleted/updated.

Leveling and Promotions

Having a well-understood job level hierarchy is a useful tool for motivation and alignment on expectations. Most larger companies have this pretty well defined, but if you are at a start-up, it may be up to you to help define this with other leaders in your company. Not only do leveling guidelines help ensure promotions and hiring is fair and equitable, but they serve as an input into personal goals. While personal goals need to be inspiring beyond getting promoted to the next level, leveling guides offer a great framework to outline expectations for a person’s position. Well-written personal goals incorporate personal career motivations, company expectations for the level (and the next level up) and are in support the organization’s goals.

Thanks for reading! Hopefully you find that thinking about how to create more autonomy and accountability in your team is a worthwhile endeavor in building a high performing culture.

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Chris Bee

CTO at Lessen. Former Zillow, Uber, Amazon, Microsoft. Self-starter musing about leadership, product development and motivation.