Robservation: Effective Use of “Accountability & Thinking Partners”

In my travels and interactions with leaders, I often come across people who use mentors or coaches to attempt to better their own performance. Many times, the role of the mentor or coach dissolves into one person being the teacher and one being the student. If not managed well, it can turn into a one-way set of interactions and learnings that have a big benefit to the person being mentored or coached but being a drain on the mentor or coach themselves. While this is a great step in the direction of being a learning individual, there is a good next step and that is to create “Accountability & Thinking Partners.”

What is an Accountability & Thinking Partner?

Accountability & Thinking Partners establish a set of mutual expectations which enable them to learn from each other to better themselves and their organizations. They use each other to stimulate new ways of thinking and hold each other accountable for agreed upon behaviors related to their personal and professional growth.

How does the process work best?

Accountability & Thinking Partners use an understanding of the Essential Leadership Cycle© (ELC) to pattern their interactions, conversations, behaviors and goals to achieve mutually beneficial learning and outcomes. The first three elements of the ELC set the tone and standard for being accountability & thinking partners. First, we must be aware of our personality tendencies and the predominant tendencies of our partner (self and team awareness). In addition, we need to know a bit about what they know, and a bit about what they DON’T know; or what void are they trying to fill. There needs to be some discussion and understanding about the vision and values of each of the partners; why are we doing this, what do we want to GET out of it, what do we want to GIVE to it. How will we treat each other and the information we will be sharing (shared vision and values)? Once we are clear on what we know about ourselves and each other, and what values we think are important and necessary, we can set some roles, responsibilities, accountabilities and authorities (clear roles and processes) to help us get there. Establishing “mutual expectations” completes the first three elements of the ELC, often called the ‘Driving Elements.’ Get the driving elements right and the rest of the cycle can be more effectively, efficiently and organically managed for success. Understanding, agreement and use of the driving elements creates a binding trust that then drives you and your accountability & thinking partner to seek out and share diverse thoughts and ideas without fear of not being included in the discussions and decisions. Since commitment is such an individual component, using the ELC to develop it is much more effective and sustainable than just asking for a commitment. Once the commitments have been agreed upon, THEN accountability becomes part of the equation. The cycle completes (and then start over!) with learning and continuous improvement for you and your partner.

Why do we need Accountability and Thinking Partners?

Accountability & Thinking Partners help us ensure that we develop and stay on the right track with being intentional leaders. They help us stay grounded while having someone that we owe accountability to as insurance for our thoughts and actions related to learning. They keep us involved and committed to following the ELC as a tool for personal and organizational improvement. Accountability & Thinking Partners are about differences, not similarities. Too often we choose people to mentor or coach that we either want to emulate or that we already know we agree with their thoughts, behaviors, values and actions. In other words, we tend to pick people that think like us. Accountability & Thinking Partners have the freedom and the obligation to be DIFFERENT. If we surround ourselves with others that think like us or behave like us, then there is limited growth outside of what we already know.

Who should we pick for our Accountability and Thinking Partner?

Think differently and choose differently… Pick someone who has a different set of personality traits than you do. If you are a hard-charging “doer” type, pick someone that has and needs more empathy. If you are more detail-oriented or process-oriented, pick someone more people-oriented and engaging. In other words, don’t pick for same, pick for opposite. Pick someone who doesn’t communicate like you do. Pick someone that you wouldn’t normally pick and develop the relationship through the initial three elements of the ELC. If it survives those, they will probably be a good accountability & thinking partner. As counterintuitive as it sounds, thinking partners should have diversity, not sameness. The fact that you can each share your diverse opinions and ideas, without fear that you will be excluded, only strengthens the bond, thereby opening the door for even deeper future interactions and learnings.

Many of these accountability partnerships start off as a way to keep ourselves and each other on track (the accountability element) with little thought to the need for diverse thoughts and ideas for us to really learn. Creating a process and a relationship where the initial goals contain both accountability AND thinking diversity ensures a faster and more sustainable track to personal and organizational learning.

My accountability & thinking partner is Lewis Senior. Lewis and I have known each other for less than 5 years, but I saw almost immediately that he was a respected mentor and teacher to some fine leaders. I wanted and needed that as the head of a consulting organization that had grown steadily over the last 10 years and was now doing business all over the world. What I THOUGHT I wanted was someone to hold me accountable for the things we had partnered on. What we discovered along the way was that if we partnered on thinking diversely, we both learned things in areas where we thought we were already pretty good. Lewis and I are very different in how we approach problems, how we deal with them, how we deal with people and how we communicate (and how we like to be communicated to). We actually have a spot that we call the “thinking tree.” Nothing is off limits and some of the greatest ideas in our lives and businesses have come out of a few hours there. I have to admit that a few of these ideas were in my thought patterns before I allowed diverse thoughts and ideas to play an important role in the relationship.

My Robservation is…our diversity of THINKING has been much more powerful and led to much more learning for our organizations and us than just being accountable to each other ever would. Wouldn’t it be great if in YOUR organization, the diversity of thought was heralded as the greater of the drivers than just accountability? How could that positively impact the capacity and resilience of an organization? How much faster could positive change happen? What could it do for workforce engagement?

Find a real accountability & thinking partner and please leave your comments on how this works when you try it. And remember, Intentional Leadership starts with YOU.

Accountability and Thinking Partner Exercise