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CEOs: Just Do What You Say You're Going To Do

By Mike Mothner, CEO, Wpromote Inc., Los Angeles
Lack of personal accountability is a problem across the board in business, from suppliers all the way down through to clients. It's human nature to tell someone what you think he wants to hear. But when you don't follow through on your promises, you're setting yourself up for bigger problems down the road.

It's a problem that I've tried to get rid of at my company. We try to make it very clear what we expect from our employees and what we think success looks like. But it's hard to ask for accountability if you're not accountable yourself.

Deadlines aren't optional
We're a marketing firm that optimizes client websites through SEO (search engine optimization), PPC management (pay-per-click), social media campaigns and conversion optimization -- converting a visitor to a customer. We earned more than $8 million in revenue in 2009 and are on track to exceed $10 million in 2010. Deadlines are crucial for any marketing campaign, and we are often under the gun to get things done within a set timeframe for our clients. We work with software vendors on some of our projects, and when they miss their deadlines, it creates problems for us by delaying what we can get done internally, and wasting our time and effort. Their mistakes become our problems.

There are times when I've let my own accountability slide, too. One of my personal goals is to stop underestimating the time it will take to hold a meeting or have a phone call. I used to fill up my schedule based on a perfect-world scenario -- no traffic or red lights when driving to a client meeting, no tangents or issues to iron out when talking on the phone. My schedule looked good on paper, and yet the only meeting of the day that I ever made it to on time was the first meeting of the day.

It got so bad that it became an office joke: If you had a 2:30 meeting with me, you didn't have to show up until 3:00, because I wouldn't get there until 3:10 or 3:15. I had slipped into a habit that I disliked in other people, and so I worked to change it. Now, I take a second to consider the reality of my schedule. I work in extra time in between meetings and calls. For instance, I always take 20 minutes to catch up on email after lunch, so that's now part of my schedule.

I'm much better at being on time these days -- which probably also has something to do with hiring an incredible executive assistant who helps keep me on track.

Don't aim for what you can't hit
Back in college, a friend of mine told three different fraternities that he was definitely going to join. He couldn't join all three. I knew that. He knew that. But he told them he'd do it anyway. He overcommitted himself because he was making three people happy today, even though two of them were inevitably going to be baffled and frustrated tomorrow, after they found out he had lied to them.

I see the same impulse at work when I ask staff members to do high-priority projects. I've had people tell me they can get something done by the end of the day, only to take until the next day to finish. While they might have thought I'd be happy with their initiative, I'm a lot happier when they meet their deadline since that lets me plan based on realistic timelines.

Defining roles boosts accountability
Hitting deadlines and sticking to schedules aren't the only forms of accountability I'm concerned with. Defining employees' roles is equally important.

About five years ago, my company grew from five employees to 10. When we started, we never bothered to set clear goals -- we all just knew we'd work as hard as possible and get as far we could in a given month. When we added the new people, however, it quickly became clear that we needed to define individual roles and responsibilities for everyone. Without them, there was a lack of accountability as well as a poor alignment of individual skills and roles -- for example, a staff member who wasn't a confident salesperson was receiving sales calls as part of his job. That was unfair to both the employee and the customers, and it lowered both productivity and morale.

We work to define the goals collaboratively with the individuals involved, their teams and those who are touched by their work -- this way you can get all sides to "buy in" to what success looks like. We also publicize these goals, tasks and metrics so the rest of the company knows what each person is bringing to the table and what they are working on. When things go well, everyone knows who should receive the praise.

By clearly laying out those goals, we try to avoid the scenario in which someone doesn't know whether or not she did a good job because it wasn't clearly laid out for her. It's a very scary position to be in as an employer if there's a gap between how you define success and how your employee defines it. How can employees hold themselves accountable if they don't know what's expected of them?

An entrepreneur from childhood, Mike Mothner started his first company in middle school, wrote his first piece of commercial software in high school and entered into the domain name and Web design business before the age 20. Wpromote is now ranked the #1search marketing firm in the U.S., according to TopSEOs.com.
-- As told to Peter McDougall

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