We all know that effective goal-setting, creating trust and fostering accountability are components of good leadership, but they’ve never been so interconnected. When done right, this intersection is what separates good companies from great companies, as well as those that can make it through challenging times… and those that cannot.

Embracing Flexibility When Setting Goals

One of the foundations of great leadership is being adaptable to our changing world — and this year has certainly challenged us. In both business and life, the only constant is change. How we adapt and respond to change is what sets us up for success — or failure.

When shelter-in-place first hit, one of my neighborhood restaurants started selling produce boxes in order to maintain their purchasing commitment to partner farms while making up for some of their lost in-restaurant sales. This example illustrates how companies can be accepting and forward-thinking in their adjustment to COVID. Setting and tracking clear goals keep us moving forward together — but we can’t be rigid in doing so that it becomes a hindrance.

In good times and bad, employees expect their goals to be challenging but also realistic. No one accounted for a global pandemic during their 2020 planning. We must be realistic, as today’s crisis is anything but routine. We have to let go of the way things used to look and instead shift our focus to business outcomes, extending flexibility and grace to our people in the process.

We’ve increased our communication, empowered everyone with the tools and resources to be successful remotely and trusted them to stay accountable — both to themselves and to the organization. We focus on outcome-related goals, which convey to employees that it doesn’t matter when or how they get their work done — it matters that they do. 

Building Trust through Empathy

Trust has a significant impact on culture. It’s something everyone can feel the presence (or absence) of. There is no easier way to alienate employees than by enforcing a culture of “clocking in and out” and tracking how they spend their time. What’s often mistaken as lack of trust is fear — fear that you can’t level-set over lunch, fear of being unable to build trust in a remote environment and a general fear of the unknown.

Trust is typically built through in-person relationship building; without that option, we need to practice extensive empathy to get there. Now more than ever, leading is knowing when to step back and listen. It’s trying to understand and accommodate different ways of working. When you show — and tell — your employees that you trust them and give them the ability to work on their own time in their own way, it creates mutual trust, loyalty and a feeling of belonging.

I believe empathy is a choice, one that requires deep vulnerability to feel alongside your employees — as a leader, yes, but more importantly, as a human. I’ve added regular office hours and fireside chats as ways to bring our company together. We’re also conducting Listening Circles; a safe space for our employees to process, share our feelings, and give and receive support from our colleagues during this fast-paced, unpredictable time. Empathy fuels connection, which we all know is a key element of employee engagement and can have a significant impact on our bottom line.

Leveraging Accountability

All of that being said, it’s important to note that flexibility and trust are meaningless without accountability. Leading with a high level of trust and empowerment also comes with the expectation of accountability up and down the organization. If you don’t have that, everything else falls apart.

We tend to innately believe employees need to be accountable to upper management. While that generally holds true, accountability doesn’t start and end there. It’s a two-way street in which managers are also held accountable by employees — in being an effective leader, communicating clearly, following through on commitments, making sure employees have the resources they need and building solid relationships.

Strong corporate leadership has become increasingly necessary yet difficult to implement. While we don’t know what the next six months hold, for today and tomorrow, the key to successful leadership is focusing on flexibility, trust and accountability. Leveraging all three is what will take your company from good to great.