We were privileged to host Robert “Cujo” Teschner at our recent Q2 Advance Leadership Workshop! Cujo is a retired fighter pilot, Founder & CEO of Vmax Group, and author of Debrief to Win. If you weren’t able to join us at Advance, we have great news: you can check out a few highlights from his presentation below.

Building Trust & Engagement Through Accountability

Have you ever thought about accountability as a key driver of employee engagement?

During a volatile time for the workforce, with so many employees leaving their positions in droves, leaders may find themselves avoiding actively holding their people accountable out of fear of driving them away. In the end, that lack of accountability becomes the problem – employees leave when they realize we’re communicating disappointing mediocrity and an unattractive lack of trust.

This avoidance of accountability boils down to one incorrect mindset: we tend to see “holding someone accountable” as something punitive, negative, and exclusively applied to failures.

On the contrary, accountability is the mechanism we must constantly harness to grow. Accountability is where a team goes to learn, it can’t be achieved without trust, and it starts with you, the organization’s leader.

For you as a leader, this means leaning into a place of vulnerability. When there is a failure at any level, you need to be the one who owns it. Your willingness to own up to your own mistakes will breed trust within the team, leading to commitment, buy-in, and performance. When you take absolute ownership of the outcomes the team achieves, you can then demonstrate the process of turning a failure into a win by dissecting and learning from it.

As leaders, we must create a growth-oriented, learning-supported culture for our teams. Part of that involves ritualizing accountability within our organizations while changing the general understanding of what it is and how it serves us, moving it from an intimidating, failure-based tool to a constant, trust-based, and growth-focused mindset.

How can we do that? Through vulnerable and effective debriefs.

Debrief to Learn

A debrief is always about constructive evaluation – constructive, in this case, means “tending to build up.” Even on the heels of an epic disaster, the purpose of a debrief is to build up the team! This is our time to learn from what has occurred, whether from a success or a failure. Maybe a project went well because we got lucky, and we must acknowledge that. And if we’re analyzing a failure, we can still end the meeting with high fives – as long as we determine how to avoid those same mistakes in the future. That learning is a win in and of itself!

Regardless of outcomes, leaders should prioritize sharing how proud and appreciative they are of specific individuals’ and teams’ work. It’s not about a Panera gift card or who wins employee of the month; it’s just about one adult respecting and acknowledging another.

These kinds of debriefs will keep people coming into work the next day engaged and enthusiastic, win or lose.

The key to an effective debrief is a clear, shared performance yardstick. Before the project even starts, the team must agree upon a purpose-focused, measurable, achievable, and time-constrained objective. This level of planning is absolutely necessary for any debrief to hold any weight at all, and it’s the leader’s job to ensure that a crystal-clear shared understanding of success is present.

It’s also worth noting that at least one debrief should occur during the process, rather than waiting for the morbidly named “post-mortem” after the fact. Allow your team to evaluate and tweak as they go, asking: “If you think about the end of the line – the objective we all agreed upon – are you where you should be? If not, what must we do to get back on track?”

With those notes in mind, here is Cujo’s recommended debrief structure:

The F-4 Debrief Process

  • Facts: This debrief section should take up half of your time together! It is about a collaborative review of what happened – it’s not about judgment, and it’s not even necessarily about analysis. The primary tendency to avoid? Leaders often walk into a room having looked at the facts on their own in a vacuum, then dive right into their personal analysis of the problem and recommended way forward, cutting the team’s invaluable collective experiences out altogether. To observe the truth of what really happened, those experiences – and a collaborative review of the process – are beyond necessary.
  • Focus: Your objective gives you a simple focus to center the debrief around. Simply lead a discussion based on these questions: “How did we do against our pre-defined objective? Why did or didn’t we meet the objective?”
  • Framing: This is where you and your team will dive into the deeper analysis. You aren’t looking to trigger justifications or shame-based defensiveness by repeating a staccato, accusatory “Why?” Instead, frame the conversation positively, empathetically, and thoughtfully. Begin with “Walk us through your experience with…” and end with “Brother, thank you for…” Remember: this time is for learning, taking ownership, and building up.
  • Forward: Believe it or not, after the long discussion that’s already occurred, this final piece of the debrief should be a quick one. With all the facts, focus, and framing laid out, simply ask: “What do we change to have a better result next time? What’s our way forward? What one or two tweaks would have created a better result?”

Get your copy of Debrief to Win for deeper insights into accountable leadership practices from Robert “Cujo” Teschner today!

The Acumen community engages in a catalytic Advance Leadership Workshop once a quarter – it’s just one of the many ways we strive to sharpen, challenge, and inspire our partners! You can check out more details and a list of our previous workshop speakers here.