Why Are the Well-Honed Accountability Skills You Are So Good at Now Not so Good for Your Future?

Excerpted from an In-Progress Book for Women Executives to Create Powerful Careers
Written by Nancy Fredericks and Shari Lewison

Businesswoman_meditatingDo you often wrestle with what you should be doing to be assessed as a powerful contributor for the future of your company? Do you see others being recognized in your organization and yet, privately you question this assessment—after all you get so much more done on time and under budget? Is your mantra “What’s an executive got to do?”

If you’ve ever experienced any of these thoughts, you have to understand that you’re limiting your future and your company will miss out on much of your greatness by not grasping what is foundational to building a powerful career. The reality is that just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore what you know needs to be done even when the activities don’t have deadlines or any urgency attached to them. You’ll lose long-term if you continue working this way.

And at some level you know better. Haven’t you sensed a problem; and then, told yourself you have to check it out? Yet, you didn’t because of time constraints. Didn’t you live to regret this choice as you watched a juicy opportunity pass you by? This is what happens time after time when you’re not able to keep promises to yourself respecting your commitments. Look at your calendar that will reveal all you need to know regarding what you account as your true priorities. To be successful you must be the leader of your own calendar because you’re the only one who knows all the moving pieces and the heart of your true desires.

Why are the skills I’m good at now—not so good for my future?

What will this shift look like in your day-to-day activities right now in preparation for taking control of the future of your career? Everyone reading this book has held a low-to-mid-level position even if that is not where you are now. Isn’t it true that when you were at the lower levels of an organization, your success relied on achievements that had deadlines attached that were linked to people at higher levels of the organization, who had a significant voice in your future advancement opportunities? These types of commitments were associated with potentially negative consequences when not completed on time. There were, also, carrots attached to completing assignments successfully such as raises and promotions. It’s sad to say, but the truth is that from the day you started in your career, you’ve been trained primarily to respond and pay attention to “External” completion assignments. This may be the right focus and earn rewards early in a career; however, if you limit yourself to only this narrow view of success, you restrict your future progress.

None of you would still be employed in today’s marketplace if you weren’t already effective at being Externally Accountable. This means that you keep promises to your employers about projects or about keeping appointments or about anything that relates to your life and career. That’s why you’re hired to produce and that’s why you’re still employed because you’re an extraordinary producer.

However, leaders more often spend time on projects that have no obvious deadlines attached that yield no immediate measurable outputs—perhaps no one even knows they’re working on them. Yet, these enterprises are the lifeblood of their company and will ultimately make a difference to the future profitability of the organization. So, much of a leader’s success comes from focusing on areas of the business where they aren’t being evaluated or where they won’t win a gold star for “Today;” but they know, if they don’t work on these key activities “Today,” there will be no gold star “Tomorrow” for either themselves or their organization.

These leaders are masters at being Internally Accountable—meaning they keep promises not simply to others, but more importantly to themselves, to better the future of their organization even in the midst of chaos. Are you someone who is great at completing tasks that others have consigned to you, but not so great at completing work you realize you need to do? This frame of mind is going to leave you overstressed because you know everything on your plate—both what has been assigned to you and what you have assigned to yourself. If you’re not doing what you promised, you won’t feel good about yourself nor will anyone else and your career will stagnate.

Why will being Internally Accountable relieve stress?

You see on some level you measure yourself against everything you say and do. This is where that little, ego, knowing part of your being determines whether you’re worthy or not; where it determines whether you deserve the keys to the kingdom or not; where your power resides to be turned on or not. If you believe you are not being who you say you are, it diminishes the you the outside world experiences and that diminishes your future. You have to know that it, also, weakens you on the job as people aren’t simply evaluating you for what you say; they’re judging you by your actions as well. If your words are saying you intend to be a future leader; however, your actions don’t align, you are perceived as weak or unworthy and ultimately untrustworthy—and trust is a foundational element of leadership. Without a core built upon an Internally Accountable career, you will erode your effectiveness as a future leader.

I remember receiving a call from Gillian, a long-time client of mine a number of years ago, saying she wanted to sign up for another set of strategic coaching sessions to “start the year off with a bang.”

I was excited because this is a bright, together woman that I enjoy as a human being. I asked her, “What are your objectives for the sessions?”

Gillian’s response, “I’m ready for the big times. This year I want you to help me move up to the next level in the organization.”

My heart momentarily sank a bit. I’d known Gillian for years and I knew unless she’d changed dramatically since the last time we worked together, it was highly doubtful she had what it takes to reach the senior levels of her organization.

“Gillian, it would be my honor to support you on this quest. I do need to ask you though, how are you doing keeping promises to yourself?”

She rushed in defensively almost before my question was completed. “You have to know our recent acquisition has us all underwater. I haven’t forgotten. You have no idea how busy we’ve been. I’m simply overloaded, but as soon as it calms down, believe me I’ll get back to it.”

“Honestly, Gillian, I think the world of you; however, unless you can make a massive shift, I’m not sure it is worth your time and money to hire me. I’ve told you a number of times that I believe your inability to keep promises to yourself to spend leadership time thinking and planning are holding you back from promotion. You simply don’t have a broad enough view of the company when your sole focus is on the urgent, the detail, the execution and the tactical. This finite view of your company isn’t broad enough to leverage you into the senior ranks. That’s the area you have to expand so if you’re unwilling to address this area, I don’t believe you should hire me.”

She did try. She just never could. I’m sorry to say, it is years after the call I’m sharing and she still hasn’t moved her career any further up the corporate ladder. Actually, she’s lost ground. Other talent coming up behind her are demonstrating higher-level leadership excellence so they’re receiving the big assignments and have the eye of their company for promotion—not Gillian.

Are you starting to realize how different this Internal Accountability world is for building a future for yourself? It relies on you. This is where it gets hard. The distinction for controlling your life and career is your ability to keep promises to yourself. This is actually a high leadership trait.

If you want to move up or contribute more to your organization, it isn’t simply about getting a decent performance evaluation; it is about demonstrating leadership now and carving out that reputation for yourself in the organization now. It’s time to pay attention to the promises you’ve made to yourself about finding a solution for process breakdowns that haven’t hit the top of the External list as yet, but you know if this one aspect doesn’t get done, it will have negative consequences for you and your company. Or perhaps, you’ve heard customers murmuring about similar complaints and you need quiet time to see if it is a concern that requires real-time solutions. This is where your mind and your actions need to pay a whole lot more attention than your previous training ever asserted. This is you exhibiting Internal Accountability.

How can I transform myself into an Internally Accountable executive for my success?

I know this sounds counter-productive; however, to be Internally Accountable you will have to stop working on your “to do” projects leaving them unfinished for a brief period of time. This suggestion will probably horrify you, it even may be difficult and you still have to make that decision.

Tell me, haven’t you found that when someone is rushed to the hospital with an emergency or if someone gets held up by a plane delay or any number of other scenarios that occur in business that those urgent deadlines change fairly easily or more probably, isn’t the work still piled on that someone’s desk when they return to work? And when this happens to someone—perhaps this “someone” is you—you found it relatively easy to pick up “Today” projects and move them through to completion without missing a beat. Actually, it is far easier to finesse these classifications of priorities than it is to pull time from a busy schedule for “Tomorrow” and yet, you have to do it.

Still shaking your head? I can’t tell you how critical realizing the flexibility your schedule offers even when you don’t think it does is for your future success. I clearly remember when this “Aha” hit me smack dab between the eyes. I was doing an exercise in a time management book that made me realize how much choice we have. There was a series of questions first asking what’s working and then, what’s not working.[i]

I diligently completed the exercise as honestly as I was able. It was as I scanned the answers that my “Aha” hit. Everything under the working section were all the tasks that I like and feel good about doing; and conversely under the not working section were all the tasks I didn’t feel as though I excelled at or even enjoyed doing. “Aha!!” When I’m saying, “I don’t have enough time to do ya-da, ya-da” the reality is I’m choosing. It is always choice. Everything listed under both working and not working were on my “to do” list. Wow. I really got how much more flexibility existed in my schedule then I ever credited and that I wasn’t taking advantage of. What about you?

I hope this exercise helps you understand how much more choice you have in your every day work pursuits. If you don’t keep this top of mind, you’ll never find spare time to work on Internally Accountable activities. You must see how relevant it is to you personally and how you must be vigilant to carve the necessary time out of your schedule for your future, no matter what. This transition into working from a bifurcated mental habit—being both Externally and Internally Accountable—isn’t for the faint of heart. Often my clients make promise to themselves and yet, they never seem to follow through. They are always, as Gillian did, able to offer me a litany of reasons why they weren’t able to keep their promise. Reasons and excuses don’t justify not keeping the commitments to yourself and it doesn’t represent a strong enough results drive to reach the senior ranks of your organization

Don’t fall prey to what Martin Luther King calls a mythical concept of time by always waiting for a more convenient season. Where he charges: The ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’[ii] It is all too easy for an executive’s focus to be consumed with the “firefighting” enterprises so that he/she sees the all-important preparation for the future as a secondary priority. Somehow the concrete Externally Accountable tasks are always, always calculated as more critical than the insubstantial objectives you’re holding yourself Internally Accountable for achieving.

Do you find this happening to you? You know you have to be different and gain higher level skills, but just can’t find the time on your schedule as several of my executive clients have found? Sometimes the way you manage time is so finite a measurement that is hard to carve out the necessary outlay of discretionary time needed to focus on it. If this is so, try approaching the issue from another angle by making a commitment to the number of projects or ideas you’ll complete in the next month or six months that’s probably not on anyone else’s radar—and then stick to it.

Are you prepared to stretch to keep promises to yourself?

The truth, as I told Gillian, is you’ll find it extraordinarily difficult to achieve the dream for your future unless you are able to keep promises to yourself. Only you can choose who you intend to be and how successful you intend to be as an Internally Accountable executive in your organization.

Have you acknowledged to yourself by now that there is a need to build an Internally Accountable approach to your career? How much muscle have you developed in this area of keeping promises to yourself especially when there is no outsider you’re reporting progress to or no urgent time frames attached to the assignment? Think back over your promises this last month. How many undertakings with no external due date have you made to yourself and how many have you kept? This will demonstrate whether you are an Internally Accountable person—or if you only complete projects when there are immediate rewards to getting the activity done.

Are you as aghast, as so many of my clients are, by how proficient you’ve become at keeping promises to others yet, how lousy you are at keeping promises to yourself? Can you see how that doesn’t bode well for your future? If you do, start taking steps to transform this harmful habit not only at work, but in your life as well.

I hope you’re seeing how the pathways to leadership requires transforming your mindset and your calendar. As you become engaged in your new habit, this discretionary time will become one of your most valuable career boosters. It is impossible to make the leap from manager to leader unless you do so. It will necessitate a new skill one that requires Internal Commitment to you through developing an A.I.M. mindset.[iii]


  • The new behavior you intend to begin and what you’ll achieve in your work life with this new behavior.


  • Define what your new behavior looks like, what you intend to create and all the elements necessary for realizing your result.


  • Audit your new actions for 30 days (Remember, that’s how long it takes for new habits to take root and become integrated in your deeds). This necessitates consistently tracking and determining that your actions align with your intended results. When they don’t, reset and begin the process again.

It’s easy and yet, it requires that new habit called Internal Accountability as well as a huge dose of perseverance and attention to create a true pathway to success.

The secret to being tagged as a high-potential future leader starts out by how well you have performed your assigned responsibilities in the “Today” and now realm. That got upper management’s attention; that got your promotions up to now. However, from now on it has a lot more to do with upper management’s confidence in your ability to add value to the team—the leadership team. Once you’ve entered the leadership ranks, the rules change dramatically. Now, it is no longer about expertise entirely rather it’s far more about the deep-seated attitudes and habits you bring to the table. Being an Internal Accountability keeper is the foundation that producing results through others time and time upon. And it does stand out.

Start looking at your “to do” list with a different mindset; be more mindful of the importance of both Externally Accountable and Internally Accountable behavior. Count your success based upon demonstrating both attributes. That’s the first step to engaging your leadership A.I.M.

What are you going to be doing differently? Your decision will be a determiner of your career future.

[i] Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule and Your Life, Julie Morgenstern, Henry Holt and Company, Septemer 19, 2000.

[ii] The Executive AdvantEdge Workbook, Your Blueprint for Powerful Career Success, Nancy Fredericks, Amazon eBook, page 35, 2014.

[iii] The Executive AdvantEdge Workbook, Your Blueprint for Powerful Career Success, Nancy Fredericks, Amazon eBook, page 31, 2014.