Episode 311 – Accountability with Brian Moran and Michael Lennington

‘Accountability is… probably the most empowering concept you have to live the life you want to live, when you understand it.’

When we speak about accountability in business, very often the context is negative. It’s about consequences and blame. But if we see accountability as ownership, it’s a radically different, more empowering concept. That’s what Brian Moran and Michael Lennington discovered, and they drew on their long-standing accountability to each other as business and writing partners to bring out the full significance of that understanding in their new book, Uncommon Accountability. 

This week’s conversation is not only a fascinating rehabilitation of a tricky term, but also a masterclass in writing collaboration. 



Uncommon Accountability site: https://uncommonaccountability.com/

12-Week Year site: https://12weekyear.com/

Brian on Twitter: https://twitter.com/brianpmoran

Michael on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MLennington

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge April 2022: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Brian P. Moran, who is a renowned leadership, execution and productivity thought leader, CEO and founder of The Execution Company. He’s held leadership positions with PepsiCo, UPS, Senn-Delaney Management Consultants, and National Automotive Corporation. And he’s the co-author of The New York Times bestselling book The 12 Week Year, which is a program developed to empower individuals and companies to achieve more in 12 weeks than others accomplish in 12 months.

And his co-author on that book is Michael M. Lennington, who’s a leading expert in the application of execution systems for individuals, teams, and entire organizations. And in recent years, his focus has been on training and coaching about leadership and business execution and building simple tools for people seeking to accomplish more in life.

And his client list has included such household names as Allstate and MassMutual, as well as rapidly growing companies like Ponoko and Compass, in addition to 501C corporations doing good work.

And their latest book is Uncommon Accountability: A radical new approach to greater success and fulfillment, and I am delighted that they are both here with me today.

So hello Brian and Michael. Really, really good to have you both here. And I really, I liked the idea about reframing accountability, because you make the point that it’s not a word without its negative associations, is it?

Brian Moran: No, it’s not, it’s not. Most people experience it as negative consequences. And so you know, it has all this baggage attached to it and in fact I think Michael looked up the definition, I’ll let him speak to that, but all the examples are all negative.

Alison Jones: ‘Somebody should be held accountable.’

Brian Moran: Exactly. Yes. Yes.

Alison Jones: So are you reclaiming it and rehabilitating it?

Brian Moran: Well, you know, one of the things we found is that in the work we did around helping individuals and organizations execute, is that accountability was key to that, individual accountability. And then organizations what they were doing, the way they understood it and what they were doing with it was actually undermining accountability and undermining their efforts to execute well and get the best results possible.

Alison Jones: Do you want to come in on that, Michael?

Michael Lennington: Well, I think I agree with Brian on that piece there, but what I’d say in addition is that accountability is, it sort of has two definitions. Most people have an intuitive definition of what accountability means and they seek it, they want it, they know that it’s required for success in just about any endeavour.

And yet when you see what leadership does when they try to apply it, it’s not that intuitive understanding. It’s a very different thing. And so you know, we’ve got these two definitions of accountability. And that’s really what we’re trying to clear up, is that there’s an intuitive knowledge of what it means, and it’s not what you think it means typically.

Alison Jones: So you posit accountability as the sort of the one principle that really kind of underpins personal success and also organizational success as well. Just tell me what you mean in a sense by accountability and also that tension, which I think you explore in the book, between accountability to yourself and accountability to others.

Brian Moran: Do you want me to grab that Mike? Okay. So we look at accountability, our experience is that true accountability is ownership, it’s not consequences. You know, we would argue that in the end you choose your consequences in life to a large degree. But at the heart of accountability is freewill choice. The recognition that we always have choice, and then taking ownership of those choices, whether it be in my career, my relationships, my health, or wherever it is.

And so, you know, it’s kind of shifting that notion of accountability as consequences and experiencing it that way, to the true understanding of accountability as really ownership. And then how that affects everything in your life. And you know, as an individual, and then there’s a whole other aspect of it as a leader, because how you think about it affects how you interact with your team and your ability to build trust, your ability to build collaboration, your ability to get the team to take risk.

All of that comes into play in terms of how you think about accountability.

Michael Lennington: Yes, I think leaders pay a price, just like individuals who are being led with the consequence model, right? There’s a price that they pay. And I think the definition of accountability, as we describe it, is going to help leaders and individuals accomplish more.

And one of the challenges with the way that people apply accountability now is that it gets results. People use accountability as consequences because it creates results. But it gets you so far and as Brian said there’s collateral damage. You can’t get all the way there if you apply negative consequences as your accountability model.

Alison Jones: Were you tempted to try and find a different word for what you mean by accountability in this more positive thing? Or did you actually really want to use that word and almost kind of reframe how people see it?

Brian Moran: Yes, Yes I think it was the latter really, reframing how people see it because it is truly accountability is the, I think anyways, is probably the most empowering concept you have to live the life you want to live, when you understand it. And so part of our goal has been to demystify that and correct the misunderstanding and help people really capture what accountability is and what it can do in their life.

Michael Lennington: Yes, we want to replace what people see as accountability, right? We don’t want to have some other idea out there that can maybe co-exist with the way people view accountability now. You can’t have both. It’s one or the other.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s just seeing it differently.

And I was really intrigued as well as to how you develop this out of something that I’m familiar with from the 12 Week Year book. And that sense that one of the big tenets of that is accountability. It’s finding people to whom you can be accountable, as a really powerful way of keeping yourself on track.

Was there a sort of conscious evolution of the idea into a sort of an almost more philosophical, self-determining concept out of that. That’s very leading question.

Michael Lennington: That’s a great question as well as leading, but I think from my perspective is that accountability as a philosophical mindset is really a change in how you lead and how you execute. And it’s a permanent change, once your thinking shifts around what accountability is, it’s a fundamental change that affects most areas of your life.

It’s not just, it’s not a business idea, it’s not a tool you pick up and you put down, it becomes the way you do everything.

Alison Jones: Yes interesting. I’d love to talk about how you two work together as well, how you write together. And I know that particularly The 12 Week Year has had various incarnations and there’s The 12 Week Year for Writers, which Trevor Thrall talks about on this podcast before.

You’ve done it for a while now, how do you work together so effectively?

Brian Moran: You know, it just evolved organically. And I think we have a lot of respect for one another. We argue points vehemently without holding grudges and are open to hearing the other person’s point of view. So our experience has been that the more we beat it up, the better it gets. And so we’re not afraid to get messy and ugly with it.

But I want to tell you a quick story, because I think the statistic I saw was something like 82% of the population would like to write a book some time. And so Michael and I, this was years ago, we were headed to a conference as a vendor and we were thinking about what shiny stuff are we going to give out when people come by. And I had been wanting to write a book, looked at ghost authors, didn’t like the process.

And I remember saying to Michael, let’s just write a short format book. Let’s leave out all the fluff. And so we wrote the precursor to The 12 Week Year, it was called Periodization: 12 weeks to breakthrough, went down to Kinko’s and self published, self published a hundred copies, sold them for 10 bucks, sold out of them and from that sold like a couple of hundred thousand copies of that book and it literally changed our life.

And then Wiley came along and wanted to publish it. So we were able to expand it and rename it, something that people could pronounce, 12 Week Year. But it was early on in that process that we just learned how to write together.

And it was, we started with just outlining the concepts. He would take a chapter, I’d take a chapter, then we’d swap and we beat it up and discuss it, it really has grown organically into a process that works really well for us.

Michael Lennington: Yes, well we use The 12 Week Year to write The 12 Week Year.

Alison Jones: Of course you do. I mean, I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.

Brian Moran: Yes, we wrote the first copy of that in 12 weeks, it was kind of crazy.

Michael Lennington: Yes, I don’t remember anything else we were working on in that time. Nothing. I don’t remember the client problems, anything, but I do remember writing that book and it changed our business. I mean, I think 99.9% of our leads have come from that business book.

Alison Jones: That’s phenomenal and what I love as well, you almost did it as an MVP, didn’t you? I mean, that’s really agile. Let’s just do something at very low cost, very low risk. Let’s just put it out there, see if it flies and then build on that.

Michael Lennington: Yes we printed a hundred thinking we’d probably be storing them in our garage for a while. And then we managed to sell or give them all away at the trade show we went to. And then okay, that was fun and then we just went on with our lives. I remember we got a book order and… we were smart enough to put a book order form in the back of the book.

And somebody ordered a book and I ran screaming, Hey, look, somebody bought this thing, unbelievable. And then we started getting orders 250, 500 copies at a time. And it was like, whoa. It really wasn’t, I’d like to say we planned it, given the fact that we’re execution folks, but it really was just, you know, it was, I don’t know what it was.

It was, it was an amazing outcome. Organic.

Alison Jones: Organic, there you go and it’s really great example isn’t it, of when you find something that people really resonate with.

Michael Lennington: Yes. One thing I’d say, cause I know you kind of have a lot of folks in the audience that are, that want to be, book authors, if they’re not already, business book authors. And I think the thing that really made the book sell as well as it has is that we, Brian and I both decided that we were going to give our best thoughts and we weren’t going to hold stuff back so we could sell something later on.

We weren’t going to give people just a surface understanding that they couldn’t really apply. We wanted to give them everything that they needed. They could just read the book and take it and go run with it. And I think that’s why it’s been so popular for so long, is it that it’s designed to be used.

Alison Jones: I’m so glad you said that, because I think so many writers have a slight hunch as they write, that they’re sort of trying to keep some stuff away. What was that great phrase, sell the sizzle not the sausage or, you know, whatever. They’re trying to kind of, well, I don’t give everything away, you know, and they sort of say, if you want to know more, come and see me.

And I think that the effect of that is it’s parsimonious, isn’t it? You just, you don’t feel that they have been terribly useful. You need to give everything in that book because that book is never going to be as useful for somebody as actually working with you. But if it’s as useful as it can possibly be, it’s going to bring people to your door.

Michael Lennington: Yes.

Brian Moran: You know, I like that. I think the other thing with both of these books is we didn’t sit down and come up with a theory. We really documented what we were doing with our clients that was working. So it wasn’t, Gosh, this sounds good and we’ll test it out after we get it out there. We had been working with both these concepts for years before we wrote anything about them.

So we knew them deeply. We knew they worked. We had lots of examples of where they had worked. So it wasn’t theory, it was practical advice that other people had applied and gotten results with.

Michael Lennington: Yes, I mean, we’re not authors first, we’re consultants first and then we wrote about what we did.

Alison Jones: And I want to explore that a little bit more actually, because it’s interesting to hear that you did The 12 Week, Periodization and that’s how you wrote that first book. Again, I’m going to ask another leading question and I’m not even sorry. Do you think writing has a role in accountability? You know, what does writing do for you as professionals?

Brian Moran: And that’s interesting. You know, writing for us helps us put our thoughts out there and not dissimilar to video content now. But I think there’s something more permanent about writing than there’s even video content and it allows us to really capture it and come back and make sure it’s saying what we want it to say.

And so I think it helps us clarify our ideas. It makes our content better. You know, if we’re going to put something, every time we write something we learn from it and then we go and we apply that learning and test it. And so, I think for us anyways writing makes our stuff better.

Michael Lennington: Yes, and I think when we write a book about accountability there’s this sort of meta effect where you’re looking at, okay, this has gotten in the way, or I don’t feel like doing it right now. And it’s hard to make up an excuse when you’re writing a book about accountability. So one of the downsides.

So in the middle of the end of getting the book across the finish line I got a pretty serious case of Delta, of Delta COVID and I was out for a week and a half and I was so tempted to say, well, let’s push the deadlines back, I couldn’t help this, but the reality was is that we’d had so much time before that I should have been farther along. I tend to procrastinate a bit. And so, you know, all my excuses were gone.

I just had to face it. That was a little bit awkward I’d tell you what, but…

Alison Jones: I love that you are fessing up to procrastinating. When people who write books about how not to procrastinate tell you that, you know, you just feel they’re very human. I appreciate that.

Michael Lennington: Well, we write what we need, I guess.

Alison Jones: And I guess you’ve got that, I mean, absolutely personal accountability and that self-awareness, but also accountability to each other, which I think is one of the great advantages of working with a co-author, isn’t it?

Michael Lennington: Yes, I think so. Brian, I’m sure you’re going to jump in on that, but I think because we’ve had the relationship we’ve had, I’ve known Brian longer than anybody except for family members in my life. So we’ve had a long-term relationship. We know each other and in spite of that we’ve continued to work together.

But I think one of the things that happens is that we have this kind of relationship where there’s really no danger of us destroying the relationship, unless it’s intentional, because we can talk about pretty much anything. And that’s really helped us a lot. And I think when we talk about accountability, you know, it’s like, we don’t really, it’s like a sub language.

We don’t have to talk as much about it because we’re starting to say, oh yeah, you’re right. Okay. And we just move on pretty quickly from that. So we kind of help each other to stay accountable, but it’s not, it’s not like it’s that overt. Would you agree, Brian?

Brian Moran: Yes, yes, I think when there’s times that when putting that book together we were behind, we were quick to acknowledge it and then the conversation, so much of accountability is forward-thinking not rear view mirror. And I think the victim mindset is all rear view mirror.

So an example of that for us in writing the book is if we felt we were behind we talked about where we’re at and okay, what are we going to do in the next seven to ten days. And so it was focused on, how do we recover from this? How do we fix this? What do we do next? Given that, can’t change that, we don’t deal in guilt. There wasn’t any guilt around that or anything else. It just was, okay, that is what it is. What are we going to do moving forward?

 And I think that’s the way accountability works. That’s at the heart of accountability. It’s not about blame. It’s not about guilt. It’s really about figuring out, okay, what do we need to do moving forward to be more effective.

 And that’s the way we work together on everything. That’s the way we work together in writing the book.

Michael Lennington: I think one of the problems we had too is The 12 Week Year was super easy to write because we’d been doing training on it, we had all these modules and things, that we’d kind of written the book already. And so when we actually sat down to write the book 12 Weeks, that’s a little bit of a misguided statement in the sense that we had already done a lot of work, as Brian said with our clients.

But we wrote this book in 12 weeks, changed our business, changed our lives. And when it came time to write this book, it was like, okay, well, you know, no problem. We’re successful authors. We shouldn’t be…

Alison Jones: …ooh, this is different.

Michael Lennington: Yes this is very different. And I think there was a lot of debate.

Brian talks about, we argue a lot, that happened a lot with this book because we wanted to really be clear and precise on what we were saying about accountability and not say something that we didn’t really believe to be true. And I think, you know, as we dug into it, there was a lot of, I think, deep learning for both of us on the topic.

Alison Jones: That’s so interesting and it’s so true, isn’t it? You can write a book that almost writes itself, because as you say, you’ve been teaching it, you’ve got all the material there. It’s a very, I mean you still have to write the book. I’m not demeaning that, but it’s a very different process to thinking, what do I think about this topic? And almost discovering what it is you think, as you write, these are two very different…

I always think the word writing encompasses so many different modes of activity that it’s kind of misleading to just have the one word for it really.

Brian Moran: Well, I think good writing…

Michael Lennington: …didn’t always agree.

Brian Moran: Yes I think good writing too is about what you don’t put in.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Brian Moran: …and it really happens in the editing process, but The 12 Week Year had a set of disciplines and principles that naturally led to chapters where Uncommon Accountability was a little different concept, it didn’t have that structure to it.

Alison Jones: You had to create that structure.

Brian Moran: It was a little more challenging for us. Yes.

Alison Jones: Yes. So you’ve had the experience of both kinds of writing now, of that sort of stuff that almost writes itself and the structure is given to you, and the one where you have to craft it out of nothing more than idea and sort of a sense of where you’re going.

So I always ask guests for their single best tip for a first time business book author. And I’m delighted to be able to get tips from both of you, actually, it feels very greedy.

 Michael, if I take you first, what would your one best tip be?

Michael Lennington: Well so this is, I don’t want this to sound self-serving, but there was a another book published last year on the 12th Week called 12 Week Year for Writers. And it wasn’t written by Brian and I,

Alison Jones: We’ve had Trevor on the podcast.

Michael Lennington: Oh, you have? Oh, beautiful. Okay. So, you know, Trevor and…

Alison Jones: He says great things about you guys. You got to be nice.

Brian Moran: We will.

Michael Lennington: Yes, I love him. He’s a good friend of mine. I’ve known him almost as long as I’ve known Brian.

So but, yes, the thing is, is that I think it’s good to have a good understanding of what it’s going to take in terms of time because time is the variable that really limits what you can do and what you can’t do.

And if you don’t value your time or you don’t act with urgency on the time that you have, you know, you’re going to be much less effective at getting the book across the finish line.

So it’s being realistic about the time you have available and blocking out the time to write and then writing in those time blocks.

To me that would be my number one recommendation, is just write and then editing comes later. Don’t try to be perfect, either. I have a tendency to argue with myself as I’m writing, and that really slows the process.

Alison Jones: Just get it out, use that time. Brilliant. Thank you.

Brian, what about you?

Brian Moran: Yes, really similar, you know, block out time to write. Don’t worry about what you’re writing. There’s a concept we talk about separate starting from finishing, right? You’re going to sit down if you’re going to write for an hour, it doesn’t matter whether you write a sentence or you write pages, take that pressure off yourself and just let it flow.

As Michael said, don’t edit it. Get out as much as you can. Recognize that the good writing comes in the editing. And so a lot of what you’re going to put down, you’re going to change. You’re not going to, you’re going to scratch all together. But I think, you know, honouring those blocks of time without the pressure to, I’ve got to create a whole chapter here, right?

I’m just going to sit down, I’m going to write what flows. And, you know, if it’s half a page or it’s six pages, that’s fine. I’ll come back. I’ve got another writing block tomorrow. So you know, I think that’s really the key.

Alison Jones: I’m really interested that neither of you said ‘find a co-author like mine’. I mean, obviously it’s so much a secret of how you write together, but I guess it’s not an easy one to advise anybody else because you have to have that relationship almost, don’t you?

Brian Moran: Yes, I’m not sure if we were just working as authors together, it would be the same. It’s the fact that we consult together, we train people, we work through coaching people. And so you know, that frame of reference is there for us.

Michael Lennington: And we both know the topic as well as anybody. So when we talk about what the topic means, we can challenge each other and really kind of push into the areas of grayness or maybe inaccuracy or clarify some things for us that we weren’t quite clear on. So I think because we’ve worked together so long, because we know the core material so well. And you know, we’re fairly dissimilar, it allows us to bring something unique to the conversation. So that’s, I don’t know how easily you just go do that.

Alison Jones: And it’s interesting as a reader, you use what can be a very tricky construction, which is the first-person plural. You say ‘we’ a lot in the book. And it’s so interesting because you’re doing it here, and it’s very unforced. I mean, often that can be quite tricky. It can feel quite forced, but you do, obviously this is your combined voice speaking. Often joint authors will very much divvy up the book between them and it’s very clear who’s speaking, but you have got this kind of coherent, unified, joint author voice, which is quite remarkable.

Michael Lennington: Yes, I think the training that we’ve done around accountability, we’ve kind of worked through how we say things. So that probably adds to the fact that this sounds like there’s a single voice there because it’s just not something, while we did do a lot of research, it’s just not something we came up with recently.

 It’s the foundational principle of the 12 Week Year, 20 years ago. So, you know, it’s not something we haven’t debated and talked about before. I think that helps.

Alison Jones: It’s like you’ve created a kind of extra narrative voice from the Venn diagram of the two of you. Yes, wonderful.

And I always ask people to recommend a book as well. I mean, I always say you can’t recommend your own, but I guess you kind of can recommend the 12 Week Year Book for Writers because that’s not yours. Technically.

Are there any other books that you would recommend to listeners of the podcast?

Michael Lennington: Hmm, that’s a good question. I mean, the one thing that comes to mind for me is that if you really want to read, if you want to write about a subject, I’d read 10 books on the subject before you start writing it. If unless it’s something like The 12 Week Year, which we created out of whole cloth you know. I think reading on your topic, knowing about it, I like to do a lot of research. Even on the accountability book, as Brian pointed out, he was doing research in the beginning to understand what the science says and to the extent that it disagrees and I want to dig into why that is and, you know, so I would recommend that.

Alison Jones: That’s a great point because there’s often a lot of resistance for different reasons. One is people might disagree with me and therefore I’m wrong. So you’ve addressed that one. I think another one is I don’t want to have my ideas influenced by other people, or I don’t want to be copying other ideas, but actually the more thoughtfully you read and the more you read, the better informed you are, and the more easily you can shape and differentiate your own ideas.

So thank you, great tip generally.

Brian, would you like to recommend any particular book?

Brian Moran: Well, just a general book. One of my favourites is Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. It was out of print for a long time. I think it’s back in print. It’s just such a, it was a fundamental book for me in my growth, just recognizing that, you know, anytime you’re going to do something that is uncomfortable for you, that seems a little outrageous, you know, there’s some discomfort that comes with that. That’s part of the process.

And so I think recognizing that allows you to push through it. So I love that book. I recommend it a lot. It’s a quick read, but I think it’s a powerful book.

Alison Jones: It’s also got one of those titles that says it all. You just kind of almost have to remember that title and it becomes your mantra. Then the book has done its job really.

Brian Moran: Yes.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you.

And if people want to find out more about you both, more about the work that you do together and separately, where should they go?

Brian Moran: There’s really two places. One is uncommonaccountability.com and you’ll find some some information on the new book. 12weekyear.com is the other one, the digits one two week year.com. And so between those two sites, you can figure out most of what you need. That’ll lead you to YouTube and Facebook and all the other connections as well.

Alison Jones: Thank you very much. It’s been fantastic talking to you. As I say, it’s very rare that you talk to co-authors who speak with such a unified voice. So that’s been an absolute treat to see it in action.

Thank you very much for your time today

Brian Moran: Great being with you. Thanks.

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