A Culture of Accountability

by Craig Hickman on January 6th, 2010

The best kind of culture is a Culture of Accountability where people demonstrate high levels of ownership to think and act in the manner necessary to achieve organizational results.  The defining characteristic of this kind of culture is that people voluntarily assume their own accountability. Rather than having accountability forced upon them, they enthusiastically take it upon themselves. That’s right, they are neither commanded to be accountable nor kept under surveillance until “called to account” for their actions. In a Culture of Accountability, people at every level of the organization are personally committed to achieving key results targeted by the team or organization, and they never wait to be asked for a progress report or a follow-up plan. Instead, they report proactively and follow-up constantly, diligently measuring their own progress because they have internalized their commitment to achieving results. Their mantra—“What else can I do to achieve the desired results?”—leads them to continually find answers, develop solutions, overcome obstacles, and triumph over any trouble that might come along. And, as you would expect, everyone holds everyone accountable for results.

Creating a Culture of Accountability will have a powerful impact on results, because people consistently produce organizational success, human fulfillment and the creation of real value. But getting there represents more of an ongoing journey than an actual destination. Leaders, together with everyone else in the organization, must work continually to create and maintain such a culture. Consider this example from one of our clients about their journey toward building a Culture of Accountability. Every year the “Women’s Boutique,” a nationally branded chain, conducted a women’s suit contest, a sales event that lasted four weeks and included a companywide competition. Susan’s district, ten retail stores in Nevada, had always come in dead last in the contest because neither she nor her people believed they could sell suits in Nevada, especially in this economy. When a new regional manager told her that district managers fell into two groups—“owners” and “renters”—and that she was a “renter,” Susan finally woke up. She realized that her failure to ful­fill expectations had stemmed from an inability and unwillingness to get the people in her region to take accountability for achieving the desired results. With a commitment toward greater personal accountability, she persuaded her store managers that their collective excuses were preventing them from achieving better results. Together, they committed themselves to embracing and living the Steps to Accountability: to See It, Own It, Solve It, and Do It.

Targeting the annual women’s suit contest as a sales event they all needed to own, Susan and her store managers became relentless in asking, “What else can I do to get the result?” Susan visited each store to provide coaching and assis­tance as store managers hosted VIP parties to get their people and preferred customers excited about the contest. They installed “Think Boxes” in every store, giving people a way to share their ideas about what else could be done to increase sales. People throughout the district quickly became engaged in thinking up new ways to draw more cus­tomers into the excitement, coming up with ideas such as offering customers the opportunity to win a Fossil Watch or a second suit for a penny. As Susan continued to meet one-on­-one with her store managers, they became more accountable for results. Four weeks later, when the suit contest ended, Susan’s district finished in first place. Her regional manager congratulated her on making the move from an entrenched “renter” to a solid “owner” of the business. She was even invited her to speak at a companywide conference about the transformation she had engineered in her district, “A lot of you know me. I’ve been with the company for twelve years and I have never been the number one district in anything before. What changed for me this year was I applied what I learned about how to help people take accountability, and it totally changed my life.” During the next three years, Susan’s district rose from the bottom 20% of the company’s 90 districts to the top 20%–further evidence that a  Culture of Accountability is the best kind of culture for creating sustained results.


Friday, April 17, 2009

How to Create a Culture of Accountability and Hold People Accountable

Here are a couple of questions from readers on the topic of accountability:

1. “I have recently been part of several discussions on accountability, and I am curious to hear/read your perspective. Some of the salient discussion points have included: for what should leaders be held accountable? Results and behaviors? Once it’s been determined for what they should be held accountable, how do you make accountability happen? What must occur within the organization in order to ensure accountability is a cultural expectation? If you have any insight into this topic, I’d love to read about it.”

2. “What are the top 3 ways to hold people accountable?”

It’s no surprise that accountability is a hot topic these days – it tends to come up when things are not going well. In fact, most people think of accountability as knowing who to hang for poor performance or mistakes.

Here’s Webster’s definition of accountability: “subject to having to report, explain, or justify; being answerable, responsible.”

No wonder it has such a negative connotation. And since most people view it as something to get hit over the head with, we tend to avoid it and instead focus our energy on coming up with creative excuses, blaming, or finger pointing.

I changed my worldview on what accountability was all about when I was doing research for some culture change work for my last company. We knew we needed to “create a culture of accountability”, but there were a lot of different opinions as to what that really meant and how to go about it.

I came across the work of Roger Connors and Tom Smith, from the consulting and training company Partners in Leadership. Their first book, The Oz Principle, defines accountability in a much more positive way, and describes how to develop it yourself and coach others. Their second book,Journey To The Emerald City, builds on that work, and outlines how to create a culture of accountability.

I like that they’ve created a more positive and useful definition of accountability: “A personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results – to see it, own it, solve it, and do it.”

Their book and training programs go into detail on each of these four steps to accountability. In a nutshell, it’s all about defining accountability early, before problems occur, being open to feedback and willing to face problems, taking ownership, problem solving, and proactive follow-up.

The opposite of this kind of behavior is blaming, finger pointing, and excuse making. I’ve shown segments of an old 1994 ABC News John Stossell 20/20 segment called “The Blame Game: Are We a Country of Victims”, as a way to introduce and discuss this topic. While it’s easy to see the behavior in others, most people can’t help see a bit of it in themselves as well.

In the Emerald City book, Connors and Smith go on to outline how to create a culture of accountability. Their methodology, which can be used for any culture change, consists of the following steps:

1. Define clear results within your organization

2. Define the actions required to achieve the results

3. Identify the beliefs that produce these actions

4. Create experiences that instill the right beliefs

The book gives a lot more details, checklists, and tools to lead a group through these steps.

In response to the second reader question, “What are the top 3 ways to hold people accountable?”, here’s a “simple” six step method, from the training and consulting company Communico:

S = Set Expectations

I = Invite Commitment

M = Measure Progress

P = Provide Feedback

L = Link to Consequences

E = Evaluate Effectiveness

Finally, I’ll leave you with a story of four people:

This is a story of four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.
Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.
It ended that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
– Unknown