Accountability Begins With Culture

By  Rick Thomas, Business Advisor

“They just need to be more accountable!” my client railed, bemoaning the continued mediocre results from his sales team.

“Accountable for what?” I asked, though I knew the answer.

“For what?” he sputtered. “How about for results for starters! How difficult can it be to just go out and do your job?” he asked, shaking his head.

It’s not like what he was talking about was any mystery and he is not alone in his frustration. Whether it be the lack of accountability on the sales team or any other team or department, his lament is a common refrain I commonly hear from executives and business owners. So much so that I've devoted an entire segment of our Senior Leader Lab seminars on the subject.

The challenge with accountability is that to truly achieve it, it is not a simple button push, one-and-done type of activity. Accountability is an outcome of combining the right person with the right company. And as history has proven, the latter is more important than the former, which underscores Warren Buffett’s sage advice, “You can put a great manager in a bad company, and you still have a bad company. If you put a bad manager in a good company, however, you still have a good company.”

All of which points to if accountability is a trait my client truly desires on his sales team, let alone the rest of the organization, then the fix is much more systemic than he is likely willing to hear. Oh sure, he can take the band aid approach and use the proverbial stick and demand higher performance. This, however, would ultimately reap the unintended consequences of an organization that opposes what is imposed.

Performers will vote with their feet, walking out the door to more conducive working environments, leaving his business with only the non-performers further compounding the issue. Surprisingly, the opposite has proven to not work very well either.

As has been well documented in Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink illustrates that incentives only work in sustaining performance over time when the task at hand is mechanical and repetitive, such as piece work sewing in a textile factory. When it comes to processes that involve a higher level of cognitive thinking, such as cold calling, relationship building and negotiation, incentives actually begin to fall short.

“What am I supposed to do then?” my client asked in frustration. I paused and thought carefully about how to explain what it will take for him to get there. I knew the answer was not what he wanted to hear.

“You've got to start with the foundation of the business and work out from there,” I explained. And I'm not talking about what your business does, but I am talking about how it does it. I could tell by his expression my answer wasn't hitting home so I illustrated the following:

1. Who we are: A business is a representation of the ownership. If you are looking for accountability, you need to look first at your actions.

2. Values: Descriptions of what we stand for.

3. What we say and do: The behavioral anchors that describe how we stay aligned with the values.

4. Culture: The product of the first three steps done well. A culture of accountability is an outcome

“If you are frustrated with the lack of accountability in the company," I continued to explain, "you first need to understand what is creating it. It begins with understanding who the business is and what it stands for, which are commonly known as the values of an organization. Next, you need to define what you say and do that puts action to the values. This is where culture comes from. When these foundational elements of the company are defined and ultimately aligned, you then use them to determine who you hire, how you evaluate performance, and even what clients you choose to do business with."

If this describes your company, take the time to review your foundational elements. It is likely they contain the answer to unlocking the accountability you desire from your team.