How to Create a
"Culture of Accountability"


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What does it mean to be "held accountable?" Unfortunately, most people view accountability as something that belittles them or happens when performance wanes, problems develop or results fail to materialize. After all, when things are sailing along smoothly, people rarely ask, "Who is accountable for this success?"

Webster's defines "accountable" as "Subject to having to report, explain or justify; being answerable, responsible." Notice how the definition begins with the words "subject to," implying little choice in the matter. This confession-oriented and powerless definition suggests what we all have observed—accountability is viewed as a consequence for poor performance; it's a principle you should fear because it can only end up hurting you.

Consider the following new 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." This definition includes a mindset or attitude of continually asking, "What else can I do to rise above my circumstances and achieve the results I desire?" It requires a level of ownership that includes making, keeping and answering for personal commitments. Such a perspective embraces both current and future efforts. Armed with this new definition of accountability, you can help yourself and others do everything possible to both overcome difficult circumstances and achieve desired results.

Accountability in Action: The ALARIS Story

As hard as he tried, Dave Schlotterbeck, CEO of ALARIS Medical Systems, just could not get the organization to perform. ALARIS had missed both top and bottom line performance numbers for three years running. Nothing Schlotterbeck did made any difference. The breakthrough at ALARIS was the result of focused effort at every level of the organization. Through a series of cross-functional feedback sessions held between operations, sales, customer care, quality and service, individuals confronted the group with hard facts that many did not want to hear. These sessions helped everyone to "see it" and build greater cooperation. People recognized the problem and how they could personally change it. Employees overcame the natural barriers of functional expertise and preferences and aligned themselves for the common good. Powerful forces went to work to improve performance in dramatic ways.

With the organization hitting and, in many cases, exceeding, its quarterly numbers for the first time since the merger, Wall Street rewarded this impressive turnaround with an equally impressive increase in stock price—a whopping 900%. In May 2003, Money Magazine listed ALARIS as the top performing stock for the prior twelve months on all three major stock exchanges. ALARIS had finally attained a culture of accountability in which everyone wanted to do and achieve more.

Set Clearly Defined Results

The first step towards creating a culture of accountability is to define clear results within your organization. Whether it's a sales figure, a specified delivery period for your product or a minimum return on investment, make sure you define the goal. Then make it clear to all your managers and employees from the bottom to the top ranks. Everyone must know what they're working for and how their job pushes the company forward.

Next, management must generate joint accountability for results. In an environment of joint accountability, it is impossible for anyone even to think, let alone say, that he has done his job if the team has not achieved its targeted result.

Achieve Results, Rather Than Do the Job

How many times have you heard a leader in real life or fiction demand: "I don't care how you do it. Just get it done!" Many times, organization charts and job descriptions push people into boxes. They give people the idea that they are getting paid and using their skills to perform a defined function or set of tasks. This task-oriented mindset leads people to believe that if they perform their functions they've done what they're supposed to do, whether or not the result was achieved.

Effective leaders operate on the premise that their people must focus on achieving results. They lead people beyond the boundaries of their jobs and inspire them to pursue results by creating an environment that motivates them to ask, "What else can I do?" over and over until the results are achieved. They manage their people so that their "job" is to achieve results. Each person's daily activities must be in alignment with the targeted results.

Accountability for the Future

Only when you assume full accountability for your thoughts, feelings, actions, and results can you direct your own destiny; otherwise, someone or something else will. The real value and benefit of accountability stems from the ability to influence events and outcomes before they happen. The customary view of accountability fails to recognize that people can gain more from a proactive posture than from a reactive one.

This new view of accountability can help revitalize the business character, strengthen global competitiveness, heighten innovation, improve the quality of products and services produced by companies worldwide and increase the responsiveness of organizations to the needs and wants of customers and constituents.

[This article is reprinted from the website of the American Management Association at www.amanet.org.]

Only when you assume full accountability for your thoughts, feelings, actions, and results can you direct your own destiny.

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March 2011

by Roger Connors and Tom Smith, Partners in Leadership