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Accountability in business can foster communication and teamwork, increase productivity, and encourage innovation. But in order for accountability to work, leadership needs to take charge of accountability culture and live by its values.
Sam Silverstein, author of Making Accountable Decisions and other books on leadership and business management, explains why it pays for businesses to practice accountability — whether they’re Fortune 500 companies or mom-and-pop stores. Silverstein describes what accountability in the workplace truly looks like and why it is an integral part of any plan for sustainable, long-term success. He also provides some tips on how business leaders can create and maintain accountability throughout an organization.
Greg Corombos: Hi, I'm Greg Corombos. My guest at this time is Sam Silverstein. Sam is a former business owner and executive. He's now an accomplished author of seven books, including the title Making Accountable Decisions. He's also a speaker who is very much in demand, particularly on the issue of accountability. You can find him at samsilverstein.com. Today, we're going to look at what accountability means and looks like at every level of business, from the corporate level, all the way down to a mom-and-pop shop. And Sam, thanks very much for being with us.
Sam Silverstein: Oh, it's my pleasure to be here, Greg.
GC: Well, let's start where I think you like to start and many of your presentations, and that's making sure everyone understands where we're starting from here. How do you define accountability? What is it?
SS: Well, that's a great question. It's not what a lot of people think it is. Accountability, very simply, is keeping your commitments to people. You're responsible for things, but you're accountable to people. So accountability always exists between people, which means there's a relationship. Organizations that master relationship, have the ability to master accountability. If there's an accountability problem in an organization, I know there's a relationship problem. A lot of times people think that they're accountable for things, they're accountable for that report. Well, that reports not going to hold you accountable, or as I really like to say, help you be accountable. So it does exist between people.
GC: So explain what you just said there when you said that if there's an accountability problem, there's a relationship problem. How do you diagnose something like that?
SS: Well, since accountability is keeping your relationship commitments to people...a commitment is no matter what. If the relationships are strained in an organization, you won't be accountable to someone that you don't care for, that you don't respect, that there isn't a camaraderie that has been built between two, three, four people. When you have a team of people that care about each other, they communicate better. They work closer together, and accountability is going to thrive. Accountability flows from leadership to the people first. You don't mandate accountability. You can't go into someone's office and say you will be accountable. I'm gonna hold you accountable. I mean, you can say all that stuff all you want, but it doesn't work. What works is leadership, being accountable first, and then creating this corporate culture that inspires accountability in everyone else. That's how it works.
GC: It would be pretty easy to spot that if there's open friction in an office or if things aren't getting done because people don't want to interact with each other. But what if there's a functional work relationship? And then there's no blow-ups, but there's just not the team atmosphere you probably want there.
SS: Okay, so here's how this works. Everything flows from the culture...We have a cultural assessment. We use this on organizations big and small, from dozens of employees to tens of thousands of employees. And what we know is that when the culture inspires accountability, communication, teamwork, engagement, productivity, innovation, all these things also thrive. And so your culture is defined by your values. Organizations are great at coming up with values, putting them on their website, posting them on the wall, but they're not great traditionally, at living them. Your values, one of the things that your values should connect to are internal relationships. And many times you'll see organizations, they'll say, well, we respect each other, we communicate openly and with respect and that sort of thing, blah, blah, blah. But then you see people that don't get along that fight, that bicker. Well, why does leadership allow that to go on? They say they have a value of respect. So if you allow people to stay in your organization that aren't living the value of respect, then you don't really have the value of respect. And having it on your website or having it on the wall is nothing more than a lie. So what leadership must do is step up and take control of the culture and say, this is what we value, which means we're going to live it. And if you live it, you will thrive here. And if you don't live it, you'll thrive someplace else.
GC: We're talking with Sam Silverstein, the topic is accountability. And Sam, you often say accountability is impossible without the truth. I think that goes into the respect culture obviously. If you're willing to speak the truth, that means you're willing to respect folks and vice versa. But what does that look like when it's done well, and when it's not.
SS: If you're not living the truth, and you're deceiving people, and if you're deceiving people, there's no way that you're going to be keeping the commitments that need to be kept that build accountability. Just to back up ever so slightly, when I talk about accountability is keeping your commitments to people, I'm not talking about the commitment to get your work done on time, to show up on time, all that stuff. If you're not doing that, you should be fired. Why would someone let you stay when you're not fulfilling your responsibilities? Your job description is a list of responsibilities. But the commitments that are important, and you mentioned one which like a commitment to the truth, a commitment to the values that commitment to it's all of us, commitment to stand with you when all hell breaks loose. There's ten of these and these commitments are deep-seated visceral commitments that connect people at their very core, that work to build relationship. This always goes back to relationship. If there's no truth, then there's not going to be a relationship. If there's no relationship, there's not going to be accountability.
GC: Sam, one of the things we want to clarify here is that accountability is accountability regardless of the size of the business, whether your Fortune 500 or sole proprietorship. But implementing it can look a lot different, whether you're a big company or a small business. What are the biggest differences in how it gets done and what it looks like?
SS: So what happens is this. Accountability flows from your culture. You either have a culture default, anything goes, or culture design, very specific. This is our culture here. And leadership takes very strong steps to make sure that that culture stays intact, meaning they don't allow anyone to stay there no matter how much profit they bring in if they're not living the culture. And so when you define your culture, when you model your culture, when you teach the culture, when you protect the culture, when you celebrate the culture, what happens then is you maintain this culture that prioritizes accountability. If you're in a small company with five employees, six employees, 50 employees, 100 employees, it's obviously going to be easier to do that then when you have 6000, or 16,000, or 60,000. And so what happens is as you grow, it's easy to have what we call culture drift. You've defined your culture. But it's not exactly today where it was when you originally defined it. Because as the company gets bigger and bigger, it's more difficult to maintain. And so what has to happen in a large company, is you just have to continually renew your commitment. You have to spend a significant amount of time and resources and maintain that culture. It can be done. It just takes a little bit more effort. In a smaller organization, what we find is many leaders are so busy, focused on getting their company off the ground, focused on their product or service, that they haven't spent the time to define their culture and then make sure they're living it. And so that's something that they need to get right early on because it's so much easier with three or four people then with 300 or 400 people. And if you get your culture right from the beginning, then what you'll find is you'll attract the best people to that culture, you'll retain the best people, and you'll accelerate the growth. GC: Sam, we've talked about accountability within the culture of the business. How does that extend then to the outside? And let's start specifically, when it comes to legal compliance, whether it's corporate level, small business level, how does that connection within the business then move to your outside of work, particularly with those who write the rules?
SS: Well, you know, we look at the area of ethics and compliance. And compliance really has to do with following along with a mandate that set down. And that's a more tactical side. But the ethical side, which is more about the spirit of the organization. So many organizations get trapped into looking at the tactics and then trying to perfect the tactics, and that's fine. But if you spend more than 50% of your time, then you're neglecting the spirit of your organization, the culture. And then what happens is you'll never achieve to the degree that you could achieve. Even if it seems like you're doing really good, you could be doing much better. The ethical side of it is all about doing what's right. And if we don't have ethics nailed in an organization, then we will not be able to nail accountability. So what happens is, we get back to this, you know, commitment to the truth, a commitment to a good reputation, a commitment to the values. And if the values outline what ethical operation, the character of our organization is properly, and if we're living that character, then ethics isn't an issue. And if it's flowing from leadership, and it's being modeled for everyone else, then ethical issues just won't arise. These companies where you see these ethical issues arise over and over and over again. Well that's a failure of leadership. It's not a failure of the people. It's a failure of leadership because leadership didn't model the character that the values stipulate. And they didn't mandate that everyone else in the organization should as well. So ethical problems, when they show up, we know there's an accountability issue. We know there's an issue living the values. We know this is probably an issue with relationships. And then we also know that, even though that company may be profitable, their bottom line is not as robust as it could be.
GC: Sam, you mentioned that ultimately, the responsibility lies in leadership when there's an accountability problem. But obviously, people are people, and you want to hire the best people who you think will fit with that culture. And sometimes it's not easy to tell in the hiring process. People nod along when you talk about it, previous employers maybe not understanding exactly what you're going for say, sure we never had a problem with them. How do you encourage folks to look for the people, what are the telltale signs in the hiring process of knowing that this person is going to fit and this person might not?
SS: Okay, so there's several things. First of all, hire slow, fire fast. Hire slow, make the best possible decision, you can, but fire fast. If they're not living the values of the organization, move them, get them out, because they will corrupt your culture. And then part of this hiring process, and there should be multiple interviews. But this hiring process, it's more important that they get the character and the values of the organization than the job skills. Because if you hire people with great job skills, but they can't live the values of the organization, then you can't maintain the culture. And if you hire people that can live the culture, worst-case scenario, you can teach them the job skills. And so it's the values that really matter. And in those interviews, what's the most important questions to be asking your questions, it's going to reveal that these values already exist in the candidates’ lives. You need to see that the values of the organization are showing up in their lives based on the questions that you're asking as you probe into their past, their experience and their beliefs. And when you see that those values are there, then you have something strong to build on.
GC: Sam, just a couple of minutes left in our conversation here. I know in addition to the speaking and the writing that you do, that you do some consultations. So without naming names, do you have any examples of companies you've worked with that did it right and others that didn't quite do that?
SS: At two quick examples. One example was an organization we went in, we helped them gain significant clarity on what their values were. We made sure they were a great set of values, meaning that they applied to some very specific guidelines that we have discovered make a great set of values. They loved it all. And as soon as we left the meeting, a difficult situation arose, and leadership made a decision that did not align with their values. As soon as they did that all the work that was done was thrown out the window, because leadership said, we're going to make the easy decision. We're going to make the comfortable decision. We're going to make the decision that protects short-term bottom line, we're not going to protect our values, therefore our values no more, no longer our values. And then there's another organization we worked with that we went through the same process and helped them really understand... They had a lot of values that they were living in the organization, but they'd never detailed them. And they never had codified them and put them in print. And so we helped them do all that and then we taught them how to step them out. And within 90 days, they were hiring people that based on our assessments were saying we came to work here because of the values, and so they were hot. They were finding a higher caliber individual. People were communicating better within the organization. The word on the street was that their employees were taking their values home to their families, who then their spouses were taking them to their place of business, which means this organization was impacting the community. And at the end of that period of time, they measured their performance, their results, by activity. And the CEO of this organization said that their activity was 300% above what it was the year before. And he connected it directly to understanding what their values were and then living them robustly in the organization through their new dynamic culture.
GC: And that's exactly the point I want to close on here. Because you said before, that accountability and honoring those commitments is more important than profits. But when you do it, it often leads to bigger profits.
SS: Accountability pays. Accountability will always show up on the bottom line. The challenge is so many leaders think they have to maximize the bottom line this week, this month, this quarter. And if you really, really, really want to create a long-term sustainable, high-performance organization, the only way to do that is through a culture that prioritizes and inspires accountability. GC: Fantastic stuff, Sam. Really appreciate your expertise on this. I think it'll be a big help to folks leading businesses at all different sizes and levels. Thank you very much for your time today. SS: It's my pleasure and anyone can get more information and a lot of it at samsilverstein.com or beaccountable.com.
GC: Fantastic. Sam Silverstein, former business owner and executive, now accomplished author of seven books also a speaker, highly in demand on the issue of accountability. And as he just said, you can find him at samsilverstein.com. I'm Greg Corombos. This is Expert Insights.
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