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The Whiteboard: Revisiting accountability: Foster improvement by making connections

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A column I wrote recently about what it means to be a person who is accountable seems to have struck a nerve with a number of individuals and organizations. I've never had so much feedback, and never has it been so one-sided.

Clearly, lack of accountability is widespread. But it isn't hopeless; there are ways that accountability can be improved by helping people make a series of connections.

Many people out there, I believe, would show more accountability if they had the benefit of being properly indoctrinated and shown how to connect their actions and behaviors to the big picture and their own interest. The further down the organization people are, the less likely it is that they can make those connections without some help.

If you wonder why the people at lower levels of a business don't get the company's long-range goals and strategy, ask members of the leadership team to explain them. You can hardly expect the troops on the shop floor or in the back office to rally around goals and strategies that are nonexistent, unintelligible or lurking in a dusty binder.

Unfortunately, that is the way it is in many businesses. Long-range goals and strategies have not been well-defined, and even the leaders aren't clear on much more than the day-to-day challenges they face. Business leaders should be able to clearly explain goals and strategies in a 60-second elevator speech that anyone can understand. Most cannot.

The core goal of most businesses is profitable growth. It is a goal that can connect directly to the well-being of employees, but without explanation it can appear to be something that is great for the owners without meaning too much to everyone else.

The value of profitable growth to individual co-workers is easily explained. Its value isn't simply feathering the owners' nests. Growth is, in part, what pays for increasing salaries and the escalating cost of benefits. It helps to fend off competitors who are also trying to grow. It provides opportunities for advancement.

Profitable growth is a source of security and well-being for capable, accountable co-workers and their families. That is a fact, and it is a connection that should be communicated and explained regularly. But what can the person in the back office or on the shop floor do about profitable growth?

That is another connection management must make: the connection to the customer. Profitable growth comes from existing, satisfied customers who buy more and from new customers who try the products or services and are happy enough with the experience to come back again. It comes from providing customers with a better value and better experience than the bad guys, who are trying to grow their businesses.

The things that keep customers satisfied today are pretty universal. Customers expect businesses to be responsive and flexible, to fit the unexpected rush order into an already tight schedule. They expect speed, and they expect that products or services will be delivered on or before the date promised. They expect the job to be done right the first time and, when it isn't, they expect a fast response to complaints.

It should not be difficult to get employees to relate to those customer expectations. The fact is, we all have those expectations and we all have the experience of being disappointed. Everyone has been frustrated by lack of response and inflexibility in their private dealings with businesses. Everyone has been inconvenienced by broken promises. Everyone has complained to no avail.

The final connection is the connection to the actions of each employee. To keep customers happy, every individual must be striving to do things right the first time and to get things done when they are scheduled within the time allotted. Every individual must be willing to step up the pace when needed to fill the rush order or to help out the other employee or department or shift that has stumbled a bit.

This is a full circle of connections. Individual opportunity, job security and rising pay and benefits are sustained by profitable growth. Profitable growth is sustained by customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction is sustained by the actions of individual coworkers, teams, departments and shifts who make these connections and who will benefit from taking care of the customers.

You have a much better chance of getting people to focus on customers, being accountable for their own good and the good of their families and co-workers, than you do trying to make them accountable for what they perceive as making the boss look good or for increasing the owners' wealth.

If you can make these connections regularly in company and department meetings, reviews of customer satisfaction metrics, newsletter stories and one-on-one discussions, you will give people a new focus for accountability.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at

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