Accountability – The Basis of High Performance

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Accountability is so important to a high performance environment. “It’s not my job” is the death of velocity and growth. It is impossible to have a procedure that covers every possible instance. We need front line employees to make decisions on the fly concerning situations that haven’t been seen before. That is today’s environment. Do your employees and coworkers feel accountable for all of their actions?

Who is responsible for accountability? Both managers and individual employees are responsible for this concept we call accountability.


The role of management is to make sure the environment is conducive to creating and sustaining accountability for all of the workers. What do you do that says, “I am not accountable,” and, “I am just a worker?”

Under the guise of efficiency, we create rules and procedures. We become more efficient, but are we effective? Today, organizations must find the balance between efficiency – the firm’s ability to achieve goals with a minimum of resources, and effectiveness – the firm’s ability to adapt its goals and innovate to meet the changing needs of the marketplace.

To be more effective, we may need to accept some redundancy in our organizational structure, as successful large organizations such as 3M have done, creating stand-alone entrepreneurial units who have a more focused mission.

No single new model of management has yet replaced the hierarchical, direct-and-control approach, but there are some widely recognized principles that should guide us:

  • Focus on what is valued by the customer.
  • Break down the walls that impede responsiveness and change.
  • Build strong partnerships with suppliers and customers (internal and external).
  • Reduce low value-added activities
  • Increase speed in all aspects of work
  • Continually seek improvement

It’s necessary to teach a new way. “It takes people 18 months to ‘get’ how we work here,” says Life USA president, Maggie Hughes. “We have to teach the concept of ownership. We tell people, ‘This is your company.’ That’s a new idea to most people. School teaches you to obey authority. We teach people to think for themselves.”

One way to teach people to think for themselves is to provide more meaningful information. “We’ve got people with high-school degrees who can understand complex financial structures,” Hughes is proud to say. “In order to be held accountable, people need to be conversational with the company’s financials.”

Ron Phillips, Vice President of Technology Services at Entergy, says, “Our business is rapidly changing. Our CEO wants the people in the field and in the business units to be making their own decisions, to have more intelligent autonomy. Doing that requires giving those people a lot more information and a lot freer rein to make decisions.”


Management can only do so much regarding the environment and minimizing barriers to accountability. The rest is up to each individual.

Sports psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr’s work on motivation can be applied to business. For the greatest end result, he suggests that peak performers be internally rather than externally motivated. The driving forces of internal motivation are excellence, quality, and personal satisfaction, with a focus on the present. In contrast, when we are externally motivated, we are trying to prove something with our performance such as beating the competition or trying to avoid looking bad, with a focus on the past or future. In comparison, the internal motivators have a more enduring quality.

There are two ways to ensure a successful future in this high-speed environment. You can spend a great deal of your time covering your tracks politically or you can create value everywhere you go.

Nathan Mhyrvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft, says that a great employee is worth 1,000 times more than an average one. Why? Because of the quality of her ideas.

If you want the future to be better than the present, you have to take accountability and start working on it immediately. Remember: What you should want is better than adequate. Your job is to do something today that’s better than what you did yesterday. And to do something tomorrow that’s better than what you did today.

This level of accountability creates value, which translates into innovation and growth.

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On June 9, 2008
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