Achieving eye-level accountability is an ongoing process, one that includes struggles, setbacks, and the occasional fall off the wagon. From its inception, FWI was supposed to embody my vision of an Accountable Organization. But being a human endeavor, it sometimes misses the mark—and there are no quick and easy remedies.
More important, placing eye-level accountability in the context of blame leads to injured relationships and, ultimately, loss of trust. Perhaps we have been conditioned by our litigious society to associate accountability with liability, to believe that the risk of unpleasantness and cost outweighs the potential for understanding and reward. Because of this perception, oftentimes we view accountability as a burden—and what's worse, a burden that is thrust upon us without our permission.
Think for a moment about the things in life for which you're on the hook, the things you absolutely have to do. If you were to write those things down, what would be on your list? Eating, sleeping, taking care of children (and/or parents and/or pets), working, paying taxes, exercising, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, mowing the grass?
Now consider those things that you choose to do. For a lot of the things we do, the difference between "have to" and "choose to" is a matter of obligation versus recreation. We often associate our "choose-tos" with free time—they're how we recharge our batteries: hiking, swimming, reading, listening to music, playing golf, and so on. Predictably, some things show up on both lists: children, while they represent an awesome, never-ending responsibility, are also likely number one on parents’ choose-to lists.
If you were to compare your lists, which one would be longer? If it's the "have-to" list, you're not alone—after all, it's the American way. We're a nation of doers; we wear busyness as a badge of honor. Over time, however, that busyness can feed upon itself, until finally we feel as if we're on the hook for everything. But the truth is—and as trite as it may sound—we always have a choice, even when it comes to those things in our lives that seem inconceivable not to do. Of course, our choices come with sometimes painful consequences, but the bottom line is that we are the ones who ultimately make the decision.
In short, accountability means owning and accepting responsibility for the choices we make in life. We often disavow this ownership position, and instead relegate large portions of our lives to the have-to column. We have to do such-and-such. There's no choice in the matter. And thus we willingly give over the controls to some perceived larger force, not realizing the price we ultimately pay—or realizing only too late, after we find ourselves in crisis.
The price we pay for denying accountability is loss of power and trust. When we give up ownership, we become frustrated, resentful, angry. We find refuge in cynicism and indulge in blame—not exactly the best position for being completely answerable for agreements, be they implied or explicit. After all, if the buck doesn't stop with us when it comes to the choices we make for ourselves, how can we truly be accountable when it comes to our relationships with others?
John Kadlic is vice president, client services, for Blue Diesel—an Ohio-based interactive agency. He knows where the buck stops. He manages a team of account executives and is ultimately responsible for the company's book of business. John expects nothing less than full accountability from his team, which he describes as follows:
Are you the one who's responsible for doing what you say? Do you deliver on what you commit to people what you will do, whether they're external or internal? And when you fall down, do you own up to that? And when you're successful, do you take that praise professionally and acknowledge the others that contributed to your success?
My thanks to Michael Saul, Michelle Saul, and James Newton for this example.
John Kadlic, vice president, client services, of Blue Diesel; interview by author, March 6, 2003.