When I started my company in 1994, I wasn't driven by the allure of potential riches. After graduate school and several years as a junior executive in corporate America, I wanted to take the best of what I'd learned and create a company of my own. My idealism knew no bounds: I would lead with brilliance and compassion; customers would bang down our doors; and my employees would feel that their time at FWI was an experience—not just a job.
Of course, as you have observed from the many examples in this book, FWI isn't quite the Edenic organization that I had envisioned. We prospered, but we also encountered the challenges that every company faces—and found ourselves struggling for answers. Then, as I became consumed in my own pursuit of making FWI a financial success, I lost sight of why I started the company in the first place. My relationships and health were suffering because of it.
I stopped and took stock. There had to be a way that I could be successful in all the things that were important to me, not just my business. As I searched, a single word continued to surface, one that would later become the foundation of the principles outlined in this book. It appeared again and again, in the writings of Emerson and Jefferson, in spiritual works, in books on successful leadership.
That weighty word is integrity. And studying what it means made me realize that somewhere along the way, the principles I believed in had become disconnected from the choices I made. When I reconnected them, my life began to turn around. I could become truly accountable in my relationships with others, and because of that, I was rewarded with trust.
I realized that my company needed the same kind of reconnection. When I began to reassess how and why FWI operated, I must admit I was shocked at the parallels with my personal life. The very same principles of integrity, accountability, and trust played crucial roles in my experience as an entrepreneur—and, looking farther back, in my experience as a citizen of corporate America.
As I noted in the introduction, creating an Accountable Organization is an ongoing process. But as we've seen from companies such as Southwest Airlines, it's a process worth undertaking—not only because pursuing an ethics-driven organization is the right thing to do, but because it's good business. Accountable Organizations thrive because they have a unique competitive advantage over less principled businesses. Consider this perspective from the late Marvin Bower, legendary McKinsey consultant, author, and strategist:
The business with high ethical standards has three primary advantages over competitors whose standards are lower:
A business of high principle generates greater drive and effectiveness because people know that they can do the right thing decisively and with confidence. When there is any doubt about what action to take, they can rely on the guidance of ethical principles. Inner administrative drive emanates largely from the fact that everyone feels confident that he can safely do the right thing immediately. And they also know that any action that is even slightly unprincipled will be generally condemned.
A business of high principle attracts high-caliber people more easily, thereby gaining a basic competitive and profit edge. A high-caliber person favors the business of principle and avoids the employer whose practices are questionable. For this reason, companies that do not adhere to high ethical standards must actually maintain a higher level of compensation to attract and hold people of ability.
A business of high principle develops better and more profitable relations with customers, competitors, and the general public because it can be counted on to do the right thing at all times. By the consistently ethical character of its actions, it builds a favorable image. In choosing among suppliers, customers resolve their doubts in favor of such a company. Competitors are less likely to comment unfavorably on it. And the general public is more likely to be open-minded toward its actions.
Too often, these values tend to be taken for granted. My point in mentioning them is to urge executives to actively seek ways of making high principle a more explicit element in their company philosophy. No one likes to declaim about his honesty and trustworthiness, but the leaders of a company can profitably articulate, within the organization, their determination that everyone shall adhere to high standards of ethics. That is the best foundation for a profit-making company philosophy and a profitable system of management.
By the way, this passage was written in 1966—long before the era of "infectious greed." Bower's words show that while integrity, accountability, and trust are media hot buttons today, these concepts have always been—and will continue to be—central to professional and personal success.
At the core of Accountable Organizations is integrity—ensuring that stakeholders stand by their values, remain true to their purpose, and seek to make decisions based on what's right. There is a pervasive sense of ownership, supported by systems for accountability and leaders who understand their greater responsibility to the organization as a whole. And at the end of the day, this way of doing business earns and sustains trust.
The Accountable Organization is aspirational—it's a discipline that we practice every day. We'll continue to fall down and get back up in our pursuit of it. Most of the time we'll learn from our mistakes and change course; other times we'll repeat the same blunders again and again despite knowing better. Yet we'll continue down the learning path, knowing that with nearly every challenge we confront, we'll become stronger, wiser, and more effective in building trust among our colleagues and customers. Consider this insight from Peter Senge:
To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner. You "never arrive"; you spend your life mastering disciplines. You can never say, "we are a learning organization," any more than you can say, "I am an enlightened person." The more you learn, the more acutely aware you become of your own ignorance. Thus, a corporation cannot be "excellent" in the sense of having arrived at a permanent excellence; it is always in the state of practicing the disciplines of learning, of becoming better or worse.
I, for one, have learned just how difficult this learning process can be. But I've also found that the rewards are commensurate with the challenge. When you and others commit to embracing integrity, accountability, and trust, the collective result—the Accountable Organization—can transform the business environment and help ensure your company's growth and sustainability. The choice for creating that transformation lies with you.
Marvin Bower, The Will to Manage: Corporate Success Through Programmed Management (New York: McGraw-Hill/The Marvin Bower Trust, 1966), 113.
Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1990), 11.