A Call to Action
Trust involves a dynamic give-and-take that is most evident at eye level: between a company and its customers, and within the company itself. It's at this level that we can understand trust as an actionable concept, one that is within our power. Eye-level trust is an asset that requires constant attention and vigilance—it requires that agreements be defined and kept, and accountability be understood and embraced. Because it demands this kind of participation from all those involved, eye-level trust truly enriches and solidifies relationships. And it's this kind of trust that the Accountable Organization seeks to achieve.
BUILDING THE ACCOUNTABLE ORGANIZATION
Chapter Two: Accountability—Taking Responsibility for Choices
In the summer of 2002, we all watched as a succession of disgraced executives were led away in handcuffs, surrounded by FBI agents. For months, we heard about billions of investor dollars gone, thousands of jobs lost, and numerous individual retirements indefinitely postponed. Now the alleged bad guys were finally being called on the carpet, and the television cameras were there to capture it all.
Accountability As Guilt
If a picture is worth a thousand words, these images were orchestrated to emphasize only one: accountability. That is, accountability as guilt. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was quoted as saying, "I think the people who have abused our trust, we ought to hang them from the very highest branches."
It's no wonder that in the language of politics, accountability has the subtext of guilt. After all, these dramas are played out on the national stage, the numbers are staggering, and the alleged crimes of these wealthy individuals have made "victims" of the rest of us. It's not just that these people could afford to buy $15,000 umbrella stands for their Manhattan palaces or build $15 million mansions in Boca Raton. It's the American Dream to have the means to engage in such frivolity, if one so desires—but not by bilking hardworking investors and employees. "With each arrest, indictment and prosecution, we send this clear, unmistakable message: corrupt corporate executives are no better than common thieves when they betray their employees and steal from their investors," said Attorney General John Ashcroft at a press conference announcing the indictments of former WorldCom higher-ups. "Corporate executives who cheat investors, steal savings, and squander pensions will meet the judgment they fear and the punishment they deserve."
Accountability as guilt may serve a purpose on the public stage. But what happens when we talk about accountability at eye level, in our own lives as individuals and in the roles we play at work? In speaking with several different executives, I found a range of perceptions on what it means to be "accountable":
"I see accountability as simply being for any action that you take, there is someone who is holding you responsible for that action, or some series of people."
"The foundation of accountability consists of measurable outcomes or expectations that you want to see happen, either in pure results or in approach and so on. Secondly, accountability is not the end of something, it's a part of everything you do … it's an ongoing process."
"True accountability means taking responsibility. And I underline the word taking because I use it in the sense of accountability being actionable."
"You're willing to stand up and declare your willingness to be in support of something—or you're willing to be the champion for something and take it forward. You can invite [accountability], but I don't think you can impose it on somebody …and if you believe you can, then I think you're setting up a situation for failure."
While some of these responses focus on accountability as fulfilling the expectations of others, none of them describes it as designating who's at fault. And I believe that's important if we want to make eye-level accountability an integral—and welcomed—part of our everyday reality. Instead of focusing solely on assigning blame and punishment, there is a more constructive, healthier way to understand accountability—one that is crucial for building an Accountable Organization.
"Treasury Secretary Criticizes Misconduct," Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2002.
Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft at WorldCom press conference, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, August 1, 2002.
Quotes are from Bob Bingham, Raymond Spencer, Santo J. Costa, and Dave Wolfenden, respectively.