Accountability Sans Jerkiness

Sometimes I just have to scratch my head and wonder. I interviewed an Arkansas business owner last week for an open seat in one of my CEO peer advisory groups. These interviews are normally interesting and inspiring, but this one really set me back. When I asked him about his leadership style, he said, very clearly, “I am the Asshole in Chief at my company. I find that being a jerk gets their attention.”

This is not a small mom-and-pop business, but an enterprise turning tens of millions of dollars. I did not get to interview the other leaders or the staff — I was there to assess the CEO — so I cannot say if his style creates a sustainable business or if his turnover is through the roof. (His own guess was an expensive 30 percent.) This was a great example of an asset overused becoming a liability.

It is certainly true that with current leadership attention being paid to resonance, emotional intelligence and other soft skills, the idea of rigor, discipline and accountability gets short attention in the business press. But the two actually go hand in hand.

An “AIC” may get employees’ hands, especially in a small town or tight labor market where work is hard to come by. But it will not get their hearts and minds. For that, you need a culture of accountability. My experience still shows me as I visit companies that culture eats strategy for breakfast every day. And a culture that insists that members be accountable is far more sustainable than fear of the AIC.

One of my colleagues, Greg Bustin, has recently published a very well-written book to prove the point, aptly titled “Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture” (McGraw Hill Education, 2014). Bustin focuses on moving away from the carrot-and-stick approach to managing accountability in favor of building a culture of accountability.

The research base and stories he can share are fascinating, but what got my attention about this book is that while Greg would not think much of an AIC approach, he also does not let the senior leadership of a company off the hook for tolerating poor performance or follow-through. One sentence in the introduction makes that very clear: “As leaders, we get the behavior we tolerate.”

As you can see, Greg has a pretty hard-nosed view. But the book goes on to paint a picture that is both inspiring and clear — the power of culture to either drive or kill accountability and thereby efficiency and profits. Other authors have talked about culture in similar terms. Dave Logan’s “Tribal Leadership” is a paean to the possibility of creating a culture that will operate to sustain itself, even when the AIC is not there practicing his jerkiness.

A CEO can delegate just about everything except culture. And every company will have a culture, whether it just happens or is implemented purposefully and continually by leadership in every decision and hire. Therein lies what sets Bustin’s book apart from much of what is published about accountability. He eschews long examination of the blocking and tackling that goes with fulfilling commitments and tracking results. Instead, he focuses on what it takes to build the culture that will reinforce accountable performance as “the way things get done around here.”

Bustin will take you to places that might not be comfortable. If you have a hard time with direct conversation, you will need to practice some to adapt his models. If you see yourself as Asshole in Chief, you will have to ask yourself some very challenging questions about why — and what the impact is. Either way, I find the book a solid resource for understanding not just accountability, but culture-building.

It is an odd reality that something that can feel as squishy as culture, especially for those who came of age in business with hierarchical command-and-control organizational models, can be the primary vehicle to stellar execution.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, March 10, 2014.