Being Accountable to Culture

By Jake Friedman, Consultant

When I was 22, I decided that I wanted to run a marathon. My Dad, an experienced distance runner and an excellent coach, offered to help me train. He was up in New Jersey and I lived down in North Carolina at the time, so although he couldn’t physically run with me, he created a training plan to take me safely from running a few inconsistent miles a week to be ready to run 26.2 all at once.

At the end of the first week, I proudly reported to my Dad how well my runs went. Two weeks later, not having heard from me again, he checked in. I had to admit it wasn’t going so well. The plan was a good one, but I wasn’t following it. On days when I wasn’t feeling great I didn’t push myself to complete the specified workout, and some days I didn’t even run at all.

What I needed, my Dad immediately saw, was some measure of accountability. He suggested I send him a quick text each day after my workout and then we’d talk on the phone every weekend to make sure I stayed on track. Our system worked, and in October of that year I not only finished the Marine Corps Marathon, but also ran faster than my goal.

The lesson that I learned from that experience is a simple one.  It a lesson learned from experience doesn’t matter how well-crafted our plans are, it doesn’t matter how well designed our initiatives are, simply having a good idea isn’t good enough. Excitement wears off and people get busy, bored, fatigued, or find some other reason not to follow the plan. This was true for me with running, you see it all the time with diets or exercise programs, and I know you’ve experienced it in your business.

The same is also true with your plan to build a high performing culture. Absent some measure of accountability (step 8 in the Fundamentals System 8-step-framework), we just aren’t going to get very far.

So what are some ways you can create accountability and drive your culture throughout your organization? Let’s explore.

Use surveys to create transparency

Many companies already use surveys in some fashion, typically to measure performance or customer satisfaction. Why not use a survey specifically about your culture? We recommend getting data from three constituencies: your own employees, your customers, and your vendors/suppliers. Now you’re being very transparent, both internally and externally, about how well you’re living up to your defined culture.

At HPC, we conduct such a survey on an annual basis. Aligned directly to our Fundamentals (our term for the behaviors that define our culture, because they are “fundamental” to our success), each behavior we practice is represented by a single sentence that captures the main idea. A respondent then grades how consistently we practice what we preach by selecting one of the following options: “Almost Always”, “Usually”, “Sometimes”, “Seldom”, and “Never”. We can then convert this to a number using a 5,4,3,2,1 scale, allowing us to calculate an average for each behavior or even a total culture “score”. It also gives us the ability to track the data over time and identify issues or discrepancies between what we say we’re doing and what others experience.

Incorporate culture in performance reviews

In our talks and workshops, we’ll often ask the CEOs and business leaders present how many of them include culture as an element in their employees’ performance reviews. Very few raise their hands. It’s an interesting observation, because as an employee you’d expect your review, be it quarterly, annually, whatever, to cover the truly important aspects of your performance. If culture is missing from that discussion, what would you expect them to think? Well, obviously culture isn’t that important!

If you find it impractical to go over your entire list of Fundamentals during a review, consider focusing on 4 or 5 that you’ve deemed as “must haves” for the position of the employee you’re talking to.

To be clear, I’m not saying that you should only talk culture in a performance review. Of course not. And I’m not even specifying what percentage of the review is centered on culture. I’m just saying that if your culture is truly a priority in your organization, then it absolutely needs to be addressed during performance reviews.

The most significant measure of accountability

In his book Culture by Design, our CEO David Friedman observes, “Virtually every company has at least one person who they’ve been struggling with seemingly forever.” This person is a destructive force, bringing down morale and ruining attempts to build a high performing culture, and yet they’re still around. Almost always because they have something that as CEOs or owners, we’re afraid we won’t be able to replace. Often, it’s a salesperson who brings in a lot of business, someone with a rare technical skill, or a long-tenured employee with deep institutional knowledge. And so, in effect, we’re held hostage by this person.

But we don’t have to be. And actually, if we’re ever going to create the culture we want, the company we want, we can’t be. Because the message we’re sending to everybody else in our organization is that our culture is important…unless. Unless you bring in enough business, unless you have some sort of special skill, etc. And that inconsistency in our message will lead to inconsistent results. In fact, the single most significant measure of accountability we can use to drive the culture we want to have is to get rid of employees whose behavior isn’t in line with our Fundamentals.

Make no mistake, every employee deserves to be coached up when they fall short of the standards set by the Fundamentals. It’s your job as a leader to be a teacher. But when someone has been given multiple opportunities, when they’ve been taught and coached, all to no avail, they have to be let go.

I realize that it’s easy for me to say, but harder to do. And yet when you have the courage to make that move, it’s our experience from talking with hundreds of leaders across the organizations we’ve worked with, that the result is a positive one. You’ll hear people say things like “Finally!” and “It’s about time!” and you’ll wonder why you didn’t make the decision sooner.

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