Sunday 16 June 2013

Run to the fire; don’t hide from it

While reading an article on Meg Whitman (Hewlett Packard CEO) published in Forbes magazine I saw a reference to a management mantra attributed to Meg – “Run to the fire, don’t hide from it.” Meg gave more insight into this to Business Insider where she outlined HP’s future plans and pointed out that she was trying to bring a “a sense of accountability back to the business and empower our employees. When it comes to fixing what’s not working and focusing on what is, I don’t want excuses. I want action.”

These eight simple words strung together read like a ‘call to arms’ (a summons, invitation, or appeal to undertake a particular course of action) but actually hide a lesson in corporate citizenship and leadership. The more I thought about it I realised that Meg’s message had universal appeal (beyond only HP employees!) and worthy of understanding better.

Accountability and being accountable are words that are used very commonly in the corporate world but whose true meaning is not understood by many. Being
accountable means to take on the responsibility for one’s actions (within the scope of the role or employment position) BUT more importantly also implies the need to explain and be answerable for the outcome.

Usually when people use the term accountable at work they are actually using it in the context of being responsible i.e. 'I am working on x and will complete it by y date' or something similar. However, these eight words point to a need for dynamism i.e. moving from being responsible to being accountable. Of the various attempts at differentiating between these two words I offer Scott Elbin’s simple definition for the sake of clarity –
If you're accountable, you answer for it. If you're responsible, you do it. Hope you get the distinction and appreciate the same.

I have on occasion felt that most employees in organisations will do the bare minimum to complete a task at hand. The only time I hear a distinction between being responsible and being accountable in the corporate world is when it is positioned as ‘the subordinate is responsible and the manager is accountable’. This implies that if the subordinate does not complete his or her responsibility appropriately then the manager will be held accountable. Technically, this also justifies the salary differential between a subordinate and the manager. More reward for more risk…right? In reality, my own assessment is that this traditional set-up has meant that managers spend a substantial amount of time focusing on preserving their jobs rather than focusing on doing what is right or delegating accountability to their subordinates.

Even if a manager were to attempt to drive accountability to their subordinates this is not easy until the subordinate understands that accountability must be taken or owned by them. You can make people responsible but they may still not understand that they are accountable. Accountability is not something that is owned due to one’s position in the organisational hierarchy! It has to be embraced by all. I am in complete agreement with Connors, Smith & Hickman who captured this accurately – “Accountability is something you do to yourself, not something that someone does to you. In short, you can be given responsibility, but you have to take accountability. One may be bestowed and assumed, but the other must be personally acquired and then actively applied.”

Evidence of the distinction between accountability or responsibility usually occurs when something goes wrong and then you hear people arguing about ‘whose job is it’ or that ‘it is not in my domain’ or that ‘it was for someone else to complete but they did not do it’ etc. In such situations, everyone seems to be responsible but no one appears accountable? Ownership is missing and the blame game beings! [You might want to review my earlier blog on curbing the blame game at work].

This is a common theme when one sees silos within organisations and how each silo has its own set of performance management metrics that when juxtaposed to the performance metrics of another silo reveals that overall accountability is weakened. The same is true for individuals working within the silo itself. [You might want to review my earlier blog on eight principles to create reliability at work -- Principle 7 : Be accountable but be willing to share responsibility with others].There is another facet that I detected in these eight words from Meg. It asks employees (corporate citizens) to actively seek out the hard or difficult tasks (or issues) and work on them. If you see something wrong then stand up and fix it. Call issues out; get the spot-light on the issues and get them solved! Imagine an entire organisation actively seeking out challenges and tackling them with a sense of accountability (and ownership). Talk about competitive advantage!

As a child my parents used to never tolerate my aversion to specific foods (for e.g. ‘eat your vegetables’). My mother gave me one piece of advice when faced with having to eat something I did not like – “Finish off what you don’t like first and then move on to relish what you really like.” From this I came up with a simple principle that I apply daily -- Given a choice between doing something you are comfortable with vs. something that you are uncomfortable (or not keen on doing) then attack the difficult task first. Get that out of the way and you will find that your day will become better and your night more satisfying as you will go to bed knowing that you balanced your tasks and challenged yourself in the process.

So next time you see the ball being dropped (I call it the ‘accountability fumble’) or a task that you feel like shirking or avoiding then remember these eight words and the important corporate citizenship and leadership lesson hidden within.

Good luck!          


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  1. Bhootra Ji, each word and each sentence of the above blog is possibly the keen observation you have had at work....very practical and very true. I urge you to come out with the remedies to these so called corporate juggernauts as well based on your vast experience.



  2. I'm skeptical. It is all very nice to have a one-way-accountability model, but what happens if the "subordinate" does carry out what needs to be done, and the "manager" believes the goal to be different, or has inaccurate data about what needs to be done or who needs to do it. For example if the "subordinate" has vastly more experience doing the job than the "manager" does. Inside HP this is often the case, since "fast-track" managers only do those jobs for up to a couple of years, and line employees often do those jobs for a decade or more.
    In theory the "reward" for doing a job right, is to get promoted, wherein a technology expert has a "reward" in the form of becoming a people-manager which may not be his expertise nor even his goal. The notion that "doing it right makes you a manager" is based on a fundamental fallacy of composition: that to "advance" is always to either manage projects or people, not to do a technical role. Who, then, maintains the institutional wisdom about the technology, when the latter is the essential value of most of what we offer to a customer in the first place?

    1. Interesting point..yes I have seen this in action. If we have a situation where there a manager is identified as fast-track then it is even more important to make sure that we have accountability through the ranks. Frankly, I believe that fast track managers are successful not only by their own but due to luck (right place right time); benevelonce on the part of a higher power and strong team or experience below them (that survived and executed inspite of the fast-track manager?) etc. This is a complicated subject for sure.