A senior executive from a large firm was complaining to me about the lack of accountability in his organization. He related a story about the number of projects that were not completed on time and a few not only would be late but over budget. His question—“John, how do I teach my managers to be more accountable?”
My short answer—spill a glass of milk!
As a youngster I had an incident sitting at the breakfast table I would never forget.
Growing up in Brooklyn, NY going to Prospect Park was a big deal. It was a bigger deal to have a softball field reserved. My boyhood friends from the neighborhood, “the block,” and I were heading to Prospect Park to play a game of softball against another group of boys from a rival community. The game was the event of the summer. There were going to be lots of folks from the two neighborhoods, music and barbeque after the game.
The team was traveling to the park together. We were going for all the “cool” points we could muster. All of us in our new Softball Team Tee-Shirts and arriving at the same time was going to be quite the picture of intimidation, as much as a bunch of 12 and 13-year-olds could muster.
I was running late. My buddies were growing impatient, and I had to hurry. In my hast to gobble down my breakfast and get going, I ignored every warning from my Mother and Grandmother to slow down—“Johnny, slow down, eat your breakfast and don’t make a mess!”
As you can well imagine, I made a mess—one to remember. I knocked over a large glass of milk. Milk jetted across the table in what seemed like a 180degree arch. I am sure I saw the glass and dairy flying in slow motion. In my effort to catch the glass, I leaned forward into my breakfast. My new, never been worn, very cool softball team shirt was covered in egg yoke and bacon grease. Broken glass and milk were everywhere.
What happened next was one of the greatest leadership lessons I would ever have. My parents did not get angry. There was no “I told you…” I watched my mom calmly walk to the front door and tell my buddies, that they needed to head to the park…”Johnny has some work to do before he can join you.”
My Grandmother asked me with a smile on her face—“what do you do when you spill a glass of milk?” I admit I was not in the mood for trick questions. All of my cool points had just departed for Prospect Park. The question came again, what do you do when you spill a glass of milk?
With one of the most amazingly beautiful smiles and calm demeanor, she handed me a cloth and said—“you clean it up.”
It took some time to clean up my mess. I had to clean the table, help prepare breakfast for those that ended up with milk in their plates, as well as salvage my brand new, never been worn Softball Team Tee-shirt.
Now that I had recovered from my morning catastrophe, I tried to get a ride to the softball game I knew that taking the bus at this point would make me late for the game. I did not get the ride. By the time I arrived at the park, the game had two innings remaining. I was lucky to get on the field. My day was ruined.
When I arrived home my Grandmother, whom I believed and still do was the wisest woman in the world, asked a series of questions—“What were you trying to accomplish this morning? What happened? What caused the milk to be spilled? And of course, she asked what was her trademark question—”What did you learn today?”
In short, you want to teach accountability? Hold your people accountable. I spilled the milk because I failed in my responsibility to give myself enough time to eat breakfast. I cut corners. I was sloppy. I was held accountable for the mess I made from beginning to end.
One cannot lament about subordinate leaders not being accountable. You have to look in the mirror and ask yourself—Why are you not holding them accountable? What are the natural consequences of not accomplishing the tasks they were responsible for completing on-time and on-budget?
The way to teach accountability is to hold your subordinate leaders accountable.
Another question comes to mind, are you holding yourself accountable for delivering on your responsibilities. It is tough to hold others accountable for their responsibilities if you are not accountable for your own. There can be no exceptions. Failure to hold one accountable you will not be able to hold anyone accountable without paying the price in personal credibility
You want to teach your subordinates accountability—spill a glass of milk.