In the wake of the Enron scandal a dozen years ago, I saw a cartoon by Wiley Miller that nicely summed up the situation. The one-panel drawing showed an angry-looking man bursting through a door labeled “Accountability Department”—and finding no one there, because the office’s sole occupant was hiding under his desk.
In the post-Enron era, it sometime seems like accountability doesn’t mean much anymore, especially when we see high-level executives duck responsibility for their mistakes or laziness with a wave of their C-Suite Golden Tickets. But these represent exceptions to the rule, not standard procedure. Accountability does still matter.
If you’ve made it to a leadership role, then you didn’t get there by accident. Your superiors elevated you to the position because you demonstrated notable competence at your workplace duties. You can’t be truly competent without having a highly developed sense of accountability; and as one of your company’s leaders, you act as a cornerstone upon which the entire organization rests. This means you have to set an operational efficiency example for your team to follow.
Factors defining an effective level of operational efficiency include (but are not limited to):
- Quick, effective decision-making.
- Self-honesty about your performance.
- Accepting both credit and blame for outcomes.
- Streamlining your team’s work processes.
- Cracking the whip on yourself and your team.
- Eliminating time-wasters.
The higher you climb, the more these things matter. This can be an overwhelming responsibility, the maintenance of which requires a rigid and consistent level of self-discipline. You may have finally arrived, but this is no time to relax!
Some of the more spectacular corporate implosions of recent years have stemmed from the breakdown of operational efficiency, especially at the C-Suite level. With a relaxation of personal standards comes complacency and self-indulgence, all too often leading to a disregard for organizational welfare…one of the fast tracks to corporate ruin.
But a sharp refocus on efficiency can save even a dying company from this fate. For a shining example, we need look no further than Apple, Inc. After ousting co-founder Steve Jobs in a boardroom coup in 1986, Apple went into a death-spiral that ended only when Jobs returned in 1997 and restored its focus—not just on its products, but on profitable, accountable efficiency.
Efficiency is as Efficiency Does
In addition to keeping you on the straight and narrow, operational efficiency enables you to infuse accountability into the entire group you lead, creating an organizational structure founded foremost on personal responsibility. Because that’s what it comes down to: everyone, at all levels, accepting responsibility for getting their work done efficiently and effectively. Pointing fingers helps no one. Only results matter.
Efficiency means tightening up everything: clearing out the deadwood, cutting costs, streamlining paperwork, bypassing or eliminating clogs in the workflow process, and tuning systems until they operate as flawlessly as possible. It may require imposition from the top down…and if you really want it to work, you’ll have to be ruthless.
Don’t institute change for change’s sake, but don’t hesitate to get the ball rolling when something can and should be done. Create a culture of efficiency, in which your sharpest employees willingly assess systems, processes, and individual tasks, and then take the initiative to be accountable for them. If you can do that, your less accountable employees will either take up the gauntlet of efficiency…or find themselves squeezed out by the employees who do.
Guaranteeing a Productive Outcome
When you inoculate everyone in your organizational downline with a high level of efficiency, you can sharpen your focus on the most important aspects of your business, which can’t help but spark innovation, drive growth, and increase market share. Productivity will soar, and your organization will make a bundle—because you’re doing things that most of your competitors don’t.
It all starts with you and your personal commitment to accountability in all its forms, which cannot waver. If you expect to raise the flag of efficiency over your organization, and to reap all the benefits that result, then you have to lead from the front.