How do formal accountability relationships benefit both the individual AND the company?
Three anniversaries recently struck me – this e-update marks the fifth January I've written on personal accountability, I began working with a Coach in January 2004, and the firm turned 20 years old on August 1, 2009. Perhaps the question you have is this – "Todd, did you only begin to practice personal accountability 6 years ago?" The answer is "no" – I've had aspects of this in place since the firm's inception, or otherwise the firm would not have survived and thrived as long as it has.
Obvious events and responsibilities requiring personal accountability include starting a company, hiring people, and selling. Were key elements of personal accountability not in place, the firm would never have existed, many wonderful people would not have been part of my life, clients would not have been served by us – and I would be doing something else.
So, what's been different during the past 6 years? I recognized the firm needed me to lead and manage it in a different way for it to continue to be vibrant and thriving – and thus I needed to develop certain strengths and behaviors to achieve this. I needed the structure and rigor of formal accountability relationships to develop these attributes, and the firm and I have benefited greatly from my commitment to these practices.
2009 – Reflecting on Lessons Learned Over 20 Years
One thing I have learned over 20 years is this – the only thing I can control is me. Much as I might wish otherwise, I cannot do anything to change the reality of a soft economy, an acquired client, or a change in technology. And time spent lamenting things I cannot control means I am not focused on what I can control – my responses to changes.
This mindset is wonderfully captured in the book, QBQ: The Question Behind the Question, Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life, by John G. Miller. A short, well-organized book, it describes a key technique in practicing personal accountability – asking appropriate questions. Key points are:
- Incorrect Questions, or IQs, are many people's only response to a situation. IQs are negative and defensive, seek to fix blame, fail to solve problems, and are ultimately unproductive. Examples of IQs (pages 20 and 33) are:
- "Why don't others work harder?"
- "Why is this happening to me?"
- "When will they take care of the problem?"
- "When will the customer call me back?"
- Questions Behind the Question, or QBQs, are the responses of persons who practice personal accountability. QBQs come from disciplined thinking to look behind the IQs and ask better questions, leading to better choices and better results. QBQs:
- Begin with "What" or "How."
- Contain an "I" – and never "they," "them," "we," or "you."
- Focus on action.
- QBQs work because they focus on the only person you can control – yourself. As the author asks, tongue-in-cheek, "Have you tried to 'fix' anybody lately?" (page 67). We all have tried to do just that, and we all have experienced the same outcome – nothing changed. Why is that? The author continues, "Managers don't change people. They can coach, counsel, teach, and guide, but no one changes another person. Change only comes from the inside, as a result of decisions made by the individual." (page 68).
- Examples of QBQs corresponding to the earlier IQs (pages 20 and 33) are:
- "How can I do my job better today?"
- "What can I do to improve the situation?"
- "What solution can I provide?"
- "How can I more creatively reach the customer?"
So the most important takeaway is this: Lesson 1 – I can only change me.
In early 2009, some aspects of my accountability relationships changed. My primary accountability partner was no longer providing the perspective and direction I needed. While I remain thankful for this person's guidance of several years, new eyes and ears were needed. Another accountability partner assumed the primary role and provided fresh insights, allowing me to better develop into the leader and manager needed by the firm. Lesson 2 – When you have plateaued with an accountability partner, it's time to change – no matter how uncomfortable this may be.
It's always interesting how one idea leads to another. And a wonderful case of that happened in the second quarter of 2009, when I came across the book-on-CD, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, by Sharon Begley, who has covered science for Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal. This 2006 book relates ideas shared at an October 2004 conference of neuroscientists, psychologists, and Buddhist monks hosted by the Dalai Lama at his home in India. "Neuroplasticity," the key finding discussed at the conference and covered in the book, is the ability of the brain to make large-scale changes in its circuitry and mental processing. Initially thought impossible except in cases of severe brain injury, scientists found neuroplasticity can actually occur through education, meditation, and other mental activities. As you train your mind, the brain actually changes – it responds to mental exercises by rewiring itself, even into our later years, thus yielding: Lesson 3 – Even long-standing, ingrained habits can truly be changed.
A key part of my changed thinking in 2009 has been moving from a "Past/Future" orientation to a "Now" orientation. Learning from the past and planning for the future are important – but they ultimately do not reflect things I can control. Focusing too much on past mistakes or over-analyzing future possibilities had kept me stuck. I recognized "now" is the only moment of influence I have, and what I choose to do "here and now" reflects lessons I have learned and the direction I have set for myself and the firm. Lesson 4 – Moving from a "Past/Future" mindset to a "Now" mindset increases your personal effectiveness.
I read another important book early in 2009, Formula 2+2: The Simple Solution for Successful Coaching. Authors Douglas B. Allen and Dwight W. Allen boil down many concepts around giving and receiving performance feedback, and incorporated them into a short and interesting "business fable." I began using the 2+2 concepts with select staff in June 2009, and then expanded it to the entire firm a few months later. The results have been remarkable – my staff now have some easy-to-apply tools to give feedback to each other and to me about things we are doing well and things we could change to be even more effective. And these techniques were adopted quickly and thoroughly because I first modeled them for my staff. This ties in with how my friend Rich Schlentz, founder of EXTRAordinary! Inc., describes things:
- Leaders talk about "shifting the culture."
- "Culture" is people.
- People follow leaders.
- So, if you want to shift the culture, the leader must change!
This "the leader must change" can entail changing the behaviors of the existing leader, or replacing the existing leader with a new one. In my case, I changed how I went about giving and receiving feedback, and my modeling instilled this change throughout the entire firm. Lesson 5 – A leader modeling new behaviors works!
2010 – Looking Ahead
In thinking about 2010, I see a lukewarm local and national economy, which will present challenges – and opportunities – for my firm. There are also the inevitable and uncontrollable changes in clients and technology, which present their own sets of challenges and opportunities. Nonetheless, I believe the principles and practices I have developed and honed for over 20 years will still be effective. So in 2010, I plan to have the same 3 focus areas – Strategic Initiatives, People, and Business Relationships – as I did in 2009. The difference? To move to a deeper level in these areas.
In 2009, I believe I dealt at the "head" level in these areas – executing them and finding what worked at a thinking level. In 2010, I plan to deal with these at a "heart" level – to focus on a more active and engaging relation in these areas. Along the way, I plan to ask the following questions more often:
- How can I add value to this relationship?
- How can I better communicate the value I do add, or could add, in this relationship?
How this might play out in the 3 areas:
- Strategic Initiatives – A major goal will be to better quantify the value of our services. I have written before about the inextricable linkage of Quality, Cost, and Cycle Time – or, Better, Cheaper, and Faster – and how if you achieve improvement in any one of these areas, the other two will always improve, too. What I need to do is lead the development of a framework to quantify results of our projects for our clients and prospects, making it easier to say "yes" to a project.
- People – Developing "Relationship Management" skills in our personnel will be a major focus. All of my personnel now have at least 5 years service with the firm, and 10,000 hours seems to be the point at which true mastery of an activity is achieved. (This is a central premise of the book Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell – see chapter two, "The 10,000-Hour Rule.") Everyone has mastered the fundamentals of their jobs, so now it's time to cement relations with our clients by focusing on softer "Relationship Management" skills. I have begun compiling selected readings and my own "lessons learned" to accelerate my staff's development in this area.
- Business Relationships – Looking at these with fresh eyes will be a deliberate activity. The downturn has disrupted things for all companies and industries, including those who have been good referral sources for many years. I will be thinking more about the challenges and opportunities the economy has brought these friends of the firm, and how we might help them respond appropriately. (A good starting point for thinking this way is the book, The Upside of the Downturn: Ten Management Strategies to Prevail in the Recession and Thrive in the Aftermath, by Geoff Colvin.) For example, there seem to be few system selection projects going on in our area, so how is this affecting the business of software resellers, and what opportunities might be available to work with them in a different way? This is an area I am already exploring.
How do I intend to make sure I make significant progress in all these areas over 2010? By once again committing to post the monthly assessment of my accountability partners in these areas on the "Todd's Results" web page.
Todd L. Herman