Embedding Accountability Into the Corporate DNA

Insigniam Quarterly

Don’t Blame—Learn

Not every move will have such a payoff. In fact, many will downright fail. That is why when an experiment inevitably goes sideways, Mr. Corona says he encourages leadership to focus on lessons, not lectures. “You have to redefine accountability to take the scariness out of the word—you’re not blaming anyone,” he says. “You’re only looking backward to learn. If you have an environment in which people are afraid to fail, they don’t take the appropriate risks, so you’re not out on the edge as much as you need to be.”

But a culture of guilt-free accountability does not maintain itself. It takes constant reinforcement. “And we’re not perfect in that regard,” Mr. Corona is quick to point out.

A big piece of the reinforcement strategy is the regular debrief sessions teams hold to capture and implement lessons learned. Asking employees to talk about failure not only makes the concept more acceptable, it also helps prevent future problems—something Mr. Corona has seen play out time and again, even at the very top of the organization.

He remembers when Hurricane Floyd ripped through North Carolina, USA in 1999, destroying several of Kelly Services’ offices. The company responded swiftly to the disaster, which had drastically disrupted its business. It focused on mission-critical business tasks, such as temporary employee payroll, securing IT systems and monitoring electricity in the local offices.

Through a series of informal conversations with employees about the company’s response to the disaster, Kelly’s executive team soon realized they had made a big mistake.

“What we missed was that the company forgot to take care of its team of full-time employees. These are employees whose homes and livelihood were severely impacted, and we were asking them to focus on the business at a time when they should have been taking care of themselves and their families,” Mr. Corona says.

Kelly Services took immediate responsibility for its shortsightedness and began working to prevent the possibility of a repeat by creating its Emergency Management Center (EMC) at corporate headquarters. “The EMC is designed to relieve the local team of business responsibilities at times of natural disasters, so they can focus on their personal needs and well-being,” Mr. Corona says.

The EMC was put to the test in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast. Local teams turned over many day-to-day business operations to the EMC, which successfully managed them for nearly three months. But as technology has evolved, so too has the EMC. Today, trained employees working around the globe are able to manage business matters in the disaster area, relieving the responsibility from the local employees, who are then free to deal with personal and family matters.

It is a model that other companies Kelly Services works with even seek to emulate.

“Now we have customers asking us, ‘How do you handle those emergencies? You seem to handle them so well. Can we learn from you?’” Mr. Corona says. “And that came from one failure.”

Responsibility and Reward

The creation of the EMC was an exercise in course correction. Such corrections can, and should, flow out of performance reviews and reward systems—which must be aligned to strategy, Mr. Corona says.

Connecting these systems to the long-term strategic plan, and using them to instill a sense of individual accountability, moves the entire organization in the same direction.

“It’s making sure that you’re constantly communicating, updating employees on projects, addressing issues and correcting learning as you move along,” Mr. Corona says.

Holding people accountable undoubtedly requires having some difficult conversations. But if done right, they will not hurt morale, Mr. Corona says.

“Make sure that you’re not embarrassing people in big environments, but you’re talking to them individually about their work and how you can make it better,” he says. Accountability is not about discipline, Mr. Corona says. “It’s about taking the responsibility for the work that the organization has given you personally.”