The underlying killer of accountability


“We need more accountability around here” Chloe said.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“You know, people caring, people hitting their marks, doing what they said they would.  You know, being accountable” she replied with a slight tone of ‘what is wrong with you’.

“Like you do?” I asked

“Do you think I don’t” was the quick reply.

“No, not that at all, sorry” I immediately answered.  “I meant that question literally, you mean you’d like people to care about the place like you do as the CEO?”

“Well…..yeah.  That would be great!”

“So why don’t they?” I asked.

Chloe laughed – “I thought that’s what you were here to fix”.

I didn’t laugh at all.  I looked straight into her eyes.

“No.  This is what you have caused.  So it’s what you are here to fix”.

The pause was somewhat awkward.

“OK….I get it.” she said.  “So what can I do?”

“The word I use for what you’re looking for is ‘ownership'”.  I said.  “You want people around here to act like it’s their place.  Like it’s their money.  Like owners”.

“Yep, that pretty much it”.

“Like you do” I added.


“Which is weird, because you’re not an owner any more than Sylvia who gave me my access card at reception when I showed up here today.  You’re both paid a salary, yours more because your decisions have a longer-ranging impact than hers.  But it’s still just a fortnightly bank transfer of money on behalf of the real owners.”

Chloe was intrigued.

I stood up, went over to the whiteboard and wrote two headings:


“OK.”  I said.  “Not including the work itself, tell me the sort of things you and your Exec team get to have.  Things like car parks.”

Chloe frowned.

“Don’t worry, this isn’t me channelling Che Guevara” I laughed, “just work with me”.

“We have bigger offices.”  She started.  I wrote that.  Then it came quick:

“Our coffee is nicer.  We get car parks.  We have assistants.  IT brings us the latest technology even though I don’t actually use it that much.”

I wrote as quickly as I could.  “Tell me about organisational policies” I asked.

“Well, obviously we don’t ever do anything illegal.” she replied.

“Yeah, but do you hand in your leave form?” I asked.

Chloe smiled.  “Write ‘We only follow the rules that make sense‘ up there.  And while your’re at it, write ‘choose own working hours‘”.

“Now” I went on, “Let’s write up what the experience is for each of these things for those that aren’t Executives”

The list came pretty quickly, and looked like this:

Exec Everyone Else Privilege List

(Click here for link if you can’t see the image)

We sat down and looked at the whiteboard together.

“So are you now going to tell me that I have to start drinking Blend 43?”.

“I would never, ever provide that advice” I laughed.  “International Roast Caterers Blend all the way”

“Only the best!” smiled Chloe.  “But enough…..tell me what I’m missing”.

What’s going on is this.   No one in either of those two lists is an owner.  Not you, not your five Execs I met earlier this morning, not Sylvia, not your call centre people…none of them.  Yet you and your Executive team care.  You look at reports, you stress over delays, you worry about your organisation.  And, you share a view, somewhat supported by your recent staff survey and the info those culture consultants provided, that the rest of the organisation is disengaged.  That they don’t care.  No accountability.  Or, as I say…not owning their own organisation.”

Chloe slowly nodded.  I waited.  Then she sat back with an interesting combination of resignation and enlightenment at the same time.

“I get it.  The Executive list has all the perks of ownership.  The Everyone Else list doesn’t.”

“So it’s no wonder that…..”

“…it’s no wonder that there is not a culture of ownership and accountability when we’ve set things up to suggest there is one group that owns, and another that doesn’t”.

I sat in silence while Chloe mulled it over.

“But how come some people without the perks do take ownership?” she asked after a while.  “Like the Stores team.  They’re basically legends around here for how good they are, and they get Blend 43 just like the call centre does”.

“Because it’s still a choice, both individuals and as a team” I answered.   “Ownership is not something you prove, or determine. It’s not a ‘percentage’ thing.  We just said how you and your Exec team aren’t financially or legally owners, yet you act like you are.  You’ve made that choice.  And your Stores team makes the same choice, which they are free to make.”

“So why don’t others?” she asked.

“Because it’s safer not to”.  Chloe frowned and looked at me even harder.


“Yep.  Why put yourself out there and do something that makes sense to serve customers when there’s a ruling class of people there to make all the decisions for you?”

“I did put myself out there back in the day.  And I still do.  Because I want to make a difference” said Chloe.

“You do.” I replied.  “So you make that choice.  It’s a choice everyone is free to make”.

“So how do I get people to make that choice?”

“You can’t get people to do anything?” I replied.  Chloe’s eyes narrowed.

“You can only invite them to make the choice, and create the conditions to make that choice as easy as possible”.

And the way I do that is to create the conditions where everyone is treated like an owner

“That’s how we start”.

“But what about offices – sometimes I have meetings that are genuinely confidential”

“Differentiation on the basis of the work is fine.  That’s not privilege.  For example, if there were five business partners, only one car park, and only one of those partners had to leave the office each day to go and see clients….who gets the car park?”

“I see your point.  So the way we should allocate car parks as an organisation is based on some way to work out who goes in an out the most”.

“Yep.  Based on the work.”

“What about my Executives who feel that they’ve earned the right to a car park”?

“Discuss with them the reason you’re making the change and make yourself clear.  And apply the rules to yourself too.  If they can’t make that choice, then you have a values problem.   That’s serious.

And if you have to, tell them they can have the car park if they are willing to get paid the same as your lowest paid full-time salaried person.  Because….you and your five Executives are already the six highest paid people in the building!  If we also need a car park to demonstrate our value…then that issue goes well beyond the walls of the organisation!”

“But I know one would argue that their people wouldn’t listen to them without their car park and other such stuff.  That they need the authority”.

Then what you have there is coercion and control which is the exact opposite of creating ownership and accountability through clarity of the work and building strong adult relationships.  In other words, that’s a major problem.”

Silence.  I’ve got better over the years at not filling the space.

“Alright, so let’s summarise” said Chloe after some time.  She went on:

Signs of privilege are perks that some roles have that don’t attach to the work.  If we have these, we are setting up an ‘owners’ group, which makes it easier for everyone else to choose to not be owners.  So by allowing these things, I’m not creating an environment where people can choose ownership.  Which means I can’t really complain about a lack of accountability, engagement, culture or anything like that until I get rid of the signs that there are privileged people“.

“That’s pretty much it” I replied.  “As a first step, that is”.

“So Blend 43 for me?” asked Chloe with a wry smile.

“Rising tide lifts all boats” I replied.

“And Blend 43 sinks them all.  Quality coffee for the call centre it is.  Let the ownership begin”.


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