Roger Connors and Tom Smith: An interview by Bob Morris

Roger Connors

Roger Connors and Tom Smith are the founders and Co-CEO’s/Co-Presidents of Partners In Leadership, Inc., the internationally recognized premier provider of Accountability Training® Services around the world. They have thousands of clients, and have trained hundreds of thousands of people, in over 50 countries. Their clients include 25% of the “most admired companies in the world” and all 13 of the most admired Pharmaceutical Companies, almost half of the Dow Jones Industrial Average Companies and nearly half of the Fortune 50 largest companies in the United States, along with many other well-known and highly regarded organizations. They have produced the most comprehensive collection of books on workplace accountability ever written. All of their books, The Oz Principle, How Did That Happen? and their most recent book, Change the Culture Change the Game, have ranked as the No. 1 leadership book on The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and bestselling lists.

Morris: Before discussing any of your books, a few general questions. First, when and why did you begin to realize the relevance of L. Frank Baum’s classic book, The Wizard of Oz, to the business world?

Connors: We use the metaphor of the Wizard of Oz in our first book, The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability, as a literary device to create even greater interest in our message on accountability. While it is a light touch, it is a meaningful connection that we have found useful all over the world. In fact, our publisher tells us that The Oz Principle has continued to be in the top-5 bestselling business books in the leadership and performance category since it was first published in 1994, year after year.

To us, the well-known story of the Wizard of Oz is not just a classic children’s novel, but it is a story about the journey each of us must make to discover the powerful advantage we gain when we take personal accountability for achieving results. Honestly, our children think we have gone a little overboard in drawing the parallels, but they are there. Consider the four main characters of the story and each of their challenging circumstances. Dorothy was taken by a tornado, an act of God, away from home to the land of Oz. There she meets the scarecrow who was not given a brain, the tin man who was not given a heart and the Lion who had no courage. Each of them felt a victim of their circumstances; circumstances that were entirely outside of their control. At the beginning of the story, they commiserate together about their plight, but soon agree that the wizard in the Emerald City could solve all of their problems for them, or so they hoped.

They begin their journey down the yellow-brick road to the Emerald City in search of the wizard, only to find that — after doing what he had required (i.e. obtain the broomstick from the wicked witch of the west) — that he was only an old man, hiding behind a curtain pulling levers and blowing smoke, but unable to do anything for them.

During their quest, each of them discovered the power within themselves, with a little outside coaching and encouragement along the way, to overcome the obstacles they faced and achieve the results they wanted. The lion showed great courage, the tin man great heart and the scarecrow great wisdom. Dorothy discovered that she always had the power to click her heels and return home.

Tom Smith

Smith: As you can see, the Wizard of Oz is a great metaphor for the journey to greater accountability. While our book, The Oz Principle, makes a light treatment of the analogy, we think we make a compelling case that taking greater personal accountability is an effective way to empower yourself to overcome the obstacles you face and achieve the results you want. In the book, you will learn how to avoid the victim cycle and the blame game and take the Steps To Accountability and operate Above The Line to See It, Own It, Solve It and Do It. Greater personal accountability truly does bring greater results.

Morris: In your various books and articles, you seem to be especially interested in sharing what lessons can be learned from ordinary people whose achievements are extraordinary. Is that fair assessment?

Smith: To a great degree, I think that is right. We love to tell the story of the busser who was cleaning tables in a restaurant chain we work with. They were beginning their national launch, but were struggling in hitting their numbers. We asked the senior team, what their top result was that they needed to achieve. They said it was “Profit margin.” We asked, “What’s the number?” The team gave responses of 3, 5 and 7 percent. We then asked the CEO what the number was and she rightly responded that “It is somewhere between 3 and 7 percent.” She explained that 3 percent was the number they told corporate they would hit, 5 percent was the number they thought they would hit, their own internal goal, and 7 percent was their stretch goal. While it is not uncommon to have three sets of numbers, it is also common that confusion about results accompanies that lack of clarity. They decided upon 5 percent as the number they would communicate throughout their entire organization.

Connors: That busser we were talking about. You could walk into any of their restaurants and stop the busser and ask them, “What’s your job?” Typically, you would expect to hear something like, “Clean tables.” Not here. This busser would respond, “My job is to make a 5 percent profit margin. The faster I clean tables, the more people we seat per hour. The more people we seat, the greater the profit margin. That’s what I do!” This company enjoyed a 200% increase in profit margin over the next 18 months. We think this story illustrates the power of personal accountability. When you get everyone in the organization at every level engaged in achieving results, fully invested with their hearts and minds, extraordinary things happen.

Morris: My own opinion is that crisis does not develop character. Rather, it reveals it. What do you think?

Connors: Interestingly enough, our clients usually tell us that they work best when they are in “crisis” mode. Everyone suspends their beliefs that prevail in the workplace culture during a crisis. All their inhibitions about working cross-functionally, sharing information, making decisions, etc… go away and people get aligned around the belief that they need to do what it takes to get the result. However, when the crisis is over, they revert back to the existing cultural beliefs and norms that clutter the organizational process, stand as barriers to organizational success and make it more difficult to achieve organizational results. Helping leaders learn how to help people and teams throughout the organization suspend beliefs that don’t work and adopt new beliefs that do work is what our book, Change the Culture, Change the Game, is all about.

Morris: Throughout all of your works, you stress the importance of the interdependent relationship between personal accountability and organizational accountability. My own opinion is that accurate and consistent performance measurement requires both standardized metrics and standardized application of them. Why do so many organizations lack one or both?

Smith: In our research, surprisingly and revealingly, nine out of 10 leadership teams cannot give a consistently aligned answer between team members as to the top three key results they need to achieve. They always have a general idea, but are unable to provide the details. Both personal and organizational accountability begins by clearly defining results. You build a Culture of Accountability® around the results you need to achieve. A clear definition of results, one that everyone throughout the entire organization can understand and repeat, are essential to getting your accountability system to work.

Connors: In a leadership workshop, we asked the European management team of a large pharmaceutical company we worked with, what the top result was that they needed to achieve. They told us it was “BUC,” which stood for Business Unit Contribution. We asked the team, “What’s the number?” Everyone went silent. No one wanted to say. We asked them to write down the number on a piece of paper and pass it to the CFO in the back of the room. There was a $300 million dollar variance between the high number and the low number.

You cannot create clear accountability, either personally or organizationally, without a clear definition of the results you are accountable to achieve. So why don’t leaders get clear about results? We think leaders make a lot of assumptions that people already know, don’t need to know or will come to know at some point what the results should be. They tend to focus on actions, as we said before, and what people need to do, as opposed to focusing on how people should think. Accountability begins by clearly defining results and that always yields alignment, engagement and achievement.

Morris: Now please focus on your latest book, Change the Culture, Change the Game. Here’s a two-part question: To what extent is it a continuation of discussion of concepts introduced in earlier works? To what extent do the two of you break entirely new ground?

Smith: We have been writing, speaking, training and consulting on the topic of accountability and culture change for over two decades. We have found it useful to characterize the change effort in three dimensions: self, culture and others. Each of our books addresses those dimensions. Our first book, The Oz Principle, which was published as a 10-year anniversary edition in 2004, shows you how to lay the foundation of personal accountability where people internalize rather than externalize by constantly asking themselves the question, “What else can I do to overcome the obstacles and achieve the results I am looking for.” This is how you get people ready for the change. Our second book, How Did That Happen?, published in 2009, shows how to hold other people accountable in a positive, principled way. We hold people accountable for the expectations we have of them—even if we choose not to do it directly to their face, we hold them accountable. This book identifies how to establish the expectations you hold people accountable to deliver on and how to use the Accountability Conversation to manage unmet expectations.

Our third and newest book, Change the Culture, Change the Game, published in 2011, is totally revised and re-written from our previous bestselling book on culture change, Journey to the Emerald City (1999). Over the last decade, we have learned a great deal about how to speed up the culture change process through integrating the use of the key culture management tools that are used in the everyday work of people throughout the organization. The methodology we present is simple, straightforward, practical; and, most importantly, it works. Managing organizational culture is a leadership competency every management team must master. To not manage culture is to leave the low-hanging fruit of optimizing organizational performance on the table. We have seen our clients achieve remarkable “wow” kind of results through managing their culture, like a stock price increase from .31/share to $22.35 in just three years.

All of our books are New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today Bestsellers, but we think the reason that Change the Culture, Change the Game hit all the bestselling lists as the No. 1 leadership book is that it strikes a chord with leaders. They know that organizational culture is important and could be the defining factor in achieving success. They also sense that when it is not working for them they can and should fix it. They know it is not east and that it takes the right approach to change culture, particularly if they have limited time to do it, which is always the case. They are dead-on correct.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, what differentiates the Culture of Accountability Process from other methodologies that have the same objectives?

Connors: That’s easy: our work with Accountability. Without a foundation of personal accountability, every change effort, initiative or execution of plans will be hampered and will likely take enormous amounts of energy, effort and capital to be successful, if it is at all.

Let me explain. How you do accountability in your daily work essentially defines the working relationships fundamental to every activity that occurs within your organization. Accountability is the guiding principle that defines how we make commitments to one another, how we measure and report our progress, how we interact when things go wrong, how much ownership we take to get things done… It is, in essence, the nerve center that runs throughout every part of the organization, through every working relationship to every member of every team.

In many organizations, accountability is often done in a way that can actually sabotage your ability to get results. When we start working with a client, we often hear people throughout the organization describe accountability as something that happens to them when things go wrong, when it should be something they do to themselves to ensure results and success. How you go about creating accountability matters. Often, when done the wrong way, it leads to what we call the Accountability Paradox: that is, the harder you try to create accountability, the less accountable people actual become. This happens because people are reacting to the manner in which accountability is implemented.

Accountability, done effectively, is a defining skill for facilitating organizational change and is one that you can develop just like any other skill.  While it is not a difficult skill to acquire and hone, it does require a high degree of conscious effort. When you do it right, you’ll also find it the fastest way to both facilitate change and improve morale. A Conference Board survey of American workers revealed that over half the American workforce does not feel engaged in their work. The results of this survey reported job satisfaction at 45 percent, its lowest level since 1987. In addition, 64 percent of employees under age twenty-five expressed dissatisfaction with their jobs. Another poll found that over half of those who left their employer, left because they felt their work environment was a dictatorship—evidence that accountability is not working in many organizations.

Smith: The real power of accountability comes when the focus is on taking greater personal accountability for achieving results. That personal accountability manifests itself as greater personal ownership, buy-in, investment and engagement.  From time to time, when working with a client, leaders tell us not to use the word “empowerment” in their organization because they are frustrated in their unsuccessful efforts to create it. Failed attempts to better enable people to overcome obstacles to achieving results leaves them skeptical about organizational initiatives designed to better “engage” people.  Empowerment, in the corporate sense, has become something someone does to you. Accountability, on the other hand, is something you do to yourself.

When you take personal accountability you own it. You tell yourself, this is mine, I’ve got the ball. You ask yourself, “What else can I do to make progress, overcome obstacles and achieve the result?” You don’t waste time blaming others or waiting for someone else to solve your problems, you actively engage and deeply pursue solutions. With that foundation, change, correctly introduced and effectively managed, accelerates. People internalize the change, rather than externalize it. They begin looking at what they can do to make the change happen, instead of looking at the change that everyone else should be making.

Morris: Please explain the defining characteristics of those who tend to be (a) above the line and (b) those who tend to be below The Line.

Smith: Of course, the reference to the “Line” comes from the simple, but powerful, accountability model, we call The Steps To Accountability, which is presented in our book The Oz Principle. We have used this model in thousands of organizations across the globe to increase individual and organizational accountability for results.  The Steps to Accountability Model, in and of itself, helps people take greater accountability to achieve results.

The model is divided in half by a thin line that separates Above The Line behavior from the Below The Line thinking. Below The Line is where we play the blame game, and get stuck focusing on the things we can’t control.   Above The Line is where we take personal accountability for achieving results and constantly asking the question: “What else can I do to make progress, overcome obstacles, and deliver the result?”   We take the four Steps To Accountability and See It, Own It, Solve It and Do It. Below The Line we get frustrated. Above The Line we get motivated. Below The Line, our focus is on the obstacles we perceive to be outside of our control that are preventing us from moving forward. Above The Line our focus is on the solutions that will be required to move past those obstacles and achieve the result.

The key question for moving Above The Line, no matter why you are Below The Line, is “What else can I do?” to overcome obstacles and achieve the result. When you get people throughout the entire organization asking that question, watch out! In our view, whenever an organization is delivering extraordinary results, they are usually doing it because they have created a heightened sense of accountability where people See It, Own It, Solve It and Do It.  Whenever an organization is falling short, you can bet that organization has dipped one too many times Below The Line.

Morris: By which criteria can the need for a significant culture shift best be determined?

Connors: Our premise: The results you currently get are produced by your current culture. That’s it. Culture produces results. If you are achieving desired results, then you currently have a strong culture that produces what you want. However, if you are not achieving the results you want, or if those results may be in jeopardy, then your culture needs to change. At the end of the day, your culture is entirely responsible for the results you are achieving, and leaders are entirely accountable for that culture.

As the results an organization needs to achieve become more aggressive or more difficult, leaders must ask themselves, since our culture produces our results, will this shift in results also require a shift in our culture? If the results you need to achieve will be an order of magnitude more difficult than in the past, will require a significant deployment or re-deployment of resources or people, if they signal a change in direction or if processes, systems, skills or structure must change to achieve them, then a shift in culture is not optional. Unfortunately, we often see culture as the last place managers and leaders go to work, usually when everything else is not working. Instead, it ought to be the first place leaders work to ensure results.

Smith: We like to say, “Either you will manage your culture, or it will manage you.” Every company has a culture that is working full time sending cues to people on how to think and act in that organization. Culture never takes a holiday or vacation; never calls in sick. It’s always working, whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not. The question isn’t, do we have a culture? The question is, does our current culture supercharge our efforts to achieve the results we are held accountable to get? Is our culture helping or hindering? A Culture of Accountability is a workplace culture where people are accountable to think and act in the manner necessary to achieve desired results. If you need to get different results, then you probably need a shift in your culture.

Morris: How best to measure the success of the culture change?

Connors: You build your culture around the results you need to achieve. Culture produces results. The only real measure for the success of a culture change is whether or not you are achieving your key results. Of course, this requires, as we said before, a clear definition of the results you need to obtain; a definition that will guide all of your culture building efforts.

Smith: A recent 50-store pilot of the culture change effort with a large retail client demonstrated an 8-point gain in same-store sales and customer count in just 30 days, where 10 other initiatives had failed. Why? You can change the structure of the organization, you can change the processes people use, you can even change the people, but if you don’t change the way they think, then you probably will fall short of the true ownership and individual initiative that is necessary to achieve results. Culture drives results; it’s as simple as that.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Connors and Smith: We always like it when someone asks: “How can someone get in contact with you to discuss how you can assist them in accelerating their culture change to produce the results they are working to achieve?” After all, we are practitioners and that is what we love to do. There is something amazingly exciting to us to walk into almost any organization, in any industry, somewhere in the world helping leadership teams create greater accountability and shift their culture. The impact on results is always energizing. We can be reached at 800-504-6070.

*     *     *

Note: Culture of Accountability, Accountability Conversation, Steps to Accountability, Above The Line, Below The Line, See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It, The Oz Principle, How Did That Happen? and Change the Culture, Change the Game are trademarks (™) of Partners In Leadership.

Roger Connors and Tom Smith cordially invite you to check out the complimentary resources they offer at their website.


Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.