6 secrets to building a culture of ruthless accountability | Inquirer Business

6 secrets to building a culture of ruthless accountability

/ 02:04 AM January 23, 2023


You and your teams have made business plans for the year. But how do you execute? It is pointless to make plans if you cannot execute them. This is where most companies fail. Some of them even put the same goals up year after year, or at least some version of the same goals, without ever reaching any of them.

There is a lot of window dressing going on in most annual strategy and planning meetings because people try to hide their incompetence of not getting things done. Most companies quickly lose themselves in the day to day and fail to achieve quarterly, yearly or long-term strategic targets. What is often at the heart of it is a lack of accountability and ruthless execution that pervades the entire organization.


As the “mentor of the giants,” as Fortune has called me, and in my work with CEOs and owners of companies around the globe, from medium-sized businesses to market leaders and Fortune 500 companies, I have yet to meet a top executive who was entirely happy with his or her company’s execution and accountability. But they don’t know what to do about it.

In a study by the Harvard business review, 60 to 90 percent of strategic plans never fully launch, and lack of execution and accountability is often to blame.


Optimize the business machine

If you were to rate the levels of accountability and execution in your company from one to 10, where would they be?

A business is nothing other than a machine that is designed to produce outcomes. I don’t care what these outcomes are. They may be profits; they may be selling a certain number of products or services. What it all boils down to is that as a business leader, you are in charge of designing a business machine and constantly updating it so it produces the best outcomes. Accountability is the oil in that machine.

You are a detective on a mission if you are a business leader in an organization. Your goal is to constantly improve, refine and optimize how things are being done so that the organization can reach its targets. This also includes you.

Without ruthless accountability, you will not have predictable outcomes. This demands that we hold ourselves and each other ruthlessly accountable. If you’re not yet at the top of a company, this still holds. You will need to make sure that you have the right processes and people in place so you can produce the outcomes and reach the goals you defined to achieve.

Ask the secret question

In the simplest of terms, the first thing that you have to do as a business leader is to ask the question “why.” What do I mean by that? You need to have a very low tolerance for problems.

If your team or direct report has not reached a certain target, you have to ask the question “why” until you hit the actual root cause of failure. While this may sound obvious in principle, in the actual practice of day-to-day operations, this is very rarely done. Executives get so caught up in work-for-work’s-sake that they content themselves with superficial answers.

Your goal as a business leader is to stop this nonsense and constantly optimize the business machine so it produces the desired outcomes. Peel away the layers of the onion and keep asking “why” until you reach the root cause of why things did not happen as planned or as your people set out to do.


Embrace the Stockdale paradox

Admiral James Stockdale’s determination to endure the appalling conditions in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp served as inspiration. As he said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

There is a fundamental principle of corporate leadership that bears repeating: your goal is not to be right but to see reality as clearly as you can. This is why great executives keep asking the “why” question until they find the root causes of nonperformance.

Every executive has blind spots. Chances are high that opportunities are lying within easy reach that you do not see. There may equally be elephants in the room that you are blind to, walls you cannot see through, and major challenges within your business that hide in plain sight. By asking the “why” question, you will have a tool to uncover these if you are persistent enough.

If done correctly, this will also empower you to see who is hiding behind their weaknesses and shortcomings by trying to distract you and giving you a story that does not add up. Such individuals will usually blame others or external circumstances, but not themselves.


The Stockdale paradox also stipulates that you should not let yourself become discouraged by the challenges on the way to your goals because these are simply stepping stones. However, failing to analyze the root causes of challenges will result in you and your organization not reaching its targets and this will most likely become a chronic disease. This is why early diagnosis is so fundamental.

Complexity is the enemy of execution. Any idiot can make things complex but it takes a genius to make things simple. In designing your systems and improving your machine, your goal is to find out what works, and then simplify it enough so you and your people can follow through and execute. This requires constant tweaking because if you change something on one end, it changes something on the other end. It’s all connected and interrelated.

Measure a lot and often

What gets measured, gets done. How do you find out if you, your teams or your business have a problem with accountability and execution? This comes back to planning: you have to establish clear key performance indicators that you can measure and track frequently. Most companies track too little and too infrequently.

You should rather err on the side of over-tracking and over-measuring, both in terms of what you measure and how often you measure. I often compare this to a commercial airplane. Ninety percent of the time or more, commercial planes are off-track. They veer off course due to the weather, turbulence and other reasons. The pilot, however, receives feedback frequently, makes necessary course corrections and repeatedly refers to the precise flight plan to bring the plane back on course.

If the pilots did not have these tracking devices available, they would fly blind. As a business leader, you need to do the same thing. Once you start to veer off-track, and you can see this when teams, business units and divisions are not hitting their targets, you have to analyze immediately why this is happening. Then you have to constantly correct your course.

Make your people happy before your customers

People talk about customer service but neglect the internal service level agreements that are even more important than any external customer service. Why? A high level of internal service between colleagues, departments, teams, business units, divisions and board members will automatically translate into a high level of external service, which means service toward customers and clients. INQ

Tom Oliver, a “global management guru” (Bloomberg), is the chair of The Tom Oliver Group, the trusted advisor and counselor to many of the world’s most influential family businesses, medium-sized enterprises, market leaders and global conglomerates. For more information and inquiries: www.TomOliverGroup.com or email

[email protected]

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