Accountability: The Antidote to Tough Times

By now, it’s obvious that the global pandemic we now face is a crisis unlike anything any of us have ever encountered. There is no longer any doubt about it: we are entering tough times. The two critical questions for leaders now are–how do we make sure our organizations survive these tough times, and how do we make sure we rebound quickly coming out of them? Those are two different things, but they are both connected to the same answer: accountability.

In recent weeks, we have all been confronted by news stories that took us by surprise and made us feel uneasy and even fearful. Many of those stories connected to events that seemed beyond our personal control. Fortunately, accountability is not dependent on any outside factor. Neither is your organization’s capacity to survive a crisis. And neither is the velocity at which you and your organization exit troubled times. All of these things are dependent on one thing and one thing only: you.

It is now time to focus on what really matters. The cause of the current health emergency, the cause of the economic dislocation that is accompanying it, the cause of the social changes now underway — none of these are really relevant to your organization’s ability to withstand and bounce back from a crisis, big or small. The degree to which any organization overcomes and quickly exits a crisis is actually dependent on only two things:

  1. What you were doing as a leader before the crisis hit. This is where accountable leaders now hold a huge competitive advantage over everyone else. The kind of organization and/or team you built before there was a global pandemic will now serve as the foundation from which everything else happens in response to the crisis. If you are an accountable leader, you already established the commitments that define your workforce, the working culture, and the values you live and work by. You did that long before there was a global health emergency and long before there was a downturn in the economy. So, by definition, what happens during and after the crisis is going to build on that foundation. (By the same token, if there was an accountability gap in your organization, you as the leader are the one who must find a way to close up the gap — and fast.)
  2. Your ability to support and sustain key relationships.  Maintaining and growing key relationships is always a priority, but it is even more important than usual during hard times. Relationships are based on values and commitments. It’s the critical relationships you work to support, not your bank balance, that will get your organization through tough times. It’s the values you uphold and take action on that will determine the quality of the mutual commitments in those relationships. If you have solid relationships with your team members and your suppliers, you are going to be fine. If the relationships are built on unfulfilled commitments, poor communication, and a lack of trust, then you are vulnerable, no matter what your balance sheet looks like.

Both survival and the ability to rebound quickly from the crisis once it passes depends on the quality of your relationships. Yes, that means internal relationships with your employees, but it also means relationships with suppliers and customers. Think in terms of keeping all those ties strong.

Here’s just one example of what I mean: It may well be that in tough times like these, supplies are going to be short in some critical areas. But guess what? If you have better relationships than your competitors do, you are going to have a competitive advantage…and your organization will survive the crisis better and bounce back from it more quickly.

So for instance, if you consistently pay your suppliers on a timely basis, you will find that, if there is a shortage of something essential, they would much rather ship to you than to someone who has tried in the past to squeeze them, string them along, and use their money to finance business growth. If your competitors are operating in an exploitative way, creating bad relationships with suppliers, and you are not, you have a major advantage during (and after) tough times. Note that I am not talking about how you respond to a temporary emergency; I am talking about how you usually choose to run your business, day in and day out. Is it your regular business practice to support and strengthen the most important relationships? If it is, you will find that your suppliers and your employees are far more understanding, and will do anything in their power to support you during these challenging times.

Years ago, when I was in the window business, there was a glass shortage. We never ran out of glass. Our competitors did. The reason we never ran out of glass and others did was that the suppliers knew that if they shipped us a pallet of glass, we were going to pay them immediately, because that is what we always did. We never used our suppliers’ money to grow our own business. We never tried to take advantage of our suppliers. That was not how we operated.

Our decision to strengthen and support our relationships with suppliers emphasized our commitment to keeping our word (because that was what we had promised we would do). It also supported our commitment to make sound financial decisions. Last but not least, it supported the value of respect toward others, because we knew we had to respect the needs of the suppliers and respect their situation and their financial needs.

The global health emergency we are all dealing with now will pass. And when it does, the organizations that come back stronger than ever will be those whose leaders make and honor critical commitments in support of the most important relationships. That is accountable leadership–the kind of leadership that builds organizations that survive, and, yes, eventually thrive in spite of tough times.

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October 2020
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