Leadership: A Question of Accountability


When I opened the Wall Street Journal, the headline “Wells Boss Says Staff At Fault for Scams” jumped out at me. The article provides insight into accountability in the recently revealed scandal at Wells Fargo, where enterprising employees opened millions of fake accounts in customers’ names in order to meet aggressive cross-selling targets.

Wells Fargo paid a fine of $185 million for the transgressions and dismissed over 5300 employees as a result. While that is disheartening enough for a respected brand (one that had the largest market cap of any bank in the US prior to the news) hearing that CEO John Stumpf now placed the blame his employees was much more disappointing.

Even if he had no idea what was going on—which I doubt—it’s his job to foster a culture that discourages bad apples from acting in their own self-interest. That’s the same job that any business owner has, whether they’re running a small start-up or a high-growth enterprise.

Accept Responsibility

Accountability means accepting responsibility for what happens on your watch. Clearly, actions taken to stem the problem at Wells Fargo were not  enough to override a win-at-all-costs culture.

That kind of message, spoken or not, comes from the top. It takes many forms, from intense pressure to perform, to threats of job loss if numbers aren’t met, or even berating and belittling managers and employees who under-perform on unrealistic metrics.

CEOs who eschew their own responsibilities and blame employees, remind me of the saying, “when you point a finger, there are three more pointing back at you.” Stumpf claimed, “There were no incentives to do bad things,” but there had to be institutional pressure in order for so many people to choose unethical behavior.

Be Strong

Strong leaders accept that sometimes people stray. Inevitably, a few employees will make bad choices. Dealing with it quickly and decisively sends an important message that the behavior won’t be tolerated. Pair that with sincere efforts to encourage a shared vision, create a culture of accountability, and put customer focus front and center, and you’ll be well on your way to building a credible and trustworthy company.

In contrast, dismissing a few people for egregious transgressions while continuing to incent the behavior that inspired their actions doesn’t help. It may provide cover when you’re called on the carpet by authorities (like Stumpf’s upcoming hearing with the Senate Banking Committee) but it doesn’t hide the fact that you’ve abdicated a key leadership responsibility: being accountable.

What’s your first instinct when something goes wrong at work? Do you play the blame game and assign fault? Or step up and be accountable for what happened and what to do about it? The choice can make all the difference between long-term success and imminent failure.

Image by St. Maddox.

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