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What a Trip of a Lifetime Taught Me About Accountability

by Clark Vitulli | Posted on March 2, 2018

Most business owners and executives I’ve helped throughout my career recognize the importance of accountability in the workplace. You don’t have to look back too far to see that even juggernauts like Volkswagen and Wells Fargo are not immune to the potentially devastating consequences that can come with major accountability missteps. Unfortunately, a mere healthy respect for accountability doesn’t cut it. Organizations that want to be successful must learn how to actively use accountability not only as a prevention method to guard against disasters, but also as a tool to improve performance.

The power of accountability is in its equity: everyone is accountable to something and someone. And the first step to creating a culture of accountability is to establish company-wide accountability. The executive leadership team must clearly define accountability at every level for every employee. To whom do your employees answer? Who are their customers? What values should your employees follow? And don’t think if you’re alone at the top that you get a pass. Who are your customers? What principles guide you? What laws govern your actions?

These accountability standards must then be intertwined with your business activities. Anything your company does that is worth measuring should have checks and balances in place to ensure tasks are completed on time, in totality, and with integrity. World-renown speaker and frequent guest of my Nashville Vistage group, Mike Scott of Totally Accountable, provides four maxims to follow when incorporating accountability into business processes:

  1. Zero tolerance for non-accountability
  2. Totally clear, understood and accepted communication
  3. Consistent tracking of work to successful completion
  4. Allow no surprises of non-accountability

The best way for companies to reach their goals is by applying these four guidelines to every business activity.

Virtually every organization has accountability to some degree, albeit perhaps only for the most important projects. But the real measure of accountability is its specificity. Is the project broken down to a granular level of tasks? And does each task that makes up the entire project have its own checkpoints in place? Or does the project serve as its own task without any review process until the end?

Let me lay aside the theoretical here and give a real life example.

Several years ago I took my boys on a big road trip along Route 66. I had every detail planned out but still needed a way to get my car back home once we reached the end in California. So, I worked out a deal with one of my employees at the time to fly him out to California and have him drive back across the country to return the car to me. I would pay him for his time and round-trip travel expenses, but here’s the catch: I was operating under a bit of a time crunch and needed the car delivered within a week.

Now imagine if I had handed over the keys to my employee without any further instruction. Do you think I could have rested easy that he’d get the car back in time? Not likely. I would have been worrying myself sick all week wondering about his progress and the condition of the car. Who knows if he would have made the deadline? Instead, I followed Mike Scott’s four accountability principles to ensure my employee’s success.

First, I made it clear from the very beginning that complete accountability was required. I defined the goal of the project, established a strategy, and outlined the step-by-step objectives necessary to reach that goal:


Safely deliver the car in 7 days


Map out a return route with daily mileage goals and periodic location updates

Daily Objectives

  • Start the day with a good breakfast
  • Hit the road by 8am
  • Put in 250 miles of driving
  • Stop for lunch, restroom break, and gas refill
  • Put in another 250 miles of driving
  • Text Clark to confirm that you accomplished the 500 miles and arrived at the target city
  • Stop to check into hotel, eat dinner, relax, and get at least 7 hours of sleep

You must know your employees well enough to supply the correct amount of instruction. Too little leaves them struggling on their own and too much can threaten rapport.

Second, I set a specific communication method and protocol. Phone calls were the default form of communication, and we programmed each other’s numbers into our cell phones. Text messaging would be used to supplement phone calls.

We scheduled two times a day when my employee would call to check in: one at 8am and one at 5pm. In case of an emergency situation, we mapped out a phone notification tree that he could follow. Non-emergency questions and updates could be communicated via text message.

Third, I inserted follow-up measures over the course of the trip to track progress. If my driver missed a daily check-in phone call, then I would contact him to ensure that all was well. I also called and texted at certain milestones to verify that everything was staying on schedule. This gave me the opportunity to intercept any potential hiccups early on and get my employee back on track.

Finally, I built fail-safes into the project to prevent the possibility of surprise non-accountability. I gave my employee a cell phone charger for the car to make sure his phone’s battery didn’t unexpectedly die while driving. I kept a copy of the itinerary with the list of hotels where he would be staying so I could call the hotel to reach him if need be. The idea was to have back-up plans in place to safeguard our method of accountability.

Following these four guidelines ensured that I could get my car back safely and on time after enjoying a trip of a lifetime with my boys. Organizations can implement these same principles to help their employees and projects reach success, too. If you need help fleshing out how to do this in a practical way, drop me a line or send a message on LinkedIn and I’d be happy to discuss with you. Don’t forget that I love getting feedback from my readers in the comments section below!