20 December 2006

Accountability from Freedom

I've just started reading 'Freedom and Accountability at Work' by Dr. Peter Koestenbaum and Dr. Peter Block. The first few pages are so deeply entranched in my mind that I have to share the message in the context of our business culture here in the United Arab Emirates. I'm afraid that the UAE's claim to advancements in technology and business scope is just a bubble ready to burst. With the dawn of the new year, I am more determined than ever to relay a deep conviction about how to bring about genuine business growth through accountability in the workplace.

My conversations with a potential client bowled me over as I contemplate my own vision for year 2007. A top-level manager of a multi-billion dollar local company approaches me in desperation because the owners simply don't want to face the fact that their organization will cease to exist in 5 years. The ownership believes that the company is doing fantastic because of the sheer bottom-line numbers and quantities of product they sell. The feedback from the managers who run the show fall on deaf ears, even after numerous reports are handed over to the owners about issues of losing talent, unethical practices with stealing, no systems that support the business, and absolutely no succession plan for the future. These issues do not sound important to the owners because shockingly, they had closed down another company before and simply started up this new one as a result of the very same issues. Now the Managers are traumatized by the thought of this ordeal happening all over again.

Koestenbaum and Block in their book offer a thesis that states (this is not verbatim) "True accountability comes from realizing that you are truly free to choose, and that blaming your family, culture, or environment happens when you want to escape your freedom, and with it escape your accountability." My question to these two wise men would be in the context of this situation I came across, which is all so common here. The top-level manager came to me with his concern that the owners gave the people too much freedom which lets them do whatever it is they like. If this is truly the case, why aren't these people accountable for promoting positivity in the company? Although I haven't read much into the book yet, I bet the answer lies in the fact that the owners do not harbour any sort of vision or direction for the organization. Freedom without any vision is quite wasted, which then absolves the employee of any accountability whatsoever.

Indeed it is difficult to consult with such an ownership team, who believe that they will never have to pass the baton on to the next line of leaders. I've always maintained that top support is crucial to any change effort. Even so with this situation, I resolve to be optimistic and believe something positive is always possible. The fact that this Manager approached me with the hope that something could be done is proof enough, and when I ask him what makes him stay on in the company he says "The hope of change".

Now for the practical 'what next' in this situation, I have come up with the following proposed actions not in any particular order.

1. An external consultant, myself, facilitates a strategic meeting with the owners and the group of 3 top-level managers who believe radical change needs to be made. The outcome of the meeting will be a clear vision and direction for the company around where it wants to be in 5 years. Sounds simple but this meeting could go on for hours and has the most difficult of all goals, that of changing a mindset.

2. With a team of people, we conduct a confidential feedback study from all line managers and select employees. The results will be presented by myself as evidence to the ownership team of the organization's current state of affairs. The consultant presents crucial themes running across the data (for eg. we lose many talented employees who take their entire customer network with them), simply stating what employees, managers, and customers are saying. The key would be to present in such a way that impacts business (even though for this company's ownership business just means 'how many orders have we bagged').

3. Conduct a large-group meeting that involves all employees to provide their feedback. This would be an open interactive session at first, and institutionalize this practice just to create a buzz with the ownership team and get their attention.

The goal is to get the owners to accept hard realities about where their organization is heading. Sometimes the most natural thing in the world, such as thinking about your company's vision, is overshadowed by an illusory bottom-line number game.

In the business context of the UAE, this situation is very common. Top ownership perceives employees as replaceable entities "just get another person in there tomorrow" kind of thinking, with no conscience as to how the system gets affected. The common blame-game explanation is that "Dubai is a hub, people come in and out all the time just to make a fast buck." That may be true but there needs to be a realization that organizations are nothing more than the actions of the people in them, and different people committ to different actions which certainly affects the organizational system significantly.

You are condemned to be free to act and make choices. Unfortunately for this particular corporation, the ownership team will likely choose to shut down when things get out of control and simply start a new company the day after like nothing ever happened.