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How to build a culture of responsibility in your business

Simple question. Is your office kitchen a mess? Do people wash up their plates and mugs? Or leave them in the sink for others to clear up? It may seem insignificant, but these small things can tell you a lot about your culture. 

In my experience, when businesses start out with a small team of talented people, everyone has each other’s backs. Nothing falls through the cracks and people are happily spinning each other’s plates. It all works perfectly. Then, at about 35 staff, a change starts to creep in. People start to get lazy and the office looks neglected. There’s less shared ownership for general issues like fixing broken equipment or tidying up. This phenomenon is called ‘social loafing’.

You need to get on top of this. A healthy culture relies on every one of your staff having a strong sense of responsibility. When I took over as MD of IT Lab, I knew we had a big challenge to overturn the existing culture.  One of the first things I did was get volunteers to come in over the weekend to tackle the office. Until it’s properly tidy, you’ve no hope of keeping on top of things. Some offices I’ve visited over the years have been minging.  As soon as you walk through the door, you know.  There’s no chance that quality work is happening because the environment screams mediocre. Any spark is crushed.

So, how do you overcome this?  How do you build a culture of responsibility in your business?

Start at the top

If you and your executive team don’t model responsibility, what hope is there for anyone else?  Maybe my comments about untidy offices or dirty kitchens have touched a nerve? I have to ask you. When was the last time you emptied the dishwasher? Or helped tidy up? Lead by example. This is important. Go and get the beers on a Friday for beer o’clock and give them out to everyone. If it’s hot, sort out ice-creams for the team.  It’s all about spotting an opportunity to do the right thing. 

    When you’re forming or changing culture, the executive team needs to lean in hard to create a flywheel.  It takes effort and commitment to build momentum.  You want that flywheel to start spinning on its own.  That’s when you know you’re succeeding.  If you’re really saying you want to change your business, there are only two prerequisites – a strong desire and a willingness to put in the hard graft. That’s it.  And yet it amazes me how few people are really prepared to do the work that’s needed.  Better accept mediocrity if that’s you.

    This reminds me of a potential CEO client that I visited a few years back.  He kept me waiting for half an hour.  When I was eventually called in, he apologised and said his PA hadn’t told him I’d arrived. What kind of excuse was that? I was in his diary.  It was his responsibility to check.  As I sat, waiting in Reception, I flicked through the press cuttings book.  Out of date.  Nothing in it for the past nine months.  No-one had bothered to keep on top of it.  It was obviously another initiative that had been started but not finished. 

    I told him that this book and the way he’d blamed his PA for the wait were indicative of his whole business. As CEO, he didn’t own the problem.  He needed to hold a mirror up and recognise that it all started with him.  No wonder he was disappointed with his firm’s performance.  Nothing will change for him until he understands the root of his problems.

    Recruit for ‘responsibility’

    In all the cultures that I’ve built, I’ve looked for the trait of responsibility in new hires. I’m a big fan of CliftonStrengths®, Gallup’s personality assessment tool, as it gives such accurate and unique profiles. 

    In the Customer Support function at Rackspace and Peer 1, we only took on people who had ‘Responsibility’ as one of their top five strengths. That’s because we knew these people couldn’t help but stick to their word. They wouldn’t go home until they’d followed through on their promise to their clients or colleagues. Ownership was part of their DNA so we knew we could rely on them. And we didn’t have to set up systems to police this.  Have enough of these types of people in your team and this is the behavioural norm you create. Even those who don’t have Responsibility as a strength will confirm this.

    Responsibility is an easy trait to spot at interview.  Make sure you ask questions like, ‘Can you remember a time when your manager left you with nothing to do? How did you spend that time?’ Or, ‘What was your legacy from your last job?’  You’re looking for the kind of person who says they saw a problem and fixed it.  Maybe something that annoyed them.  There’s responsibility right there in their answer. 

    You’ll also see self-motivation – something that’s important to people who naturally take responsibility.  It’s not the job of your managers to motivate.  You need to hire people who have these instinctive traits.  Otherwise, they won’t succeed in the culture you’re trying to build.  You’re going to be moving at a fast pace and they’ll drag everyone else down. 

    Company-wide initiatives to encourage responsibility

    There are things that you can do at a whole business level that will foster responsibility.  Rackspace visited Ritz Carlton, the world-leading hotel group, to pick up some ideas. Here’s one of the best. Allowing our Account Managers to compensate unhappy customers with up to two times their monthly recurring revenue.  It worked brilliantly.  

    As soon as the customer called with a problem, our staff had to take responsibility. Their first reaction was to say sorry.  Not, ‘The company’s been a bit sh*t’.  Or, ‘We’ve been a bit busy lately’. Just a simple, plain, ‘I’m really sorry that that’s happened to you’.  This allowed the customer to let off steam. Account Managers were trained to get a full chronology so they had all the data.  We found that most of the time, this took the heat out of a situation.  After the customer had finished, our staff would ask, ‘What can I do to make you feel ok about this?’ Quite often, the fact that they’d listened and given a genuine apology was enough. But if not, they had the ability to offer compensation on the spot.  Ownership is the thing here. If you can’t own it, you can’t fix it.

    Contrast this with what usually happens in businesses. A customer complains and the staff feel bad because the company’s let them down.  But they don’t apologise – they’ve been told not to in case this implies liability. This makes the customer even angrier.  Trust is eroded and the customer goes elsewhere.

    You want the sharing of information and ideas to be a cultural norm in your company. Reward people who make a cultural contribution with praise and recognition.  As a minimum standard, I would expect all my staff to bring suggestions to our monthly ‘All Hands’ meetings.  Things that didn’t necessarily affect their jobs but made our company a better place to work. We’d give them the resources to bring these suggestions to life but they were expected to own the result. 

    Sometimes people wouldn’t bring anything. If this went on too long, I’d go to their managers and flag it up.  For me, this was a fail on my values test.  Our norm of behaviour was to take responsibility for making things better at work and if someone couldn’t be arsed, it was time to leave. 

    Here’s a fantastic example of someone using their initiative to solve a problem.  We were launching a new ‘RackStar’ employee awards programme.  From the start, I was more focused on the process and didn’t give the trophies much thought. I just ordered some cheap silver ones on-line.  But one of the team (Phil) called me out on this. He’d found a company that could produce bespoke trophies out of acetate.  We could put anything we liked into this transparent case and then screen print it.  Phil hit on the idea of using some of the discarded computer memory chips that we always had in the office. These were embedded and then printed with the name of the winner.  Fab! They were top quality, specific and personalised – the staff loved them. The guy just had the idea and ran with it.  That’s what you want.

    Glass Star Racker Trophy

    Encourage responsibility with individual metrics

    If you’ve read any of my other blogs, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate for measuring stuff.   Give all your staff clear expectations and a set of metrics to measure their performance and it will galvanise productivity.  Crucially, you want them to take responsibility for their own metrics.  Take Sales as an example.  Maybe you’ve decided that the team needs to do 400 demos every quarter.  It’s on them to work out how many they do individually, keeping a daily tally and reporting back on progress.

    If you’ve got the right team, you shouldn’t need to micro-manage them. They’ll know what they need to do and get on with it. Make it crystal clear what’s expected and they’ll take responsibility for delivering it.  It’s about setting norms of behaviour and putting in the right processes so this happens automatically. And if this isn’t for them?  Then it’s time for a ‘Foxtrot Oscar’ bonus – something we did at Peer 1.  If a new hire decided they’d made a mistake by joining us in the first month, we paid them £1000 to leave.  This was much cheaper than keeping them on.

    Tackle issues at team level

    Solving the dirty dishes issue at a company level is difficult but it’s much easier within teams.  At Peer 1, we put in a series of coffee points or small kitchens on every floor.  Responsibility for cleaning up was rotated through the different teams.  If there were problems with particular people, it was up to the team to police it.  They had to work it out and own the result.  One team was on duty each month and they divided this time up between them.  Individual ownership was key.  If everyone knows it’s your turn, you can’t expect someone else to do it for you.

    The lack of shared responsibility drove me mad at IT Lab. I was inspired by one of the first business books I’d ever read – ‘Maverick’ by Ricardo Semler.  Having taken over his Dad’s business in Brazil, Semler notices a requisition form for more filing cabinets.  Even though the business is full of them.  He thinks this is ridiculous.  Over the weekend, he gets volunteers in to throw away all the cr*p that’s been lurking in these cabinets for years.  They end up with a surplus of cabinets and sell them off.  I did the same at IT Lab.  I got teams to volunteer to come in and we had a massive clear out.  A pretty cathartic experience that gave me a good idea of who the real stars were in the business.

    Promote ‘radical candour’ 

    There’s a real danger in differing perceptions of responsibility.  If you’re not careful, resentment and negativity can creep in as some people feel they’re doing way more than others. This is why you should encourage people to have difficult conversations, instead of quietly festering in the corner.  Psychological safety is something I’ve written about before as it’s vital to a high performing culture.  You want an environment where people can speak their mind without fear of judgement. 

    Any behaviour that isn’t in line with your values needs to be challenged.  If it isn’t, it becomes reinforced.  People think it’s ok to continue shirking the washing up or whatever else it is that’s annoying their colleagues.

    Similarly, having a culture of radical candour will enable people to take responsibility for their mistakes.  Our ‘Cock-Up of the Month’ award at Peer 1 was legendary.  We’d encourage team members to share embarrassing moments – both working and personal.  This instantly built rapport and was a very good sign when people felt able to share. Radical candour is a habit.  When it’s embedded, people will start putting their hands up and saying, ‘That was me’.  Otherwise, it’s easy to become defensive and start hiding problems. As CEO, recognise that mistakes are inevitable, particularly if you’re doing something for the first time and you’re travelling at pace. 

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    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

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