Review of Sam Silverstein’s Book “The Accountability Advantage”

by B.J. Slater, Education Director

I looked at the dozen members of my team staring back at me and my mouth dried up. The knot in my stomach reflected that I wasn’t sure what to say at this point, and I suspect the look on my face may have said the same. This was the first staff meeting since we had fired a long-time toxic manager, the first time I had really started to take responsibility for the culture within our family’s fertilizer company, and now everyone was looking to me for leadership. That day I took the first step on a long journey of rebuilding and shaping our culture. The Accountability Advantage by Sam Silverstein makes an excellent guidebook for just such a journey. Sam, a leadership accountability expert, will be the featured guest at EFBCs Spring Signature Event on May 16. EFBC members each received a copy of one of Sam’s ten books. In this article I provide my review of one of them, The Accountability Advantage.

During our company’s culture journey we had wins and setbacks and a lot of trial and error. Slowly but surely positive trends emerged. At the time I didn’t understand exactly which of our efforts were effective and which weren’t. The Accountability Advantage offers an explanation of what worked, why it worked, and how to achieve better results in the future. At the time of that staff meeting those years ago, our family’s business had what Sam refers to as a “culture by default,” as opposed to one by design. The early chapters of The Accountability Advantage, spell out, with blunt honesty, the causes and costs of culture by default. Lack of accountability, specifically in leadership, is the root cause of myriad cultural ills within organizations. This lack of accountability stems from leaders’ fears of doing what they know they should do. I appreciate that throughout the book the author calls for a high degree of honest self-reflection.

I feel this fear in leaders which Sam describes as “misguided” and being, “based on false assumptions,” may be particularly relevant in family business environments. Personally I recall situations I felt compelled to behave according to family expectations or hesitated over concerns of what my father’s opinion might be. There are many situations in which holding ourselves accountable as leaders can be difficult or complicated.

When leaders opine on accountability, their remarks often focus on “holding others accountable.” To achieve Culture by Design, Sam argues, this is the wrong approach. Trying to hold others accountable puts them on the defensive and often backfires. Instead, he presents a compelling case for leaders inspiring accountability in others by first demonstrating it impeccably in themselves. While this may at first sound basic, Sam details ten non-negotiable relational commitments he argues form the foundation of being an accountable leader. These ten commitments make prominent appearances in his other books, and are foundational to his approach. It is by making and reliably keeping these commitments to your team that achieving Culture by Design becomes achievable.

The benefits of achieving such change can be massive. Sam outlines numerous organizational “Pains in the Butt” that can be transformed into competitive advantages by reshaping a culture through accountability. The balance of the book is dedicated to laying out a roadmap for achieving a Culture by Design and the advantages it provides. Sam presents this cultural transformation plan in five steps: defining, modeling, teaching, protecting, and celebrating the culture. This forms a logical and sequential progression that was easy to absorb and understand.

Sam begins the segment on defining the culture with a discussion of values, how to define various types of values, and their roles in organizational culture. This is followed by a practical exercise on how to clearly identify your own personal values. The exercise generates great insights and is well worth the time invested. This section of the book in particular contains exercises and conversations that aren’t meant for the reader alone. The above values exercise is meant to be repeated by everyone on the leadership team followed by discussions to share the results.

Once you and your leadership team are clear on their personal values, Sam advises getting your employees all in the same room and conducting a similar exercise with the group of them to identify your company’s values. How many of your employees, you ask? If you have fewer than 50, Sam argues you should just get every one of them in the same room. Like me, you may have second thoughts on this. How do I know this exercise will work?

Well, to me, this is where The Accountability Advantage became truly valuable. What is described are the very exercises Sam and his team at The Accountability Institute have actually run with companies they worked with. The text presents antidotes to common doubts and concerns as well as practical suggestions for skeptical employees. It also provides examples of cultural values developed by past clients that can serve as a guide.

The book walks through the remaining steps in the process presenting clear direction on how leaders should model the cultural values they and their team created in the prior exercises. Considerable guidance is provided on how to build and maintain accountability as a leader, how to build the courage needed to keep relational commitments, and how to avoid pitfalls and common traps leaders often run into during the early phases of cultural transformation.

In later chapters the focus shifts outward from the leadership team modeling cultural values to leaders communicating and teaching those values to others in the organization. An entire chapter is dedicated to the power of communicating values through story. The text again offers practical easy-to-follow tasks, suggestions for avoiding common issues, and plentiful examples of what other companies have done successfully before.

Having discussed designing and building the culture, Sam turns, necessarily, to protecting the culture. The author discusses dealing with very real situations that might derail your high performance culture whether they be a single person, or a merger with another company and different culture. Hiring and separating with employees is addressed also with plentiful real-world examples.

In the final and shortest step, Celebrating the Culture, Sam shares the vital keys to sustaining culture change by recognizing and celebrating excellence. The author argues this is as much a mindset about people as it is a set of practices. I wish there was more on this section, as I believe there is a lot of truth to the idea that this is a key way in which a high-performance culture is nurtured long-term.

In reading this book, and reflecting on our own journey at Plant Marvel, I gained significant clarity over why our most successful initiatives at developing a high performance culture were so effective. I also, humbly, realize how far we have yet to go – how far I have to go. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give this book is that I left it with renewed clarity and conviction that I can accomplish the needed tasks. I believe this is a valuable guide full of hard-won wisdom from the trenches of organizations. I look forward to putting it to use. The author closes the book with a call-to-action reminding us that all we have, and all we need to make a difference, is this present moment.

The Accountability Advantage offers a tested road map for achieving positive organizational change by implementing accountability. Far from a passive read, the book is full of practical exercises designed to implement the ideas of the book in an actual organization. This is augmented by the author’s advice and wisdom gained from years of performing this same work with organizations. It presents a very powerful tool for organizational leaders of all types.

I am very excited to have Sam Silverstein keynote EFBC’s Spring Signature Event, Unlocking Potential: The Highest Form of Leadership! I hope that you will join us at 4:30pm on May 16th at Sky on Nine in Rosemont as Sam shares more of his wisdom in a special presentation just for the EFBC community. It will be a night to remember!