Do You Own the Problem? The Importance of Accepting Accountability Gracefully

We’ve all experienced something like this in our lifetime as customers: where parties inside of the company pass us around for resolution, or we get bounced back and forth between partners who both have their own point of view of their accountability.

The most admired companies make the customer whole first.  They don’t give their customer the job to navigate organization charts or partnership agreements to resolve their issue before they resolve things for the customer.   They don’t burden the customer with knowing how the inside of the clock works.  They accept accountability gracefully on the customers’ behalf.

When things go wrong, do you take accountability, and right the wrong?

Here is a story about another kind of accountability. When extreme challenges hit an organization…how leaders respond tells employees how to respond. It gives the entire company the values they are to uphold.

Just weeks into her post as CEO, the General Motors ignition switch failure situation erupted.   Here is how CEO Mary Barra got rid of the “whodunit” and took accountability for something that did not even happen on her watch.

Do the Right Thing with Candor & Remorse.

Mary Barra inherited the very sad General Motors (GM) situation where over 100 customers lost their lives because of ignition switch failures.  A situation 10 years in the making, it erupted just days after Barra became CEO.  The company announced a recall of the Cobalt vehicle involved—one that would eventually include 2.6 million vehicles.

Own the Problem.

Even though the situation did not happen on her watch as CEO, Mary Barra took accountability for it.  “Today, GM will do the right thing,” Barra testified to the U.S. Congress. “That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall, especially the families and friends (of those) who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry.”

Barra met with the families of the victims to openly discuss the situation and personally apologize.  She set up a compensation fund for them prior to any legally required judgment.  Publicly in all her communications she committed to not only address the vehicle situation failure, but also importantly, the cultural and process failures that had led to such a prolonged and delayed reaction.

As she began working to address what had enabled the culture and processes inside the company she was straight and deliberate in her messaging to employees.  “I never want to put this behind us,” Barra said at a town hall meeting at the time. And then she made it personal:  “I want to put this painful experience permanently in our collective memories.”

Barra fired 15 employees in the wake of the report exposing the situations leading up to the failure.  And she began working personally with the senior leadership team, unearthing and determining what got in the way of cross-company communication and what blocked doing the right thing. She continues to work with leaders on their own interactions.  She seeks to have leaders set an example at the highest level of the organization with behaviors that people can observe, understand and take on themselves.

Barra sat in call centers taking calls and listening in and speaking with employees, hearing them out and talking to them about the situation.  It is a practice she continues.  She made sure she was present and out in the organization. When these situations happen, they greatly impact employees. People needed to see how this new and yet unfamiliar CEO was responding and encouraging them to respond.

She set a tone in the wake of that situation that established how she would hold not just herself, but the entire company accountable: “Something went wrong with our process in this instance, and terrible things happened,” she said in her video message to employees. “We will be better because of this tragic situation if we seize the opportunity. And I believe we will do just that.”

Mary Barra’s changes drove renewed accountability.  And most important buoyed the spirits of employees observing her very human approach to accountability.  She has put GM on a path where the automaker has consistently met or exceeded its financial commitments.

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