Daughter Tara, while a high school senior, came home one weeknight after I’d turned in and typed out a note on my laptop. This is exactly how it looked and read: “Dad, I’m sorry for not calling to let you know I wouldn’t be home by ten. I understand things like this can take away the trust you have in me. I won’t even make excuses, because I know I need to have Personal Accountability!”
I remember thinking, Wow, great note. She really gets it. What a good kid. Then I saw a P.S. that said: “Of course, there are always reasons if you want to hear them.”
Life teaches us all—whether we’re a child, a teen, or an adult—that we cannot control what other people say and do, or most events occurring around us. The only thing we really have control over is ourselves. And this is exactly why personal accountability is so critical, and why people and organizations who demonstrate accountability stand out.
In truth, there actually are reasons things go awry: people make mistakes, the ball gets dropped, stuff happens. Life can be complicated, confusing, and complex. Because of this, any one of us on any given day could go on and on with “reasons.” But when we attempt to exonerate ourselves with explanations, all they sound like are excuses—and, of course, that’s all they really are. What we need to do, instead, is look to ourselves and ask, “What can I do?” and get to work solving the problem. In other words, practice personal accountability.
Certainly there are situations in life where we pull out the swords of Facts and Logic and wield them mightily in our defense. But when we are tempted to do so in front of anyone we call “customer,” we might want to remember the country song that says, “Here’s a quarter, call someone who cares.” Never forget: The customer does not care to hear our reasons and excuses.
Just ask Alan Farnsworth, head of customer service worldwide for Bausch & Lomb. He’s been on the receiving end of the better approach and shares it in this story:
Connecting through the Paris airport, I was on a bus full of travelers heading out for a remote boarding on a distant tarmac. When we reached our plane, we weren’t allowed to get out. Instead, an Air France person came onto the bus to let us know the airplane cabin wasn’t ready. I wasn’t concerned about the delay since I was not in a hurry, but I could see other passengers getting increasingly annoyed as the minutes passed.
Once we were finally on the plane and settled in, forty minutes behind schedule, the captain came over the speaker. Honestly, I expected the standard, canned, insincere airline spin such as, “Sorry for the delay, but it’s due to the late arrival of the incoming aircraft” or some other routine excuse. Instead, here’s what the captain said: “I’d like to personally apologize for this delay. It was due to our failure to get the cabin ready on time, and as captain, I am responsible for that. I didn’t get the job done. This is inexcusable. Our practices will change to ensure this never happens again, at least not with any team for which I am responsible. This is not typical of Air France, and I hope you won’t hold this against us, because we can do better—and you deserve better. Now, please sit back and enjoy the flight. We may be late, but we’ll make it as pleasant as possible for you.”
I have never heard such honesty like this in circumstances like these. You should have seen the passengers’ response. It was fascinating to observe. Nodding heads, smiles, and faces that clearly said, OK, that’s pretty nice. I feel better now. People’s agitation and irritation seemed to be replaced by acceptance and relaxation. While observing all of this, it occurred to me that candor and accountability like this are exactly how every organization ought to deal with their customers. After experiencing it—after feeling it myself—I know it works!
Question: How complex is it for an airline to get a plane off the ground on time?
And more often than not, the crew is as frustrated as the passengers. They want to get going, too! But if this Air France pilot had shared “The Five Reasons You Can’t Blame Us” with his customers, what would that have accomplished? Nothing positive, that’s for sure. So he took the High Road of Personal Accountability and simply said, “No excuses.” Outstanding!
Alan’s tale is a terrific example of one individual taking responsibility for a problem in a surprising and inspiring way—but that’s probably not the whole story. Since individuals often act within the context of their organization and its culture, I can’t help but wonder what might have been in the captain’s training and the organizational environment that contributed to his behavior.
More important, what can each of us do to engage in the same behavior in our organization today?