It is a fashion of our times to label things “extreme.” Extreme sports. Extreme home make-overs. There’s even an Extreme Pizza chain with restaurants in a dozen different states.
Derived from Latin, “extreme” means “the utmost” or “to the highest degree.” Frequent use of this adjective may reflect our hyperbolic social-media culture—or maybe just the fact that the word is fun to say. “Extreme Whatever” is mere hype most of the time (what exactly would an “extreme pizza” taste like?), but a recent book titled Extreme Ownership is worth your time if you want to re-think your approach to getting business results. However, there is a complement to “extreme ownership” that may be neglected—a twin sibling that should be just as important to leaders who care about their goals and their relationships with those who will help achieve them. And that complement is “extreme accountability.”
The authors of Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, are former Navy SEALs who reframed their elite military training and experience as pragmatic advice for how to be more effective in work and life. For military leaders, “extreme” is serious—dead serious, and literally so. Military leaders train to deal with matters that are life or death, and in many cases the only option other than success is unthinkable. Willink and Babin’s principles, framed around anecdotes from the battlefield, are unique to a particular environment—one that most business or other institutional leaders will never even be able to imagine.
That said, Willink and Babin usefully frame their insights on leadership for leaders and managers of civilian organizations. For example:
- The leader is always responsible for “owning” the failures or problems of the team (hence the book’s title)—and leaders should never blame their teams for mistakes.
- Plans should be simple and action-oriented, and activities prioritized to ensure goals are achieved.
- Sharing information and communicating effectively are absolutely critical for success, and most failures are rooted in poor communication.
- All team members need to understand and believe in the “why” of the mission as well as the “what.”
Extreme Ownership made a positive impression on us and the book offers a powerful reminder that any meaningful effort must be rooted in high degrees of individual responsibility. That said, there seemed to be something missing when we finished reading: something essential for growing and sustaining an effective and profitable organization over years. This missing piece revolves around applying the concept of ownership to the people one is leading.
In talking recently with Fred Voccola, the CEO of Kaseya, a fast-growing IT infrastructure management software company, that missing piece came into sharp focus. Voccola, who has led several start-ups to successful growth and exits, regularly preaches to his company and senior team the idea of “extreme accountability,” which can be seen as a complement to extreme ownership.
From his background, you might think Voccola’s leadership ethos would be similar to Willink’s and Babin’s. While not an elite soldier, he was a college linebacker who played for Tom Coughlin at Boston College. But in Voccola’s sense, extreme accountability is not the same as extreme ownership: ownership is what I am personally committing to, while accountability is my commitment to my colleagues and my team.
Ownership is self-focused—it’s what I can do—where accountability is actually other-focused.
In talking about extreme accountability, Voccola shares that he developed the concept with his teams over the years. And every time he brings together a new executive team, he re-creates the idea and how to apply it with that team from scratch. “Accountability isn’t something you can force on people—they have to want it and accept it themselves. And if it isn’t a value for them, they and I usually conclude that our company may not be a good fit for them.”
Voccola recently told us more about his philosophy of extreme accountability: “The core is simple: results matter, period. And in any company facing the challenges of growing and sometimes just surviving, results are all that matter. It’s not about your ego and it’s not about your job description. As members of the senior team we are all accountable for the overall business outcomes, not just our individual functions. It’s not simply doing our jobs but finding waysto do them that will result in success for the enterprise and the people who are counting on us—our customers, our employees, and our owners.”
A few of the principles of extreme accountability that Voccola highlights include:
- I am accountable to the final degree of whatever I sign up for. Not just “doing my job” but finding a way to be successful, whatever it takes.
- I will fight through any and all issues to get results. Regardless of politics; never assigning blame to others; never saying “that’s not my fault” or complaining how hard it is.
- I will find a way to get results, including by working with my teammates to do things differently. Roles and organizational boundaries aren’t what matter, especially in fast-growing companies. If we all share the same commitment to the goals, we’ll work together however we need to in order to achieve them.
- When everyone is committed to extreme accountability, then success is measured in terms of our results, not my results.
Practicing Extreme Accountability
- The way Voccola describes extreme accountability it is as much a mindset as a management process. “Finding a way” is the commitment and the core value. What makes an organization work best is when every individual’s personal drive is balanced by his or her deep commitment to others and to the outcomes: doing whatever it takes; not wanting to let colleagues down; and never forgetting that it’s not about you … except if you fail to commit and be accountable.
- Voccola adds that one of the best ways to explain extreme accountability is by what it isn’t: “If I oversee Product Management and I say we couldn’t get the results we promised because I don’t own Development, and Development was slow to build it so we missed the date—that’s a good illustration of a lack of extreme accountability. As head of Product I own the product and the date, so I have to find a way to get it done with Dev and make the date. Similarly, Sales may claim ‘the customer said they have to wait until next year, so I can’t get the deal or make my number.’ Well, in that case Sales has to find a way to get that deal, or another way to make their number, if they are going to be extremely accountable.”
- Extreme accountability is a virtue for every high-performer, but it may be most critical for start-ups and early-stage companies where literally every quarter can mean the difference between success and survival.
- Successful organizations of any kind depend on the symbiotic and mutually supportive relationship between ownership and accountability. Sometimes the most difficult thing about putting in place a strategic plan for your organization is not creating the strategic plan itself—it’s executing that plan, following through, and ensuring that every member of your team delivers, regardless of seen or unforeseen obstacles. If the leader puts together the right incentives and objectives, and the team is truly committed to success (“success is the only option”), then the collective outcome by definition will be success. That’s extreme accountability.
- Here are some questions you can ask to assess whether your team is practicing extreme accountability:
- Are all team members 100% completely and unequivocally committed to the principle that success is all that matters? Without exception?
- Are team members willing to have the crucial conversations to hold their peers accountable —in an unemotional, factual, and results-focused way if they fail to deliver or if they let the team down?
- Is it clear to everyone what a successful outcome looks like? Has the definition of success been communicated to all?
- Are there high degrees of commitment—including a “no excuses” mentality? Do your people accept that “it wasn’t in my control” is not an acceptable answer?
- Has the team come together around a powerful purpose: one they are all truly dedicated to above their own personal goals?
Finally, it’s essential to note how concepts of extreme ownership and extreme accountability mirror the principles of servant leadership. They are not only applicable in the locker room or combat zones. These concepts apply to any setting where there is a shared goal and a group of people depending on each other to achieve it. In the words of Max Depree, author of the timeless book Leadership is an Art, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”
That’s another way of saying extreme accountability: it’s not about you, it’s about the results and your commitment to achieving them because others are depending on you.
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