Accountability in a successful business starts at the top.



Years ago, I was listening to a motivational speaker talking about how to approach your daily to-do list. He had an interesting phrase that has stuck with me all these years: “Swallow the ugly frog first.” 

His message was to look at all your to-dos and tackle the most disagreeable task first. Don’t do all the fun or interesting activities first with the intent of tackling the hard tasks later in the day. Once you get busy, all you need is a little excuse and you push off the difficult (and likely very important) tasks to another day. The process gets repeated day after day.

If you think about a logical way to approach your day, swallowing that ugly frog makes all the sense in the world. If you are like me, the thing you don’t want to do is the thing you feel best about when it is done. When I push off a disagreeable activity, it still sits there either on my desk or in the back of my mind, like a negative cloud over my head.

One of the key attributes of a successful company is that owners and managers do not shy away from necessary confrontation or difficult issues that are in the best interests of the business but may cause themselves or others discomfort.

In virtually all under-performing businesses, typically there are several difficult issues owners are not confronting. Most likely there are significant structural or cultural problems within the business causing the company to under-perform and are being ignored or avoided. 

Here are some of the common “ugly frogs” I see being avoided day after day by struggling companies. See if any sound familiar.

Straight hourly pay plans

In the service industry, it is snow- leopard-rare to see a highly successful company where field employees are paid a straight hourly wage. Successful companies have compensation plans that pay well for above-average performance and conversely don’t pay well for sub-par performance.

Company owners who have moved from straight hourly to performance pay talk about the hours of time it took to craft the plan, as well as the edits and fine-tuning since introduction. They also talk about the difficulty many long-time employees had in accepting the plan, and the ugly reality that many of them could not adapt to the plan and either left the business voluntarily or otherwise.

Many of them describe the transition with statements such as, “The best thing we ever did” or “I would never go back.”

Square peg in a round hole

It is relatively easy to remove an employee who fails to come to work, is habitually late, is caught stealing, etc. What is difficult to accept is a hard-working, well-intended employee being in the wrong job. It’s even harder to take action and remove that employee from the role - especially when there are no other job opportunities in the company.

High-performing companies realize the harm this causes and take action even if there are no other in-house job opportunities for this person. However, in many companies that struggle, no such decisive action is taken. Rather, they work around the employee, taking more and more responsibility from him or her and heaping it onto other employees.

This can cause resentment for those having to work extra to cover for him or her. As a result, the entire business suffers.  

Partner problems

Some of the best companies in our industry are run by partners as opposed to sole owners. Successful partnerships have very open and honest relationships. Notice I did not say nonconfrontational. Differences are aired, solutions are agreed to and everybody works together for the betterment of the business.   

Where this all breaks down is when one of the partners starts to take it easy - maybe takes long weekends off without notice or starts to come and go as he pleases. When he’s in the shop, he doesn’t seem to have a purpose other than to open the mail or make a few calls.

Meanwhile, the other partner is feeling like a martyr having to run the business, yet nobody talks about it.

This can go on for years. Meanwhile, everybody becomes unmotivated and seething discontent runs through the business.  

Low selling price

Successful companies are never the low-price leader in our industry and they don’t even try to be. In the now immortal words of industry icon Frank Blau, “The price is the price.” They focus hard on getting the right price every day. 

If there is a customer or line of work where they don’t believe they can get the selling price, they need to provide a good return for their efforts - they don’t try and contort the business to make it work. They move on. They don’t let the opinions of a few customers prevent them from charging the price they need to have the kind of business and life they want. 

Struggling companies, on the other hand, seem to take as gospel the opinion of others on the fairness of their selling price, regardless of the reality of that selling price on their businesses. It comes down to being unwilling to face the inevitable confrontation that an above-market selling price can bring.

Lack of personal accountability

Many struggling companies seem to have a codependent environment. Codependency is a tendency to behave in overly passive or excessively caretaking ways that negatively impact one’s relationships and quality of life.

The owner can’t work to his or her potential because of various issues, such as family. Because of this, the owner has extra sympathy for an employee who also has a family problem and gives him a pass on performing his job at a high level. The business suffers due to all the distractions, excuses and lack of accountability. 

I have been in many businesses such as this, and while I respect the concern for others, it is taken way too far. The business is the sustenance of money, support and security for all involved; it has to be a top priority. The business occasionally may take a backseat to other critical issues, but there are times of day or seasons in an individual’s life where it has to be the priority.

Major underlying issues in the business normally are not secrets to the owners. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard, “Yeah, we know that is a big issue, but just have not done anything about it.”

After these major issues are addressed and dealt with, I have heard the owner say almost without exception, “I should have done it sooner.”

What is your ugly frog?

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