Ideally, the last time you or one of your staff pointed a finger at someone and said, “He did it,” you were seven and blaming your brother or sister for breaking mom's antique lamp. Yet blame, finger-pointing, and a lack of accountability still remain in a lot of businesses. And that hurts the bottom line. But how do you get employees to be accountable? And to whom should they be accountable?

“You [the owner] first need to be accountable. Personal accountability is about making good and better choices in the moment,” says John G. Miller, who speaks and writes about accountability. [Editor's note: Miller and the remodelers interviewed for this article will be speaking at this month's Remodeling Leadership Conference, which honors the Big50.]

In his books QBQ and Flipping the Switch, and in his seminars, Miller speaks about changing one's attitude to bolster accountability. As a salesperson for many years in the management leadership training arena, Miller says he probably “spent 10,000 hours in workshops with really good people. That's when I realized that really good people make really lousy choices. I could tell by the questions they asked: ‘When am I going to get better training?' ‘Who made the mistake?' ‘Why don't they?' ‘Who dropped the ball?'” He developed what he calls the “question behind the question” or QBQ. “You have to take those questions and put the word ‘I' in them and focus on action. ‘How can I develop the people I have?' rather than ‘When are we going to get good people?'”

You can't stop at developing your own accountability; you must foster it in those around you, make it part of the company culture. “You need to model it. Then train it. It's a learned skill,” Miller says. It's also a far-reaching concept. In a remodeling business, owners and employees should be accountable to one another; to trade subcontractors, to clients, and to the community at large.

WORKING WITH TRADES Jim Strite seems to know the right questions to ask. But it wasn't always that way. “I had it in me, but I didn't have the tools to get it out,” says Strite, owner for the past 30 years of Strite Design + Remodel, in Boise, Idaho. About 10 years into the business, and after many seminars and peer review sessions, Strite tried to promote personal growth of the individual and failed. “I realized that I had to be open-book, had to play ‘the great game of business,'” he says, in reference to Jack Stack's book of the same name. Once Strite was able to open up to employees and tradespeople, he was able to get the buy-in he needed to move forward. That personal buy-in led to increased accountability.

“You have to have an idea of the present and future, what values your company has, what it stands for,” Strite says, in order to create a mission statement and philosophy you can hold people to. He and his employees developed a clever acronym for what Strite stands for: Service, Trustworthiness, Response-ability, Integrity, Tenacity, Excellence. The company's purpose, he says, is to establish quality relationships and promote personal growth within the Strite team, and he has a written mission statement that promises the company will provide excellent service, on schedule, within budget through honesty and a team approach. “This gives us the tools to address behavior, and not in a personal way,” Strite says.

He stresses that treating tradespeople the same way he treats employees helps to build accountability. “We're not in the industrial age where the individual is considered a liability and the means to control him is the carrot and stick,” he says. “We're in the information age now and you have to treat an individual as a whole person and as an asset.”

When finding new subcontractors to work with, Strite interviews the company owners to see if their values match his. Once they pass muster, they're brought under the Strite umbrella and participate in company-sponsored seminars as well as yearly planning.

If there's a problem on a job, Strite says the person in charge — usually the project manager — will go directly to the source to verify the situation. “We weren't in their shoes,” says Strite, ready to give the tradesperson the benefit of the doubt. “We ask, ‘What can we do as a company to assist you?' To hold a tradesperson accountable, you as an individual have to provide them with the resources necessary to perform their job.” If a trade partner is at fault, however, and won't adhere to the Strite philosophy, the remodeler lets them know it's time to part ways.

Recently, the company held a 30-year reunion with employees, tradespeople, and vendors, at which Strite showed a PowerPoint presentation on the development and future growth of the company. “We showed them where we saw them fitting into the big picture. We don't hire tradespeople for a job. We hire them for a career with Strite.”