What can we learn about accountability in business from The Apprentice, Donald Trump's televised search for his next executive? In Trump's version, you're on a team where you avoid taking responsibility and sometimes even undermine team performance to protect yourself. To survive, you may have to throw teammates under the bus. Most importantly, a small mistake will get you called on the carpet for public humiliation, and probably will get you fired.

That perspective is just plain wrong. Top remodeling companies model a completely different approach to accountability — one that encourages each person to accept responsibility for realistic results, and is more about praise than blame.

I interviewed seven remodelers I particularly admire, seeking their wisdom on accountability.

Although they all said that accountability is critical for delivering predictably excellent service, they each have different methods of integrating it into their companies. The following accountability “truths” synthesize their methods.

  • Walk your talk. Owners must model personal and organizational accountability. Remodelers often say they wish they could follow their own systems, but their roles are too all-consuming; they have too many conflicts, etc. All seven remodelers quashed this “it-doesn't-apply-to-me” thinking and agreed that the keys to holding others accountable were their own willingness to: Obey the rules, be on time, follow through on commitments, and publicly admit their failures. “I find myself fighting to follow our systems, but I am committed to them,” says David Foster of Foster Remodeling Solutions in Lorton, Va.
  • Think big and long-term. Accountability is a culture that companies must grow and develop over the years. Jim Strite of Strite Design + Remodel, in Boise, Idaho, muses: “It only took 16 years to get to this place.” Do your staff and operations encourage commitment, responsibility, and results? Would a new hire quickly understand that to fit in and remain with the company, he or she will have to deliver?
  • Hire carefully. You want employees who have demonstrated accountability in their personal lives and work lives. As Jerome Quinn of Atlanta's Sawhorse Construction says, “I'm not good at managing people who aren't accountable, so I have to hire accountable people.” When you interview prospects and their references, ask questions that bore in on their willingness to make reasonable commitments and be responsible for results. Your due diligence should include a background check for criminal convictions and driving violations, as well as drug testing.
  • Develop and adhere to systems. As Michael Gerber, author of The E Myth says, “Systems run your company. People run your systems.” Systems represent tried-and-true processes that produce success. They comprise one of the most valuable entities a company has, but they only work if you consistently follow them.
  • Set goals and use metrics to measure them. Each member of your staff should have inspiring and significant goals, with key metrics to track their progress in meeting them. “Some people have never worked at a company like ours, with goals, meetings, and job descriptions,” says Ty Melton of Melton Construction in Boulder, Colo. “They thrive on having a compass and resetting and achieving goals.”
  • Create feedback loops. Feedback should be based on clearly defined metrics that show every individual how they and the rest of the team are doing. Use feedback to reward aligned behavior and to counsel non-aligned behavior.
  • “I resisted job costing for years because I was afraid it would be a punishment session,” says Iris Harrell of Harrell Remodeling in Mountain View, Calif. “But we set the tone by saying: ‘We're going to learn from this, and we're going to share what we've learned.'” You can't improve if you hide your mistakes, she says.

    Experts say the team is the strongest and most powerful enforcer of accountability, followed by the owner. Create a culture of accountability, and you'll expose the weak, the unwilling, and the irresponsible. Maybe they'll go work for your competitors. —Linda Case is founder of Remodelers Advantage in Laurel, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. 301.490.5260; linda@remodelersadvantage.com;www.remodelersadvantage.com.