May 2021 | Point of View

Making promises you can keep

The how and why of promises require follow-through with action and results

Making promises you can keep

What does the word accountability mean to you?  

To most people, accountability implies meaning what you say and holding yourself—and one another—responsible for those words.  

To me, accountability goes beyond that. It is not only about meaning what you say but following through on your words with action—and even more importantly, results. Words that lead to action that lead to results is how we measure our business at West Monroe, how we measure our leaders, and what we expect from one another. It’s also how we approach our work with clients. 

But it’s not always what we encounter in the market. We all know how it feels to be left at the alter in one figurative sense—when those who made promises to us, either as individuals or organizations, let us down when outcomes weren’t realized.

The problem with accountability is the lack of follow-through 

The issue with the first definition of accountability is that it doesn’t always lead to the right outcomes. We can all mean what we say, but promises are empty without the action and follow-through to make them a reality. And, people don’t always have the attention span or memory to see things through to completion and fulfillment of the promises made.

In business, this appears in a few different ways. We’ve all seen major announcements from companies about hiring thousands of workers, bringing a new manufacturing facility to an underdeveloped area, or aiming for a new environmental goal. These promises, for the most part, are well-intentioned. And many may actually pan out—but think about how many times we see a company, or at least the media covering it, say “Hey remember that promise? We fulfilled it.” There’s too much emphasis, focus, and attention on the promise and not enough attention on the outcome.

When Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase announced they were forming a joint healthcare venture, later named Haven, the media went wild and the news had healthcare industry incumbents running scared. Boardrooms of established healthcare companies from hospitals to insurance companies to even Big Pharma spent weeks pontificating about what this type of disruption could mean to the industry and to their businesses. For the record, disruption and innovation are good for the economy. But the announcement was made with a vastly general promise to lower healthcare costs and improve the patient experience without any measurable goals or steps on how this would be accomplished. Over the next three years, the only progress they seemed to make was hiring some big talent like Atul Gawande. But on Jan. 4, 2021, they announced a dissolution of the company and very little to show for the effort.

What happened here? What was their plan, and why didn’t it come to fruition? What were the follow-up actions and results that should have been included in that initial charter? The intentions were noble, but the lack of follow-through turned into disappointment. My suspicion is the end result got only a fraction of the attention and audience share of the initial bold vision. A lot of disappointed believers, I’m sure, but no full report of accountability and lessons learned for market consumption, which will prompt even more grandiose press releases in the future.

JP Morgan Chase's announcement that it would form Morgan Health, a healthcare unit focused on its own 165,000 employees, is an interesting move post-Haven Health. Perhaps CEO Jamie Dimon was unsettled by the venture's failure and is doing what he can within his own sphere of control to provide some accountability.

Make a plan—before you make a promise  

While it’s important to speak the truth and have integrity, it’s even more important to back up that integrity with results.

The first major step toward keeping a promise is not making one without a plan of action. Before making a promise (or an announcement) do the substantial legwork of determining 1) how you will measure success and 2) the steps and resources required to get there. If you make a promise without this upfront work, you’re risking your reputation on good intentions and hope alone. And as the adage goes, hope is not a strategy — nor are good intentions and headlines.

At West Monroe, we’ve built a culture of accountability through a focus on planning and results. Here are some examples of that:

  1. Measuring financial value for clients. We’re on a mission at West Monroe to become known as the consulting firm that drives results. As my colleagues Tom Bolger and Casey Foss recently wrote, “Fewer than half of consulting firm clients report that the value created from their engagements was greater than the fees paid. In our view, this is unacceptable.” They’re right. So we’ve built an entire team and culture around value creation that requires our consultants to help clients not only define success at the outset, but follow through with the measurement. Our job is to get them there. With this approach, we keep our promise of calculating and delivering real financial value and our clients get to keep their promise of driving valuable change to their shareholders and stakeholders.
  2. Holding our leaders accountable. Our 200+ leaders at West Monroe aren’t just measured by the work they do for clients or business they bring into the firm. Because of our mission to build the next generation of leaders, they’re also measured on people growth and professional development. In particular, we ask our entire employee base to provide anonymous, upward feedback to any leader in the firm, measuring them on the four “ships” of how we engage our people: craftsmanship, followership, stewardship, and fellowship. Upward feedback in terms of both scores and verbatims are incredibly important to our leaders’ impact and place in the firm. It’s the primary measurement of whether they’re keeping their promises and allows us to hold them accountable through actions and results—not just goal setting and reputation.
  3. Prioritizing accuracy instead of first-to-market. The companies that make promises first get the attention. Those that announced new I&D goals or communicated their new hybrid working models are seen as the trailblazers. Perhaps they are, but at West Monroe we’ve decided we are uncomfortable announcing promises before we have a plan to deliver the outcomes. We might have goals in mind (and frustratingly, have them before others announce theirs) but because we need to spend time developing the actionable plan that leads to the results we want, we wait to tell others what those goals are. Though this philosophy makes us look like we’re “behind” from time to time, we do this so we don’t make promises that we can’t keep; it’s a part of our fabric we’re not willing to give up.

Let’s ask the hard questions

Accountability is an important part of doing business. In my opinion as a CEO, your word means everything. If you don’t back up those words with actions and results, your accountability—and credibility—suffer drastically.  

Chase CEO Dimon championed the idea of accountability recently in an interview about proposed infrastructure legislation, where he said, “I’m concerned about how the money’s going to be spent. The government needs to be very clear on what they want to accomplish. On highways, how many miles are you going to build? How much is it going to cost? When's it going to get done? Who's responsible?" 

Now those are questions of accountability. 

From diversity goals to providing customers a return on their investment for spending money with your organization, we all need to define the actions we need to take to achieve the desired outcomes. And follow through and be accountable to results.

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