The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 37

Craig Hickman and Marcus Nicolls

Fix It

What is the most important quality you can develop in your organization? Craig Hickman and Marcus Nicolls, co-authors of Fix It: Getting Accountability Right and the New York Times best-selling classic The Oz Principle, make the case for accountability. On this week’s podcast, they explain the four steps to bring your company “above the accountability line.” Learn how you can not only be an example in your workplace, but inspire change in those around you.


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Book: Fix It: Getting Accountability Right

Marcus Nicolls: As a Senior Partner for Partners In Leadership, Marcus is an integral member of the company’s leadership team. He significantly contributes to the strategic direction of the company and helps guide the development of the company’s curriculum. Marcus is also the co-author of the leadership book, Fix It: Getting Accountability Right. Fix It is a fresh, intuitive journey into accountability providing a customized approach to this topic that touches everything in the organization.

Craig Hickman: Craig is a co-author of Partners In Leadership’s classic New York Times bestselling book The Oz Principle and the company’s latest book Fix It: Getting Accountability Right. He is a Partner and Practice Leader for Partners In Leadership with over 30 years of management and consulting experience. Craig is the author of more than a dozen books on management and leadership, four of which have become international bestsellers—The Oz Principle, Mind of a Manager Soul of a Leader, The Strategy Game, and Creating Excellence.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners. We help companies achieve ambitious goals by strengthening leadership throughout the organization. I created this podcast to share ideas that you can use to become a more powerful and courageous leader.

Here with me today are Craig Hickman and Marcus Nichols, two of the co-authors of a book called, “Fix It: Getting Accountability Right”, it’s a subject that’s important for anybody who’s in a leadership role and probably anybody who listens to this podcast. Craig was also a co-author of the Oz Principle, a book that, arguably, shifted how we think about and how we manage accountability in organizations.

Marcus and Craig, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Craig: Thank you, Peter.

Marcus: Yes. Thank you Peter. Glad to be here.

Peter: I want to start with talking about The Oz Principle. It set out four elements of managing and mastering accountability in organizations and driving accountability. Why accountability? It may seem obvious, but why is that such a critical element of all of the work that you do and something that we should all be paying attention to? Also take us through those four elements, so we can get everybody up to speed.

Craig: Great. Let me start and then, Marcus, you can add in. Accountability is the basis for organizational life. If you don’t have it, it will affect everything that you do. Getting to a level of accountability that will drive the organization forward is critical. There’s not an organization on the planet that doesn’t want to achieve greater levels of accountability. There’s this inherent understanding that if people aren’t taking accountability in the organization, you’re going to have problems. That’s certainly our experience.

Peter: Let’s take a step back and define accountability.

Craig: Accountability is, if you look at a typical dictionary definition of accountability, you’re going to hear things like, subject to, having to report, being answerable, being responsible. There’s a negative connotation around accountability that we confront everyday. Our definition of accountability, and a much more productive definition of accountability, is that it’s a personal choice to rise above your circumstances and own the situation. In particular, own the results that you need to achieve. Then, we introduce the four steps to accountability, which is, see it, own it, solve it, do it. That’s our definition of accountability. Marcus.

Peter: I’d add to that Craig and Peter, that our experience with accountability tends to be punitive. The interesting irony of this is that if you ask people, individually, if they’re accountability, what do you think we hear, Peter?

Craig: Absolutely. They are totally accountable.

Peter: 99 times out of 99 times, you get some version of, “Yes. I am accountable.” Yet, everyone sees a need for greater accountability in the organization, universally. We work with executive leadership teams on a weekly basis, all over the globe. As such, we have insight into patterns and habits of effective leaders and leadership teams. I’d say, fairly universally, accountability is up there in the top three, as far as needs in the organization.

Peter: It’s somewhat similar to, the way you’re describing it, that 90% of drivers call themselves above-average drivers.

Marcus: Exactly.

Peter: Leaders, obviously, want everybody to take accountability. Ultimately, if everyone in the organization is showing up and being accountable for the work that needs to get done, the organization is going to operate effectively. That said, there’s a tendency in organizations for people to distance themselves from that accountability. Why?

Marcus: That’s a great question. We introduced, the central model of The Oz Principle is that there’s a line. Above the line, you’re accountable. Below the line, you’re unaccountable. Above the line is where you get the desired results. Below the line is where you get undesired results. It’s basic human nature to go below the line. All of us do. Below the line is the blame game, the victim cycle. There are these classic positions of ignore, deny, it’s not my job, finger-pointing, confusion, tell me what to do, wait and see, cover your tail. All of those are classic positions below the line that make up the realm of excuse-making. That’s where, there’s a real gravitational pull to go below the line.

There’s a problem, results aren’t achieved. Because of our current environment around accountability, it often becomes a “gotcha game”. We learn, in organizations, be careful. Things go bad, the word accountability is going to come up and it’s, “Now, I got you game.” It’s who’s at fault. That’s what we’re battling. We’ve actually created some of this ourselves in our organizations. Not only is there a gravitational pull that takes most of us below the line, from time to time, we create that environment in organizations by playing this “gotcha game”, this game of who’s at fault.

The key is, recognize the human tendency to go below the line. It’s natural. All of us go down there. It’s a great place to vent. Sometimes we have to go there to keep our heads from exploding. The key is, it’s normal, it’s not wrong to go below the line. The issue, Peter is, what is, what do you think we ask clients? What is wrong about going below the line?

Peter: Obviously what’s wrong about going below the line is that nothing ever gets done. Meaning, if no one’s taking the blame and no one’s saying, “I’m accountable for this,” then, it’s impossible to move forward. You’re not going to learn anything.

Marcus: Yes. That’s exactly right. What we say is that the problem with going below the line is getting stuck there, is staying there, because exactly what you said. Nothing happens down there that is productive and beneficial. Sometimes there is some results that are achieved, but by and large, you never achieve the desired results below the line. It’s a journey to get above the line and take the four steps. See it. Own it. Solve it. Do it.

Peter: Here’s my question, this is my ultimate question, almost always, on the podcast. I’m very focused on application, on how we put this into practice. Ultimately, you are too, right? You guys are consultants and you’re working in organizations to drive this home. You’re not academics writing about this. You’re practitioners, which I appreciate. The challenge, when I look at the methodology of the four things that you described, see it, own it, solve it and do it – Ultimately, nobody would dispute the process or importance of following these four steps. Nobody would say it’s a bad idea to see a problem, to own it, to solve it and to follow through and fix it. Nobody would argue that. I’m sure nobody has ever argued with you, in the, this book’s been out, maybe, ten years. I don’t think anyone’s ever … twenty years. I imagine in 20 years, has anyone ever argued with you that said, “You know, these steps are wrong,” or “It’s a bad idea to see a problem,” or, “It’s a bad idea to own it and solve it.”

Craig: No they haven’t. Marcus, take this one.

Marcus: Of course not. That’s part of the power here, Peter. What we think we’ve captured in the steps to accountability is something that already exists in everyone. It’s universally acknowledged. We’ve done this work in over 100 countries. Thousands of client organizations. You’re right, nobody says, “You know, I think, let’s just own it, solve it and do it. We don’t need to see it clearly.” Of course, that never happens. Each of those steps is a decision. What people, the application you’re getting to here, Peter, is essential. Nobody changes behavior because they read a book or go to a workshop or a seminar. We know that.

The change comes with deliberate practice over time. Associated with these steps are a few simple tools and some best practices, which was the emphasis of Fix It. Back to The Oz Principle, and these steps to accountability, because they’re so universally acknowledged, it can be very superficial. It can go in one ear and out the other because it’s like, “Oh, yes. I get that. By the way, that’s me. That’s how I operate.” People externalize the need for change, part of the problem we talked about earlier.

What the steps to accountability, above line and below the line, this framework provides people a common sense framework, a mental model, to actually apply, personally, this understanding of, “Wow. Personal accountability means me, not everyone else. It’s not someone or something getting in my way, it’s what else am I going to do.”

Peter: Here’s the gem. This is the gem that I want to explore, which is that your book, Fix It, has hundreds of tools, literally hundreds, that can help you in each of these stages. Right? That can help you see something. That can help you own it.

But the underlying requirement to putting any of these in practice is overcoming the emotional challenge of looking at a problem and saying, “I’m actually going to risk getting blamed for something. I’m going to face my childhood fears of being punished when I do things wrong. I’m going to stick my neck out and say I was responsible for something that I’m now going to fix. I’m not going to point a finger at somebody else.”

When you think of these very simple, kindergarten behaviors, they’re deeply challenging for us on a day-to-day basis when our jobs are on the line, when we’ve got bosses who might yell at us, when we’ve got people who might say we’re not good colleagues, when we might face our own fears of competence and capability and fraud, the kind of fraud idea of should I be here anyway? I’m really curious about, in all of your experience, how do we move through that most difficult of stages to get to a place where we can look at it and say, “Now, here’s a group of solutions that are really effective and really work. We know them because we’ve used them in practice and now we can follow step one, step two, step three.”

Craig: It’s really basic. It’s why the line is so important. Disney has a saying that is kind of at the core of their culture. “It’s not my fault, but it is my problem.” The shift you’re making here, as you go from below the line to above the line, is you stop saying, “It’s not my fault. I didn’t do this. Don’t blame me.” You move to, “I’m the solution.” “I am a problem solver. I am going to do something about this, regardless of who created this problem, why it happened, why we don’t deserve it, why it’s totally outside of our control.” You literally have a mindset change and it affects everything. It affects your mind. It affects your heart and your commitment, your passion. You move to a resolve that you are going to see it, own it, solve it, do it. It doesn’t mean you need to solve all the world’s problems tomorrow. It does mean that you are in a solution mindset. That’s the key shift.

Peter: In what way do you think it’s important, in that solution mindset, to look back and understand the origins of the problem. I think that might be where people get stuck a little, is to say, “Let’s pull this problem apart and understand how it happened, in order to solve for it appropriately.” To me, it seems like that might be a very useful step. On the other hand, that’s also a step that could send us down the rabbit hole of who’s fault was it and why did they do it in the first place?

Craig: One of the best practices here, under the own it step, is learning from both successes and failures. Even though that’s an “own it” piece, there’s some really important questions that fall into, naturally fall into each of these steps. Really what you’re describing, Peter, is how do we see it clearly? A very effective question around “see it” is, what’s the reality I most need to acknowledge? If people aren’t acknowledging reality, how are they going to take ownership and solve for it and actually get something done that’s real? If you’re unwilling to hear the hard things, you’re not going to see reality. These 16 accountability traits profiled in Fix It dig into each one of these. I’ve just mentioned two of them.

Under the “see it” step, we’ve got hearing the hard things to see reality. Under “own it”, it’s learning from both successes and failures. The “see it” step may be one of, if not the most, challenging for people because we’re locked in already to the way we see things. No one wakes up in the morning and pops their head off the pillow and looks for a way to invalidate the way they see the world. It’s just the opposite, right? We call it belief bias, or confirmation bias, that we’re predetermined to see things through the lens of our own view and our own thoughts. When we see things that happen, we go, “Yes. There we go. I knew it. I knew he’d say that. I knew they’d act like that. Obviously they’re going to say that.” It prevents us from actually seeing clearly, being open and candid.

What you’re talking about in those fears, the first step, really, is to see it. How do you do that? How do you see it? It is a mindset. It’s a choice people make. Are you going to keep your blinders on? Are you going to keep your ideas and thoughts to yourself as superior, or are you going to be open to the perspectives of others?

Peter: Part of it, I guess, is what leaders can do to help people to predispose people …

Craig: Absolutely.

Peter: … to that kind of mindset. It brings me to this distinction that I often hear. I often hear people say, “I need to hold them accountable. I’m going to hold someone accountable.” Versus what I think you’re describing, which is, from the person’s perspective, taking accountability. This distinction between taking accountability and holding someone accountable feels very important to me. I’m curious to hear you talk about it.

Craig: It’s a great distinction and it’s one we deal with all the time. It’s perspective clients that call us and want us to come and help them. It’s usually with that question. “Can you come and help us hold our people accountable?” Our response is, “Of course we’d be happy to help you, but you’ve got to do this from the right baseline.” The right baseline and the right foundation is taking personal accountability. Otherwise, holding others accountable can really get out of line quickly and become problematic. We often talk about the accountability paradox, which is, the more you hold people accountable the wrong way, the less accountability you get.

What is the wrong way? The wrong way is using accountability as a club or hammer and then demanding, “I’m going to hold you accountable for this.” What you want to do is create an environment where people are taking accountability. This is a personal choice. You want to create the environment where people are anxious to take accountability.

To your earlier question, and what Marcus said about seeing it, that first step is difficult. Sometimes, when people take it, they see all the crazy things organizations do. There are lots of reasons to go below the line and point out this problem and that problem and this was a predecessor, this was another department, this was something that was happened in the marketplace. It was totally out of our control. The key is, it’s okay to go below the line and get that stuff vented. Then, you’ve got to face the reality. “Okay. We’re not going to come to a solution here, below the line. We’ve identified lots of problems. Now, we’ve got to own this. We’ve got to own this. Get above it.” This is part of seeing reality. It’s acknowledging the reality that has created our situation. That’s that first step above the line. It is a healthy place to be.

When our experiences, when people go there and embrace it, they feel better. There’s less stress. Problem doesn’t change, but they have a totally different mindset. They have a totally different feeling. Their commitment is different. That’s what creates, not only a culture of accountability, but a very healthy organization.

Peter: What do you advise a leader, because that moment seems like we’ve hit on the right moment, that moment of from below the line to above the line, the moment where someone goes from rejecting accountability or defensiveness in the face of a problem, to accepting accountability and looking to be part of the solution. You hear people say, “Are you going to be part of the problem, or are you going to be part of the solution.” How do you shift the mood of an organization, the culture of an organization, to one where you make it easier for people to be courageous in owning issues and solving them?

Marcus: Craig, I’ll take a stab here, then add your two cents. As you might expect, Peter, culture reflects leadership. Culture is just the way people think and act to get things done. There’s a very strong connection between a leader of any organization, or team, and the disposition or culture of that team. As we work with organizations to help them create a culture of accountability, in the most positive sense, there’s a strong emphasis on making it leader lead. It’s not uncommon, if we’re sitting with a leadership team and they’re getting initially exposed to our models and tools, for them to get a feeling like, “Wow. This would be great. We could really use this to fix the employees.” As soon as we recognize that, we jump on that and help them recognize that’s, your externalizing the need for change here.

The same happens if we’re in the middle of an organization. We’re talking with a group, someone’s going to raise their hand and say, “This is great stuff, but have you talked with the leadership team because they’re the ones that really need this.” That’s the human nature. It’s like, this would be great for someone else. I saw a tee shirt on a guy recently. It said, “Change is good. You go first.”

Peter: Unless the CEO, or unless the senior leaders go first, that the battle is not won.

Marcus: You’re right, Peter. For the organization, that is true. However, we never miss the fact that what Craig said earlier, taking accountability is a personal choice. We want to actually create a culture in an organization where the leaders lead by example, they’re demonstrating what it looks like to demonstrate accountability and to take accountability. Now, every person in the organization has to make that choice as well. They are a lot more likely to do so when they’re being led that way. They’re actually given a simple, common language and mental model that captures, efficiently, the way we all go after this at the same time. Now, naturally, there are other tools here beyond the steps to accountability and the tools associated over there. They all combine as a system to help accelerate creating that sort of a culture where you are unleashing it, every level of the organization. People’s ability to actually see it and own it and solve it.

One president of a company I was working with recently said, “I’ve been the president 10 months here. We did an assessment around these best practices.” As we looked at the assessment together, I said, “Doug, what are your observations?” He looked at it and he goes, “Wow. This is really interesting. It looks like we’re pretty good at own it. We’re pretty good at do it. That’s make sense to me because what I’ve observed here as the president is, we’ve got a lot of good soldiers. They’ll do what we ask them to do, if we tell them to do it. We paint the path for them. What I need to see a lot more of, is people actually seeing the problem and figuring out how to solve it so it’s not all on my shoulders.”

That’s what this construct really opens up an organization to be able to do. At every level, getting people, personally, taking those steps and not waiting to be told what to do, or leaders feeling like they have to tell people what to do. It truly does unleash the capabilities of an organization when you create a culture where people know what it means and know how to take personal accountability.

Peter: The mere articulation of these four steps is very helpful. To the extent that there’s a process, it reduces the necessary courage. It reduces how deeply people have to well it up in themselves to say, “Okay. We’re going to have a process. We’re going to start with seeing it, then owning it, then solving it and then doing it. We’re in the see stage. What are the problems that we see? What are the issues, like where are there opportunities?” Just having a structure like that is, in and of itself, reduces the bar …

Marcus: It reduces problem solving cycle time. That’s what it does, Peter. I’ve never met a CEO that doesn’t want that. In fact, Craig and I are familiar with one leader who’s brought us in to four separate organizations. The way he describes the steps to accountability, he says, “The steps to accountability are basic training for any employee in an organization I lead.” He wants them to have that construct, so they can apply that on a daily basis in their work.

Peter: When you’re a leader and someone has these tools and yet, they aren’t taking accountability, they’re not taking personal responsibility, I’m going to ask kind of a harsh question, which is, at that point, do you just say, this just isn’t going to work? How do you then create every opportunity for them to do it, but ultimately, if they’re not going to take ownership, then is there, would your advice be, have them leave the organization?

Craig: This really goes to the leader’s, core of the leader’s challenge and to the core of leadership. It’s really why we entitled this sequel, Fix It. It’s a bold title. It does imply that something’s wrong, really wrong and it needs addressing. That’s exactly how we see this. Leaders have got to fix this personal accountability issue for themselves first. If they’re not taking personal accountability as a leader, they’re not going to be able to help others do the same.

First step is, make sure, that’s why, apply Fix It to yourself. Go through the process. Identify which of the traits you need to work on. Start fixing. Make that visible to the people that you’re leading. Then, you go to, again, leading by example, as we’ve talked about. Then, you go to helping whoever is struggling. They’re stuck below the line. Using the model of above and below the line can help, intellectually. Then, what they’ve got to do is they’ve got to start demonstrating that they’re willing to see it. Where are they below the line? Again, now it’s how do you help individuals make the decision to fix it for themselves. You create an environment where when accountability isn’t right, we fix it.

Ultimately, if you create the right environment, our experience is, you can, most people want to get above the line. Most people have a craving to be connected to what matters most. They have a craving to be doing things that add value, that actually produce results. There’s not this general unwillingness out there in the world. People are willing. Ultimately, to your point, Peter, if you create that environment, if the leader is fixing accountability issues for himself or herself, creating an environment where everyone’s being encouraged to fix it for themselves and for the team and somebody’s still not doing it and they’re stuck and they seem to be immovably stuck below the line, then, yes. Then, you probably need to help them find an environment where they can get unstuck because they’re making a conscious choice to remain stuck in this environment.

Peter: That also, actually, in some ways, seems to turn on its head the fear that most people have. Most people have a fear that says, “If I take accountability, if I take the blame, then I’m going to get in trouble.” It’s the reason we don’t do it. If, in effect, the shift in culture is that, if I don’t take accountability, that’s when I’m in trouble, that’s another nudge. As I read the book and as I listen to you guys, I think more and more that we’re looking at how you create nudges in the organization to lead people down a path that they have a natural disinclination to following.

It reminds me of when my son came out of the kitchen and he had chocolate all over his face. I said to him, “Daniel, what were you eating?” He looked at me and said, “I didn’t eat any chocolate.” It’s like that fear. I said to him, “Well, go look in the mirror and then come back and tell me you didn’t eat any chocolate.” That’s, in fact, what we’re saying.

Marcus: What you’re describing, Peter, we would capture that in this broad word, culture. Now, if Daniel had come out and you’d gotten all over him and hammered him and created a very negative experience, it doesn’t mean he’s never going to do that again, but it does mean he’s going to hide it. He’s going to make sure he doesn’t get caught. The way you, as a leader, interact in that moment is what it’s all about. We’re helping leaders understand, for you, personally, as Craig said, for you personally, if you can master these simple steps of see it, own it, solve it, do it, in your interactions with others, you’re actually modeling that. You’re creating experiences that actually develop the right thinking in others. That’s what this is all about. This is how we fix it.

Peter: Fix It. Getting accountability right. 240 solutions to your toughest business problems. It’s the official sequel to The Oz Principle. We’ve been listening to Craig Hickman and Marcus Nichols, sharing their perspective and their wisdom with us. Thank you both for being on The Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Marcus: Thank you, Peter.

Craig: Thank you, Peter. Been great.