Creating an Accountable Culture – Sam Silverstein

Every month, we sit down with transformational HR leaders to discuss hot topics in rewards and recognition, employee engagement, HR, and leadership.



Accountability Keynote Speaker Sam Silverstein’s mission is to empower people to live accountable lives, transform the way they do business, and to thrive at extraordinary levels. By challenging leaders to shift priorities, cultivate an organizational culture based on accountability, and inspire both individuals and teams to take ownership in fresh and results-producing ways – he is helping companies dramatically increase productivity, profitability, and growth. Sam believes that accountability is the highest form of leadership.


Accountability is the foundation of building the most successful life that someone can possibly build, or building the most successful organizational culture, and therefore, the most successful organization possible. When I started on the road of accountability, I had no idea how much raw power was really there.

I was coming off of a successful career, I had sold my business and had a background in sales, marketing, and leadership. I had all this knowledge, and as a speaker, I had programs on a wide range of topics. But I decided that I needed to put on a set of blinders and focus. When I stopped and looked at what success really came down to, I realized that the core foundation was accountability.

Across the board, it’s fair at best. That’s because most leaders don’t fully understand what accountability is. They think it’s simply getting the job done. They think about holding their people accountable, and whether they realize it or not they’re using accountability as a way to manipulate their people to try to do more. That’s not what accountability is. Getting things done is a basic responsibility; you need to get your job done.

Accountability is totally different. It means keeping your commitments to people, and specifically, the relational commitments — not the tactical commitments.

Because people don’t know what accountability is! They think it’s punitive, or standing up and saying something was their fault if it went wrong. That’s not accountability, that’s simply responsibility. Transparency. Honesty. You have a task to complete, you complete it. That’s your responsibility.

Accountability is keeping your commitments to people, to your values, to truth. A commitment a friend or spouse makes to you to stand by you no matter what bad things happen. And these relational commitments start with the leader and go to their people, first.

We have an assessment that we have used for over 12 years in 20 languages that measures accountability in organizations. Those that come up short in accountability simply do not know what it is. Those that shine? They don’t even need to use the word “accountable”.

There is an old style of leadership that leaders are stuck in, and that most business schools teach. In reality, the leaders’ responsibility is the success of the people they lead. It’s the people’s responsibility to focus on the mission of the organization, solve problems they are presented with, and work towards achieving the mission. The issue is that leaders often micromanage: they are focused on the problem or the bottom line instead of supporting their people. Anyone can open a business and be profitable, but that doesn’t mean you are doing leadership right.

There are relational commitments and tactical commitments. Tactical commitments are, for example, agreeing to meet at 10 am today, promising to finish a report by noon tomorrow, etc. Tactical commitments are spoken and easily quantified. Relational commitments aren’t necessarily spoken.

Let’s say I’m your direct report. I mess up, I make a mistake. You walk in and tell me, “Sam, you really messed this up. You know better.” Then you turn, and walk out. Right there, you’ve broken your relational commitment to me as your direct report. Pointing fingers and eroding the relationship are examples of a breach of accountability, because you’ve failed to embody the relational commitment you made by taking on the position of a leader.

To turn it around, imagine that your company has underperformed the last quarter. Accountability as a leader is standing up and stating the facts around coming up short, taking responsibility for your team’s performance, and making new relational commitments moving forward. When you as a leader act in that form and fashion, then your people will respond differently. There are too many leaders that point fingers when things go poorly, but take the credit when things go well.

No one wants to be “held accountable”. It often feels like a manipulative move, a power play. It doesn’t work long term. The only way you create accountability is by inspiring it in the culture by you, the leader, being accountable to your people first.

I spoke to a client this morning who was focused on metrics and performance numbers. But that leader was missing the point: focusing on these elements only creates tension, at best, and animosity at worst. The goal of a leader is to grow their people and be there for them, to make and keep these relational commitments.

When a leader does that, most people are inspired to bust their chops and get the job done! For the few that aren’t busting their chops and are not getting the job done, you have a choice: coach them up or move them out. Don’t allow them to stay in your organization if they aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing as defined by your organizational values.

You should never have to force people to work at their highest capacity. However you should build individuals, coach them, and help them be their best. Allow the ones who don’t want to work at their highest capacity to go elsewhere. Then you’ll find yourself in an organization made up of the best people out there, because you’re relationally investing in the best people.

While this is simple on paper, it’s not easy. You have to be willing to let people go who may be producing, but who are not living your organizational values or playing well in the sandbox with other people.

If a company is coming up short, it’s a leadership problem. It doesn’t matter what the specific issue is, what department the problem impacts, leadership has to transform the way they are thinking about accountability so they can transform the place or department where the challenge is showing up.

Most leaders who talk about an accountability problem are actually talking about a productivity problem. That may or may not be linked to a lack of accountability, but if it is, then it’s a lack of accountability on behalf of the leaders to their people. Many leaders don’t want to hear that, but it’s the truth. And this is what I have to help leaders understand when I work with them.

Usually one of two things happens before I’m contractually engaged with an organization. If the leader wants to grow, they’ll jump on it and engage with this change in perspective. If the leader is defensive and thinks the problem is with their people, we usually don’t end up working together.

It’s simple: you’re responsible for things, you’re accountable to people. Your job description is a list of your responsibilities. Your accountability lies between you and your manager. So if someone is not getting their work done (assuming they have the resources, they’ve been trained), why let them stay in the organization?

Now, when I ask that question, do you know what the number one response is? “It’s hard to find good talent.” Let’s go to a pre-pandemic situation where unemployment was barely on the radar. One small example: I was working with the CEO of a construction company down in Texas. They get between 40-100 applicants per position. I asked this CEO what he would tell a CEO of a company that says, “I can’t find good people,” his answer was, “You haven’t built an organization that attracts good people.”

We created an assessment 12 years ago that is now available in more than 20 languages, so we use it with companies all over the world. There are 10 indices that we measure in a culture to determine its strengths and weaknesses with regard to accountability. The data contributes to an Accountability Index, our trademark, which is a number that gets compared up against other organizations.

Bottom line: leaders who really care about their people, and people in general, will outperform all other leaders. When people are inspired by core values — not company policies or even their roles and responsibilities — they will do their best, be their best, work their hardest, and outperform the competition. Core values are about people.

We know that when we build a culture that inspires accountability, we also build a culture that develops better leadership and promotes better, less-siloed communication. When we have de-siloed communication we know that the quality of relationships within the organization dramatically increases. And the better the employee experience is, the better the customer experience is because customer service always starts with relationships between people.

To top it off, the culture becomes an environment where people are psychologically safe and know they are valued, that their opinion is heard, where they have a voice at the table. When people feel that way, then innovation becomes a given because people are willing to share ideas. It’s also an environment where people are more readily open to change, which is a given these days. They are more engaged, more productive workers and create more value for their employers.

What goes hand in hand with this is not allowing or enabling anyone to stay with the company who does not align with the culture and a very specific set of values. Create your culture, and then actively protect something that is of tremendous value to you. The leader who says, “This is business, it’s not personal,” has already failed the test.

Sam Silverstein

Talk to your people and listen to what they have to say. What are their challenges? Work from home challenges are different from working from the office. They are different for parents with kids at home. As leaders focused on relationships, we have to ask our people what they need to be successful in a new circumstance, and then deliver it.

Everything we’ve been talking about with regards to building relationships is still in play; we just have to find different ways to execute on new needs and show that we care about our people. You might have to be creative or do something you’ve never done before. But if the relationship is what matters to you, then you will do it.

Design an amazing set of values that is built around people. You can visit our website for help doing that. Then take those values and live them to the level of non-negotiable, every day of the week. And if you just do that, you’ll be lightyears ahead of the competition. Or, if you just want to start by finding out how accountable you are, take our free, 60-second quiz.

As a company, Wishlist is passionate about people and technology and what we can achieve by blending those two elements. Know someone who may be interested in a rewards and recognition solution? Refer an organization today and receive a $100 Wishlist reward if the organization signs up!

This interview was hosted by Dan Kasper from Wishlist. If you are a transformational HR leader and would like to be featured in Wishlist’s interview series, contact