Winning with Accountability

Finding Success After Almost Getting Fired

The path to success is rarely smooth, but in my case, it was bumpy and at times cringe-worthy. Dale Carlsen, Founder, and CEO of Sleep Train (a large chain of mattress stores), said that he remembers me as someone who could sell to anyone but would also challenge him constantly. I quickly became the number one person to trigger his infamous “red face.” He has the kind of fair skin that gives away his state of frustration, and “rosy” was a hue I saw often.

My early leadership style had a “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” kind of vibe. What I thought was proactive behavior was actually just me ineffectively pushing the envelope. This lead to some tense “discussions” between Dale and I.  As time went on, we became more in sync, as I learned to make changes in a less disruptive manner, through a culture of accountability.

Ambition Is Not Enough

I have learned over and over again that ambition can cloud your judgment if it’s the only thing propelling you. However, ambition with accountability will light the path to your success. When you start practicing accountability in the workplace, you give yourself the room to consider the context. Good intentions aren’t enough to keep you in good graces if your actions cause harm, and lacking context is a great way to find yourself doing just that.

A good example of this comes from my childhood in Idaho. It was all hands on deck on our dairy farm, and I was tasked with milking our special Cow Number One every day after school. She was, as the number suggests, the first calf ever born on our farm. By the time Cow Number One was all grown up, I was a scrawny, nine years old and about 75 pounds, but here I was being asked to establish some kind of authority over this creature. My first attempt was a total failure. All I could establish was a mess and an exacerbated cow. She was resisting heavily, and I was tired and frustrated. Instead of finishing the task or asking for help, I decided that the best course of action was to let Cow Number One graze instead of being milked.

Although my decision was well-intentioned, I unwittingly put Cow Number One and her calf in danger. I didn’t consider the context – the why of the job. She could have developed an infection that rendered her milk useless. I don’t remember if his face turned red, but my dad was definitely furious. That was the first time I remember learning that accountability matters. It was my job to retrieve the milk, and as hard as it was, I had no choice but to get it done. My father held me to my responsibilities, which was an extremely difficult and important lesson.

Ineffective Intent

I was given a low-performing store for my first managerial position at Sleep Train, which was in Stockton, California. The staff was miserable, and sales were terrible, but I was determined to go in and turn it around. My motivation was so strong that I was ready to do whatever it took to see our store do well. I started by retraining the staff and insisting that everything was done strictly by the book. I left little room for human error. Once my team was given my expectations, I let no detail go ignored. I grilled my team on every single duty from serving customers to vacuuming the store to exactly when and how to take out the trash.

After two months, my plan started to pay off. We were breaking sales records and out-selling high-performing stores. It was during this exciting period that I learned what nickname my management style had awarded me among my staff. It’s one of the worst names you can ever call a leader.

Yes, in their eyes, I was on par with some of the worst people this world has ever seen. It didn’t matter that we were getting results or that I wanted what was best for the store. All that mattered was that they didn’t want to work for me. Who would? That was a huge wake-up call.

Winning Hearts at Work

I couldn’t let a horrible nickname be my legacy, and that desire inspired major changes with the way that I interacted with my employees. They were only responding to my micromanaging and lack of positive reinforcement, and I knew that I could no longer push them to do better without holding myself to the same standard. I used the opportunity to learn as much as I could about effective leadership. Not everything that I tried worked, but when I focused my energy away from my intentions and on to the objective, I was able to eventually develop the techniques that I now teach the 3Ps of Accountability:  Personal, Positive, and Performance.

I worked my way from managing that first store to becoming president of Sleep Train.  I’ve been blessed with many professional victories, but my most cherished accolade was a “Best Leader” award given to me by my staff. As leaders, it’s our duty to find and implement solutions to problems in our team. We are the only ones to blame for these hurdles, and we’re the only ones who can fix them. This is what I mean when I talk about holding ourselves accountable.

No matter how you struggle to lead, I can tell you that it’s never too late to turn your performance around. If a little accountability can bring me back from being called one of the worst names you can ever call a leader, it can help anyone!



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