A Renowned Leader’s Take on Accountability

Mike Thaman
Mike Thaman,
Chief Executive Officer
Owens Corning
Owens Corning

Mike Thaman is the CEO of Owens Corning, a leading global producer of residential and commercial building materials, glass-fiber reinforcements, and engineered materials for composite systems. A Fortune® 500 Company for 58 consecutive years, Owens Corning is committed to driving sustainability by delivering solutions, transforming markets, and enhancing lives. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, Owens Corning employs approximately 15,000 people in 27 countries on five continents. Root Inc. CEO Jim Haudan had the privilege of speaking with Mike about the sensitive and critical topic of accountability. Here’s how it went.

Jim Haudan: You do a great job of making a distinction between holding people accountable and creating accountability in others. What’s at the very heart of that distinction?

Mike Thaman: I’ve looked at a lot of different organizations where it felt like there wasn’t great accountability. I’d hear people say, “Well, we need to hold people accountable,” which seems like a pretty simple concept – tell them what they need to do and then expect them to get it done. But that prescription used over and over again to solve a problem in an organization doesn’t actually drive accountability. If you pick the right people, you emotionally commit them to your goal, and literally commit them to it for a period of time as part of their career, you can get accountability much quicker. The goal is to get leaders to bring people to accountability as something we all desire together.

JH: What happens to people when they think about the concept of the punitive or negative consequences of “We’re going to hold you accountable”?

When we make this happen, how is it going to affect our customers, our employees, and our shareholders?

MT: If any portion of your thought process in your business day is, “What happens if this doesn’t work?” then you’re spending time thinking about something that’s not helping your shareholders, your customers, or your company. The thought process you want is, “When we make this happen, how is it going to affect our customers, our employees, and our shareholders? What are the barriers to making this happen and how do we knock them down?” Unfortunately, it’s hard for people to even imagine positive consequences like getting promoted, earning a bonus, or hearing a customer thank them for the work they’re doing. The danger is that the imagination only goes to the negative consequences and that saps the energy and the intelligence out of the organization.

JH: What else is important for leaders to understand as they distinguish between doing well and doing poorly – negative vs. positive consequences?

MT: My greatest passion in leadership is to ensure that people have the opportunity to realize as much of their own capability as they possibly can, based on their abilities and their vision. There’s a tendency to put boundaries around people, in terms of their job description, what resources they control, what decisions they’re allowed to make, and the definition of how they can contribute. Obviously you need some of that but it can become too rigid. What we need to be doing is getting more people to have the confidence to say, “Why do we do it this way? I think we could do better if we did it a different way.” And we need our managers to have the competence to listen and actually think about changing the way that we do things instead of answering, “Because we’ve always done it that way.” I never want to walk out of the office feeling like I somehow limited someone’s ability to contribute to something they believe in.

What are we trying to accomplish and what’s getting in our way of accomplishing that?

JH:How do you think about accountability as a culture of an organization?

MT: Accountability only exists in a context. The real question is, “What are we trying to accomplish and what’s getting in our way of accomplishing that?” and, “Are we willing to make the changes in the way we interact, make decisions, and allocate resources to get that done?” Getting people to be accountable to a thoughtful objective is the key. People want to win. If you can tap into that competitive spirit as a way of getting accountability in your organization, that’s 90 percent of the game.

JH: How does accountability for a cross-functional team or a cross-functional initiative change?

MT:The thing I look for when we have a tough cross-functional problem to solve is, “Did we dedicate really good people to it full-time?” Cross-functional initiatives that work the best have a team leader who enrolled a group of people that were 90 to 100 percent all-in.

See the full interview