Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence


Lack of disciplined execution and failure to hold people fully accountable… these two issues can cost a business as much as 85% of their potential revenues! This is a HUGE problem that needs to be addressed, so in this video I share some of my best advice for how to greatly increase the level of accountability in your organization. If you find this video helpful I truly hope you will send it on to any of your colleagues and friends that you feel might find value in the ideas I share. Thanks so much — John


  1. John, this is EXCELLENT! Material is critical and spot on….

    Only suggestion I can offer for improvement, to make this PERFECT, is slow your speech down, by a quarter measure, and reduce your hand gestures.

    Keep up the great topics, blogs and vids!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • johnspen says:

      I agree Mike — I do need to slow down — I just get carried away!!!!!! Thanks for the very honest and on target feedback.

  2. John,

    Rock on! So, where is the product placement? I didn’t see your awesome book, “Awesomely Simple” anywhere. Did I miss it?

    I’m sold on accountability it gives meaning to actions and joy to success. It also fuels passion.

    Thank you for all you do.


  3. Oliver says:

    Hi John,

    Excellent and compact video, especially about the need of execution. I would like to add one important thing and it comes from the “Fast Strategy” – leadership unity. Based on my experience, lack of leadership unity can be and stay too long as the main reason for poor or no execution at all. It’s about leadership with same values – culture trumps strategy. Have a great weekend John.

    Best regards,

    • johnspen says:

      “Culture Trumps Strategy” ==== brilliant!!! and sooooo right. Thanks Oliver

  4. Another good podcast, John!

    I might add that I’ve found another area for leaders to think about when it comes to your steps: understanding the difference between agreeing with steps like the ones you outline and the hours of patience and focus that it takes to actually implement them.

    I say this because I’ve had a lot of experience with leaders who enthusiastically agree with ideas like creating and tracking SMART Goals – then become irritated within 1 hour or so of actually beginning to create them. It’s easy to agree with these points, but it’s been my experience that very few leaders have the patience to even create truly SMART Goals – let alone track them across the weeks, months and years!

    Good stuff, John.

  5. Great stuff John! Personally I like the speed of your speech and to me the hand gestures communicate your passion!

    There is a direct correlation between the lack of courageous communication and holding people to account. Holding someone to account is for many a courageous conversation.

    Until we shift our context FROM relating to holding someone to account (and being held to account) as a difficult, dis-empowering conversation that is mostly about showing someone how they screwed up TO holding someone to account as an opportunity to honor someone by holding them up to being and doing their best work it will be hard to change people’s reticence to have these kinds conversations.

    I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks as I prepare for my next Art of Accountability Webinar series. Thanks for sharing the link with me. And I am looking forward to reading your book!

  6. Tony Heath says:

    I think that when a workgroup has problems with accountability, there are always good reasons for it. Usually, it seems that the bosses are not modeling the best behavior. This begets disengagement, and the downward spiral has begun.

    Sometimes it’s that the wrong people are on the bus.

    In any case, it’s useful to slow down and listen. If you really want to understand, someone will tell you.

  7. johnspen says:

    Thanks for all of the excellent comments — you have each added even more value to the topic! I truly appreciate your participation – John

  8. John,

    Interesting stuff; no doubt in my mind either that accountability is a biggie. But I’m still missing something here.

    I hear and respect the depth of the experience you bring to this, and the 800 CEOs, and your experience at Wharton, but–in the middle of your podcast I felt there was a giant leap of faith, and I wonder if you can speak to it.

    You start out by stating the four things all CEOs talk about–the fourth being lack of execution. You say only 10-15% of them effectively execute their plan.

    Then you make the leap. At moment 3:10 in your video, you make the explicit statement that lack of execution is caused by lack of accountability. And of course the rest of the tape is about accountability.

    I get the lack of execution. I get the culture of accountability. I do NOT get where you jump, at moment 3:10, from the second being the CAUSE of the first. And I just couldn’t pay attention to the rest of the talk, good though it was, because I was left wondering–how did you get there? And how much of the problem is really addressed by accountability?

    How many companies failed to execute on their plans in 2008? 2009? I’d say at least the usual 10-15% you mention–and probably more, given the disastrous economy. “More” thus means well over 90%.

    After my 35 years of consulting, I no longer believe that people can execute any stupid, pie in the sky plan they dream up. Sometimes, they DREAMED UP STUPID PLANS! And I don’t care how accountable you hold everyone, sometimes the world just says to you, I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR STUPID PLAN.

    Implicitly, you’re suggesting–i think–that the vast majority of execution problems are BECAUSE of a lack of accountability. I’ve never seen data on this, and maybe you actually have some and neglected to mention it here, but that figure sounds really high to me.

    I think incompetence in planning, not to mention Black Swan events, are AT LEAST 50% of the problem, and probably a lot more. Alan Greenspan, the Fed, and the vast majority of economists didn’t see the crash coming; and anyone making plans based on the continued growth of the economy was making STUPID plans. A culture of execution can’t possibly compete with Objective Reality when it comes to a face to face mashup. Reality generally wins, I find.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think everything you said about accountability is not only right on, but very relevant. In my area of focus, trusted relationships, the lack of accountability (aka blaming, aka inability to confront, aka lack of integrity) is key. So I’m on the same hymnal page with you on that.

    But I do wonder: if 85% of the 800 CEOs you’ve talked to have missed plan, HOW MANY of those missed plans really were due to bad accountability–and how many due to stupid planning in the first place? It would be an interesting stat, I think, and you’re in a good position to comment on it given the same breadth of experience you reference.

    • johnspen says:

      Charles – what absolutely wonderful comments – love it – keep it coming!

      I think what we have here is simply a miscommunicaion – probably in large part due to trying to keep the videos fairly brief and therefore not always going into enough detail. I am 100% with you on stupid plans! Actually, that is te VERY reason that I teach my class on strategic thinking at the Wharton School – because it is my strong belief that if you put uninformed thinking and unreasonable targets into the plan – you have now just created something that cannot and will not be executed. The computer acronym of GI=GO (Garbage In = Garbage Out) perfectly encapsulates my position that if you have flawed thinking when you do the strategy process – you can be awesome at the process and methodologies of planning – and still develop (your words) a stupid plan.

      Furthermore, in the last several years I have instituted a policy that when a company asks me to assist them with their strategic planning retreat I insist that they set aside an equal amount of time in the retreat to talk about… Strategic Execution. I demand that they spend a serious amount of time making sure that the goals, objectives and measurements are… as I mentioned several times in the video… Reasonable and Agreed Upon. In this way, the execution plan is in large part developed directly by people who will actually be responsible for implementing it – and those people, the implementers, have fully agreed that the goals are realistic and can be achieved – and are willing to personally commit to them. I fouy accomplish all of this, THEN I believe it comes down to a lack of accountability. I would absolutely agree with you Charles that a large number plans are not effectively executed because they ARE stupid plans that are unreasonable and unrealistic.

      Lastly, I concur that from time to time a Black Swan event does swoop in and annihilate the foundations that strategy and strategic execution plan is built on. In those rare cases I do not think it is 50% – and if it is the planning team has some issues), it makes no sense to attempt to execute the plan – which is why they invented scenario planning.

      So your final question: “But I do wonder: if 85% of the 800 CEOs you’ve talked to have missed plan, HOW MANY of those missed plans really were due to bad accountability–and how many due to stupid planning in the first place?” Well Charles – I’ll agree with you on the 50% number — in my opinion may be 15% are Black Swan, 35% are stupid plans and 50% is lack of accountability in holding people rigorously responsible for delivering reasonable goals and objectives they agree to. But no matter how you slice it amigo, it is still a hell of a lot of money left on the table by businesses that do not effectivly paln and execute their plans.

      Again – thank you very, very much for your comments – they are much appreciated and valued – John Spence

  9. mea culpa.
    I should have written:

    “I’d say at least the usual 85-90% you mention…”

    instead of

    “I’d say at least the usual 10-15% you mention–

  10. John, great comment back, thank you.

    I might give a little higher guesstimate on the obtuseness of reality, and a little lower on execution–but not much. We’re surely in the same ballpark here.

    Thank you for the (excellent) clarification, and your promptness, and your graciousness. Good stuff all ’round.

    Charlie Green

  11. excellent video. it is always good to be reminded of best practices. Thanks John for keeping us executing better.

  12. Monica Maheshwari says:

    John, your messages are always simple and spot on. Your learnings based the people you interact with and hear from (senior leaders) gives strong credibility to your messages. I always enjoy hearing them and you are right on about accountability and linking it to not tolerating non-performance!! I always ask myself and instill in my team, as a leader once taught me, am I providing services worth paying for in my current role – look at yourself from outside in to really guage your impact. Thanks.

    • johnspen says:

      Thanks for the kind words Monica – so glad you found value in the video!

  13. John, I can’t tell you what a Godsend this podcast is to me today. I, along with several other dedicated individuals, just spent several months planning a charity event for this past Friday night. Even though in my heart I know the overall event was a big success and the money raised will be so impactful to ultimately so many people, I’m left absolutely depressed now that it’s over. I know I should focus on the amazing amount of good we did but all I can see are the things we did wrong and the disappointments I feel because of that. I can tell you this, your message was like a slap in the face to me. You nailed all of the things we did wrong. I needed this message today so that I can focus on the ways to make it better next year. We MUST create an organization and hold the members accountable. We didn’t do that and it cost us so many missed opportunities to do even greater good.

    Thank you for the inspiration today.

    • johnspen says:

      Lee – I am so glad that you found the video helpful. Actually, it was the incredible disappointment that I felt over a community project I’ve been working on for months… that I believe is faltering terribly… that motivated me to do this podcast. We did a wonderful job of setting clear, specific, measurable and highly quantifiable goals as the key “Measures of Success” for this project – and now, 18 months into the project I look at those key measures and feel that we are way, way off the mark. However, many of the folks I am working on this project with feel exactly the opposite – that everything is going just fine – everything is on target and moving forward nicely. I guess I just have a different set of expectations.

      Also, I have been in meetings with several client firms in the last few months where lack of accountability and tolerating mediocrity were the single biggest issue keeping them from truly reaching the potential of their company – and creating a less than optimum working environment – so I also put this podcast together as a tool that managers/leaders/team members could send out to everyone they are working with to help underscore how critically important it is to set clear goals, agree to meet those goals, and then keep your promises. I just found out that the president of the local college showed this video to a number of his vice presidents to help underline the importance of vivid vision and disciplined execution.

      No matter what sort of company – local charity, small business, government organization, college, university, or major Fortune 100 corporations – setting clear goals and then holding people rigorously accountable to those goals is a fundamental element of running a successful organization.

      Thanks sooooo much for your comments Lee — take good care –John Spence

  14. John – excellent post. Thanks very much for sharing. This is the message that business leaders, everywhere need to hear. It seems that standards have been set so low that business leadership that pursues these recommendations are perceived as “Excellent” or “extraordianry.”

    I appreciated your comments on being decisive with regard to accountability. I’ve seen many business leaders who put more energy into relationships with than performance of people, resulting in low standards, low morale and low performace. There’s nothing like the elephant in the room that is impeding growth!

    I’ve seem goal setting, as you;ve described, is often an academic activity, rather than a method by which to keep the business moving beyond sustainability. The goals are decided on, written down, then placed, neatly, in a stack of papers, to be fished through, periodically, yet, without vigor.

    Thanks, John! I’ll get this out to my network! Have a super Thanksgiving!


  15. Amazing message John! I couldn’t agree more. It has been my experience that the lack of accountability through corporate America has become deeply ingrained in the minds of various companies. This can easily be exemplified by the fact that CEO’s receive golden parachutes even though they have destroyed shareholder value. As a business society, accountability MUST become a priority. In a small business context, I am actively working to ensure that all team members and partners are held accountable even on the most menial task.

    Thanks so much for the valuable content! You have no idea how much your messages can impact us small business guys.

    – Mark Hall

  16. Excellent video John.

    You touch on all of the critical issues involved in ensuring an organisation achieves the goals it set itself and no-one will argue that accountability is not the key.

    In my humble opinion, the only missing link that you have not touched on in your video, is the accountability of those who appointed the high proportion of CEO’s who fail to make the grade in the strategic plan development process and/or fail to ensure that the level of accountability required to effect the outcomes required is implemented.

    In my view, this is where the rot starts more often than not, and there appears to be limited accountability applied to those who make the critical appointments concerned.

    I would be most interested in your views.


  17. Great blog, John…
    I liked your presentation on accountability. Yes, I too, find this to be a major issue in the marketplace. Let’s also place the issue into context. As Charles Green appropriately points out, sometime the plans are simply “stupid.” The point that is relevant, and perhaps food for thought for your next blog, is to clarify the organizational conditions that must exist in order to foster a culture of accountability. Here’s my experience:

    First, a high level of trust must exist between executives in order for transparency and honesty to prevail. Second, a process of inclusion must exist in development of strategic business plans such that those who are expected to carry out a plan have input and mutually collaborate in setting achievable goals. Third, strategic plans must be aligned vertically, horizontally, and across supply chains, delivery channels and market sectors.

    These conditions, when met, and when added to your excellent points of celebrating success when goals are achieved (or suffering consequences when goals are not achieved, or at minimum, learning from mistakes made) will increase the probability of cultural accountability.

    Warmest regards to you and Sheila,

  18. Katherine Reichling says:

    Holding others accountable in the workplace is something that I find to be a consistent challenge. While searching the web I came across your video blog as well as this article. Here’s a link if you’d like to check it out. It may be useful for your other readers as well.


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