A few years ago, I watched Bill Green, Chairman and CEO of Accenture, as he addressed a very senior leadership group at the end of a 2-day offsite meeting. Relaxed, he sat on a stage chair on a small platform and took questions from the 75-80 people in the room.
About halfway in, someone asked about a recently announced organizational shift.
"Bill," the person asked, "how do we know that the incentives are rightly aligned with the new global roles; that if I ask my colleague in Eastern Europe or Australia for help, they'll be incented to do the right thing?"
Green quickly stood up, visibly tensing at the question.
"Let me-well--," he sputtered, "OK, I guess I'm glad you asked that question. Because I want to tell you-I don't want to hear that question again!
"Here's what I mean. And I expect every one in this room to get this; moreover, I expect everyone in this room to make sure you teach everyone back in your offices too.
"Here's the thing. When there's a conflict between the incentives and the right thing: you do the right thing, and then fix the incentives later. Understand? This is critical.
"We must be a values-driven organization before we are an incentives-driven organization. You design incentives to reinforce and reward behavior-you don't design them to drive behavior. Values are what we need to drive behavior. If there's a mismatch: you fix the incentives. After you do the right thing.
"And just to be clear: the right thing is almost always defined in terms of the client-not in terms of our internal P&L distribution.
"Now-am I being clear enough? Thanks for the question. And I don't want to hear it again."
Bill Green was plenty clear that day about what was important. When he said "the right thing," he meant principles like client focus, taking a longer term perspective, and collaboration. And he was clear that principles, not incentives, were the way to establish a values-driven organization.
For my part, when people ask me to name a big company that does trust well, Accenture is one of the few names I mention. Every company is far from perfect, but some are less so than others. Accenture is a lot better than most, and I think it's because of the kind of leadership Bill Green demonstrated so clearly in this situation.
That's what leading from principle sounds like.
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