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.