Kill the Snake! Accountability in Action

Dwight Mihalicz,

The American business magnate and former politician Ross Perot had interesting things to say about General Motors when he sold his company EDS to them in 1984 for $2.5 billion.

The former presidential candidate did not like how the company was being run. His quote about their ways is now famous, and well-illustrative of how not to run a business.

“I come from an environment where, if you see a snake, you kill it. At General Motors, if you see a snake, the first thing you do is to hire a consultant on snakes.

Then you get a committee on snakes, and then you discuss it for a couple of years.

The most likely course of action is — nothing. You figure, the snake hasn’t bitten anybody yet, so you just let it crawl around on the factory floor. We need to build an environment where the first guy who sees the snake kills it.”

Perot’s Struggles with General Motors

As someone who had built his own company from the ground up and trained his employees from day one to prioritize excellent customer service, Perot was in for a shock at General Motors. His quote on snakes describes that shock well. Whatever he wanted to do didn’t go over well with the executives. Perot tried his best to implement values and practices of EDS at General Motors, fighting the executives at every turn.

There are valuable lessons to learn here, about leader responsibility as well as the single point of accountability.

The Lack of Accountability

What Ross Perot describes in his snake quote and subsequent interviews about General Motors is the concept of accountability. The main thing about GM that he despised was that “you get to the top of General Motors not by doing something, but by not making a mistake.”

That kind of leadership does not possess even the primary accountability. If all decisions are made high up by committee, anyone below the executives has no authority to make even the most basic choices. As shown in the example of GM in the 80’s, that can lead to customer dissatisfaction, poor service, and strained business relationships.

Single Point of Accountability

Another anecdote that Ross Perot shared in an interview showed what a leader could do instead. When he received a letter from a disabled state employee in Massachusetts whose car trouble left him unable to go to work, Perot learned that he had already been through GM’s regional office and they weren’t able to help him. Perot called up an EDS trainee, told him to “take care of it,” and a few days later the issue was solved. The trainee got the regional office to have the car fixed, and in the meantime provided the customer with a rental that had all the select devices he needed.

That’s the single point of accountability at work: the trainee wasn’t high in the organization, but he had an issue to take care of and the green light from the leader to do it. Perot said he asked the trainee if he cleared his actions with anybody beforehand, and the trainee said no because Perot had told him to deal with it and that was what needed to be done.

Imagine the impact on an organization if the manager of the regional office had empowered employees in the same way. Too often it is possible to slip into “policy mode” and forget about the true values of the organization. When the leader sees the snake, he or she can kill it. The leader  needs to empower organizations throughout the organization with enough context that they can recognize the snake, and with enough authority that they can kill it. 

By delegating accountability and authority throughout the organization, it is possible to thrive instead of stagnating as GM did. That’s the concept we’re teaching at Effective Managers with our Effective Point of Accountability® methodology. Once you find the right way to implement EPA, your organization can begin to drive performance in ways you didn’t think possible.

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Dwight Mihalicz

Dwight Mihalicz has over 40 years’ experience helping local, national, and international organizations achieve greater productivity, efficiency, and performance.
Copyright © 2019 - Dwight Mihalicz -Sage Effective Managers