Having Skin in the Game

Have you ever been in a situation where you were trying to find out why something happened and you got nowhere? Nobody cared because no one was holding them accountable.

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Aldi is a low-price grocer that operates more than 1,400 stores in 32 states. One of the unusual things the company does is use a shopping cart rental system. In order for you to get your cart, you have to put a quarter in a chain locking system that attaches each cart together. To get your quarter back, you have to replace the cart, hook it back up to the locking system, and retrieve your quarter. It's just a quarter, who cares? You do, because it's your quarter. The end result is Aldi never has a problem with people taking their carts. This is an example of having skin in the game.

When you are in a leadership position, you automatically have skin in the game because you are responsible for the actions of your subordinates. Have you ever been in a situation where you were trying to find out why something happened and you got nowhere? Nobody cared because no one was holding them accountable. Let me give you an example.

I know of an agency that uses a yearly evaluation system for its employees. The problem is, the evaluation system isn't tied to anything. There are no points awarded toward promotion or pay incentives. Bad evaluations are only used when it's politically convenient. The evaluations are only relevant under two circumstances: when considering discipline and when time for re-accreditation rolls around.

I have known employees there that have gone three years without an evaluation. In another instance, a sergeant essentially gave a subordinate the same evaluation three years in a row by merely cutting and pasting the text and changing the date. When the chain of command was advised of this, they laughed it off. Unfortunately, these types of incidents create a culture in which no one cares about writing a proper evaluation. The few supervisors who did a good job were often mocked by their peers or given a hard time by their subordinates. "You are the only one who pays attention to this," was often heard as the war cry for mediocrity.

Now let's flip this very situation around. What if people who were never held accountable suddenly were? I mentored my sergeants about the importance of evaluations and how it was more a reflection of them than the employee being evaluated. They were not accustomed to the standards I set. In fact, one of my sergeants thought I was kidding. He turned in an evaluation two weeks late without asking for an extension or offering an excuse. I made my point by taking his assigned vehicle away for two weeks and making him use a pool car instead. It worked.

Two things happened as a result. Over the next four years, the sergeant never turned an evaluation in late, and he took the time to learn how to write outstanding evaluations. Because he was the first one to test me, my other sergeants got the message early and I never had a problem with them. It's funny how having skin in the game changes a person. Your actions will always count more than your words.

That's what having skin in the game really means; it makes people accountable. Being a cop is not a spectator sport. Let it be known what your standards are and what the consequences are for not meeting them. If employees come to you with a problem and they can't meet your deadline that's a different story. Help them with the problem and give them an extension. As long as they are working to resolve the issue, they are still in the game.

I was always clear in my role as lieutenant. My sergeants and I were in this together, good or bad. If one of my officers got into trouble, there would be three of us in the captain's office; me, the officer's sergeant, and the officer. Nothing happens in a vacuum and we all have to cowboy up when the time comes. This is not to imply that every failure is malicious or intentional. However, regardless of intent, mission failure is never acceptable. As a leader, you have to accept responsibility not only for your actions but for the actions of those under your command. Accepting rank is not for everyone because the first person you have to hold accountable is yourself.

You'd be surprised to see what kind of turnaround happens when you hold people accountable. Making sure everyone has skin in the game is your responsibility. Use the Aldi quarter analogy to your advantage. Make sure everyone has skin in the game and you will see a big difference in employees' performance.

Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a master of political science degree from the University of Central Florida.

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Lieutenant (Ret.)
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