Expert Interview: Sam Silverstein, CSP

February 19 2019 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan and Sam Silverstein explore the topic of accountability.

Sam is a leadership keynote speaker and his mission is to empower people to live accountable lives, transform the way they do business, and to thrive at extraordinary levels by challenging leaders to shift priorities, cultivate an organizational culture, and inspire both individual and teams to take ownership in fresh and results-producing ways.


Sam Silverstein Interview

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan, I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It's my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview, where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Sam Silverstein.

Sam is a leadership keynote speaker and his mission is to empower people to live accountable lives, transform the way they do business, and to thrive at extraordinary levels by challenging leaders to shift priorities, cultivate an organizational culture, and inspire both individual and teams to take ownership in fresh and results-producing ways. He is helping companies dramatically increase productivity, profitability, and growth.

The Global Gurus recently announced Sam Silverstein as one of the world’s top 30 organizational culture professionals. Sam is the author of seven books, including this one, No Matter What, which you can see I’ve been busy marking here, and he is a former executive and business owner. Sam’s manufacturing and distribution companies sold over $100 million in products and services. He successfully sold one of his businesses to a Fortune 500 company. Today, Sam writes, speaks, and consults with organizations around the globe to think differently, to work with renewed purpose, and to achieve record-breaking results.

When Sam is not writing or coaching or consulting or speaking, he can be found running, he can be found downhill skiing, or hanging out with his kids. Sam, I am so excited to have you here today.

Sam Silverstein: Mari, it’s absolutely great to be here. Thank you for all those kind words you’ve shared.

Mari Ryan: Let’s dig into our topic. Our topic today is about accountability. Sam, you’ve spent many years helping businesses create strong organizational cultures. I’m curious; let’s start by level setting for our audience. When you talk about accountability, what do you really mean?

Sam Silverstein: I really mean that -- accountability. [laughs] Here’s the thing, we all want our people to keep their commitments, do more, get their jobs done, but everything we’ve been told about accountability is wrong. Accountability is not a way of doing; accountability is a way of thinking, and specifically, it’s how we think about our people. Accountability isn’t us as leaders trying to manipulate our people to do more, accountability is leadership being responsible and accountable first to create an environment, a culture that inspires accountability and inspires people to want to be their best.

What we’ve discovered is when leadership starts believing that they are accountable first, and what happens is they see and treat their people differently, they commit to them differently, and they get a different result.

Mari Ryan: It feels like it’s about creating that environment that’s first … well, first, our leaders need to be role modeling that, role models for this – is that correct?

Sam Silverstein: Well, that’s just it. Accountability is not something that is punitive. Society is planted the idea first; you hear things like, well, I’m going to hold him accountable. If you are holding someone accountable that’s like this; that’s not a positive relationship. As a leader, if you are helping someone be accountable then you are coming together and you are helping them be successful. You know what, if I help you be successful then you are going to want me to be successful. All of a sudden it’s a whole different attitude.

I simplify accountability. I say accountability is keeping your commitments to people. In an organizational setting it revolves around people, organizations that are high in accountability, we have found, have always mastered relationships because when relationships are in place then you are probably doing the right thing in inspiring your people to want to be accountable.

Mari Ryan: That sounds like a great way to create a healthy work environment. I’m curious, Sam, from your business experience, which clearly is vast, how did you come to settle on this particular topic as an essential element to a thriving organization as an essential skill, not just for leaders, but for everyone in the organization? How did you get there?

Sam Silverstein: That’s a great question. Sometimes looking back you can figure things out a lot easier then looking forward. I was in this business for about … after I sold my window and door manufacturing business that I was a part of, I would say it took about ten years to really grasp what it was that I was doing. I was really focused on the tactical, how to do this, how to increase your sales, how to build better relationships, but I was focused on the tactical side of that. How to bring creativity into your marketing. I was an MBA I had several businesses, I get the whole business aspect of things, and so I focused on all the tactics. It wasn’t until I was ten years in when I realized what was in my heart and what made a difference was accountability. Once I latched onto that, I changed everything so I see everything through the filter of accountability. After fifteen years of doing that I had taken it to a depth that I just don’t find anywhere else. That depth is about commitments to people. It’s not about the tactical side of your business, it’s about the spirit of your business. It’s about the culture of your business. That culture is based on a set of beliefs, which are communicated in the form of values, and those values define that culture. I realize there are great companies to work for, and there are lousy companies to work for. It’s not by chance. Leadership has the ability to create that.

Mari Ryan: Absolutely. You and I are so in alignment on this. In my book I called those “alive hives” and “dive hives.”

Sam Silverstein: Exactly. How can a company be such a great place to work in and another one such a lousy place to work in? It’s not the product that is causing that, and it’s not the service that is causing that, it’s people that are causing that. Everything rises and falls on leadership. So, if a company has a terrible culture, it’s leadership’s responsibility. If a company has a great culture it’s because leadership did something different. Sits on the back of leadership.

Now, some leaders don’t want to own that in those are the leaders that usually have an organization where the culture is caustic and you don’t want to be a part of. I subscribe to the theory that we have two major problems in business today; we don’t fire people fast enough, people who are not living the culture, they should not remain in that organization if they are not going to live the culture, and we don’t fire companies fast enough. If you work for an organization and the culture is terrible, especially in today’s day and age where unemployment is so low, plot your exit – don’t just walk out the door – find a great company to work for. If people start moving to the great companies, then the ones that aren’t so great are going to get the message, hey, we better clean up our act if we want to compete.

Mari Ryan: Exactly. I totally agree with that. Sam, in your book No Matter What, you talk about …

Sam Silverstein: I love all the stickers.

Mari Ryan: Isn’t that fun? I know, I tell you that’s how I do this. When I really get into something, it’s like ooh, I like that, I want to use that again. In this book, you outline ten commitments to accountability, and one of those commitments is a safe place to work. I’d like to have you describe for our audience what it means to create a safe place to work.

Sam Silverstein: I’ve worked for a lot of companies like electrical transmission and mining and manufacturing, and safety – physical safety – is a major, major issue. Life and death situations. That’s important in any business, but that’s not the safety that I’m talking about, and I know that you know that’s not the safety that I’m talking about. The safety that I’m talking about is an emotionally safe place to work. I talk to way too many people who tell me they cry on the way in to work, or they’re up at night in angst over what is going on during the day at work. It doesn’t have to be that way. If you are going to work eight, nine, ten hours a day, why shouldn’t you love the place that you work? Why shouldn’t you love working with the people that are there? Some people don’t think that’s possible, but I have seen it. We’ve worked with organizations to help them create it. It’s very possible.

So, a safe place to work is where you can be you, where you can believe what it is that you want to believe. You don’t have to subjugate those beliefs to someone else. No one is micromanaging you and no one has got their thumb down, no one is holding you accountable. What they are doing is creating an environment where people can be their best, where we want to achieve at a higher level, where we would never want to let you down, where we desire to be accountable. That environment, that is what becomes that safe place.

Mari Ryan: Fabulous – I love that description, and it really does capture the essence of a place where people do want to come to work.

Sam Silverstein: Those places exist. You know, the book that you have No Matter What, is the follow-up to a book titled Non-Negotiable, and the book Non-Negotiable I wrote was a book about a bank, and the name of the bank is Happy State Bank. It was a real bank, it’s headquartered out of Amarillo, Texas, and the last twenty-nine years their stock value has never gone down. Now, that’s all through the great recession and all that. They’ve gone from one location and $10 million in assets to thirty-six plus locations and over $3.6 billion in assets. Obviously this is a high-performance organization. A high-performance organization is always comprised of high-performance individuals that are working at an extremely high level of productivity. It doesn’t happen any other way.

The thing that is so cool about this organization – I walked in one day with my assistant, and we walked into the bank onto one of the levels of the building where the offices were. It was all open. We walked off the elevator and stopped. We just stood there for a moment and took a breath, looked around, and she looked at me and she said, Sam, there is so much peace here. Everyone is so relaxed. The environment was just incredible.

Now, you would never expect that on the surface, it might be counter-intuitive to a highly productive organization that is just killing the competition, but they have a safe place to work. Everyone knows that their voice is heard. They know they can speak in direct contradiction to the CEO, and that their opinion is welcome in that scenario. That’s the goal. If it can exist in Happy State Bank, and it exists in other organizations as well, why can’t it exist in your organization?

Mari Ryan: I totally agree that we can create these thriving organizations and you and I both know that – and we probably both worked in these types of organizations so we know it can happen. For our audience, I’m wondering if you can help us make the link between the elements of accountability with values as a base driver of some of these and wellbeing. If you think back to your example of the Happy State Bank, it sounds like that was a workplace where people probably felt like they were thriving, they were cared for, and that their wellbeing was probably pretty high.

Sam Silverstein: Yeah, so here’s the thing, and a lot of organizations don’t realize this, values are a set of beliefs of who you are as an organization. They are not policy, they are values. There’s a difference between policy and values. Policy, for the most part, are about things; values are about people. So there are specific areas that the values need to connect to, but they are always about people.

I’ll give you a couple of values from Happy State Bank, and I think that it’ll show you how it works. One of their values is family first. We’ve all heard that before, family first, and all, but what does that mean? My daughter has a dear friend who lost her brother, and the last thing she heard on the way out of the office to go home and be with her parents when she lost her brother in this tragic accident was “when do you think you’ll be back?” Okay, that’s not family first, that’s all about the job.

At Happy State Bank, family first means that if it’s Wednesday afternoon, it’s 4 o’clock, and you’re at work and your son or your daughter has a band concert, a cheerleading competition, a soccer game, there is some family event and your excuse for not being at your family event is work, that’s a dismissible occurrence. They will fire you for that.

You say, wow. Now I’ll tell you, they’ve never had to fire anybody for that, but here’s the thing, what is more important to us than our family? Nothing! When your leadership recognizes the importance of your family to you, you appreciate that and you respond a certain way. Now, I’m not saying that just because it’s their values that it should be everyone else’s values, and when I share that value, people initially go, oh, that would never work here. Maybe it wouldn’t, but maybe you’ve never tried. Maybe you’ve never thought about it.

Now, here’s the other side of this; one of their values is PDI. That stands for – and this is in print – produce dammit. What they say is you’ve got to get your job done. On a Saturday afternoon when the bank is closed, you’ll see cars in the parking lot. Why? Because they need to get their jobs done. They need to perform at that high level.

I made the mistake of sharing with Pat that, oh, so PDI is the opposite of family first. She said no, they are not connected at all. They are just two of our values. You have to live all of the values. You can’t just live some. There is no priority. They are all in play and it is the employees responsibility and privilege to figure out how to live those values. What happens is those values create a place where like-minded people come together. You and I can go to church, synagogue, the mosque, we can sit down in a pew, we can look to our left and right, and in that environment, people believe different things. But, in a place of business, we will connect over those values. When those values are about people and we connect over those values, we create a place where we feel comfortable, what’s safe for us, and then we have the opportunity to truly perform at our very best.

Mari Ryan: Those sound like wonderful approaches to be able to create really thriving workplaces where employees will produce what they need to, not only on behalf of their families, but on behalf of their employer. Sam, that’s so exciting to hear some of your thoughts on this. If our audience wants to learn a little bit more about you and the work that you do, where can they get in touch with you?

Sam Silverstein: It’s pretty simple. There are hundreds of articles and videos on our website, and you can go to or and you’ll find all those resources that are available for free. I welcome the connection. Also, feel free to check me out on LinkedIn.

Mari Ryan: Sam, I am so grateful for your wisdom, your willingness to share your experience and knowledge with the audience, and I’m so glad to have you here today. Thanks for being here.

Sam Silverstein: Mari, it’s been an honor. I really do appreciate the invitation, and I wish you well.

Mari Ryan: Thanks, Sam.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, wellness, employee wellness, worksite well-being, hr, company culture, employee well-being, human resources, corporate wellness, accountability, corporate culture

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.