Archive for the ‘leadership’ Category
Nonprofit and charitable organizations face many of the same ethical challenges that other organizations face, but they may also bump into a few special problems from time to time.
As an example, consider the following HR dilemma, which was posed to me recently.
I work for a nonprofit organization in health research, and I’ve recently been told that I will be hiring and supervising a new individual whose parents are donating her salary for one year (it’s to be a one-year, limited-term position) in addition to making a sizeable donation. The hope is that, in time, the donors will make a significantly larger gift of a million dollars or more. The arrangement presents numerous challenges to me as a manager, since everyone in the upper levels of the organization agrees that the true nature of the arrangement can’t be revealed, but many employees will realize that the situation is unusual and will have serious questions about it.
I’ve presented my concerns to those involved, but the decision-makers are rationalizing their actions (they tell me it’s “for the good of the organization”), and asking me to embrace this “opportunity.”
Clearly, the mid-level manager here is in a tough position, caught between a rock and a hard place. The manager is being told, by those higher up, that this is the way things are. But the manager also has a team to manage, and the unorthodox hiring of this new “employee” may cause trouble.
Here are what I think are the relevant considerations:
1) I don’t think the basic arrangement itself is obviously unethical. The “employee,” here, is essentially a volunteer, being bankrolled by her father. A bit lame, for her, but if she provides the organization with some value, that in itself could be a good thing, in addition to the donation that her father is making and may later make.
2) Point #1 above assumes that this person will actually do some work, rather than just be padding her CV by means of this one-year position with a reputable nonprofit organization. If she’s just going to take up space, then her presence is inevitably going to be resented and hence disruptive.
3) Then there’s the question of whether this “hire” is affecting anyone else’s job. From what I understand, no one is being fired to make room for this new person. But even if no one’s job is immediately in jeopardy, it may have implications for who gets hired over the next year, who gets overtime, whose job is expanded in interesting ways, and so on. So other employees do have reason to be concerned.
4) The fact that senior management sees a need to hide what’s really going on, here, seems to be where the ethical problem lies. That part seems highly problematic. If this is a good “hire”, why not be transparent about it?
5) At a certain level, this is as much a “wise management” question as it is an ethics question. If (as seems to be the case) the current plan is bad for morale, then wise senior managers should realize that, and think this through more carefully.
All in all, I would suggest that the situation, as it is being handled by senior managers, represens a significant lapse in leadership. Their motives in accepting the deal — hiring this woman in return for a big donation — are reasonable enough. The mere fact that her hire wouldn’t go through the usual processes isn’t itself damning, provided that the net value to the organization is positive, and as long as no one’s rights are violated. Perhaps the ends here do justify the means — after all, we’re talking about the potential for a very large donation. But the fact that senior managers feel the need to keep the deal secret is a major red flag. Wise organizational leaders should work hard to make sure that, when compromises are being made, they are at very least compromises that they are able to defend, and about which they are willing to be transparent.
In my last blog entry, I began a discussion of the question of the extent to which the right “tone at top” contributes to a company’s success. I began by exploring just what we mean by ‘tone” in this context, and what kinds of activities and behaviours by leaders should be seen as constituting setting the right tone.
Next, what does it mean to focus on tone specifically at the top?
The “top” can’t be thought to mean the CEO, or even the entire executive team. “Top” should be interpreted as meaning whomever is at the top, for you, ethically: whomever you regard as a moral leader. Because leadership isn’t a job title. Anyone who embodies the key leadership values of trustworthiness, insight, humility and enthusiasm is likely to be seen as a leader, regardless of job title.
So let’s talk for a moment about not just the tone at the literal “top”, but also the tone at the middle. Average tenure of a CEO these days is, what, 4 or 5 years? This means that the tone at the literal top of the organization is likewise liable to change every 4 to 5 years. But lower down, every organization has a larger class of middle managers who come and go much less frequently.
And from the point of view of ethics, that has to be important. Don’t forget, in most large organizations, most people never get to meet the CEO, or for that matter any C-suite executive. For them, someone in middle management is effectively “the top” – the top of the relevant chain of command. So the right tone has to be set at many managerial levels.
Finally, we need to ask what “success” is. When we assert that positive tone at the top “ensures success,” what do we mean?
“Success” here has to be taken to mean “ethical success,” because “ethical success” means doing justice to the full range of ethical obligations that obtain within an organization. That means doing your best to earn a decent return for investors, while at the same time treating people with respect and playing by the rules. Success in this regard means achieving a reasonable level of compliance with not just the letter but also with the spirit of the law, and with the unwritten rules of the game, and with reasonable social expectations.
Now, no one can ever reasonably expect to turn a tough, competitive business environment into a love-in, or expect that any organization with hundreds or thousands of employees will be able to guarantee that no one ever breaks a rule. But if an organization is going to come even close to meeting reasonable expectations, meeting the capitalist ideal of playing fair while trying to earn a decent living by selling a decent product, it is going to have to do that in large part through the force of effective leadership.
A positive tone at the top is the closest thing there is to a guarantee of success, as long as you think critically about what those words must mean for a complex organization in a competitive environment.
I spent the morning today speaking at Centre for Accounting Ethics Symposium called “Accounting Ethics and Tone at the Top” (put on by the School of Accounting and Finance, University of Waterloo). I was part of a panel discussion that took on the provocative question of whether positive ethical tone at the top ensures success.
It’s a provocative question because the word “ensure” pretty much points to a negative answer. Success is never guaranteed in business. In fact, it is the constant fear of failure that drives competition, that drives the pursuit of efficiency, that drives innovation. Nothing – literally nothing – guarantees success. Will a killer product ensure success? Of course not! You need the right financial model, the right marketing channels, the right organization, and the right competitive environment too. Will a great team ensure success? No, of course not. Other organizations have great teams, too. You also need the right leadership, a product that consumers want, and so on.
So positive tone won’t guarantee success, but neither will anything else. The right tone won’t guarantee ultimate victory in the marketplace, but that’s hardly a criticism. The fact that a positive ethical tone won’t guarantee success doesn’t mean it’s not important, indeed, essential. Without it, an organization’s chances of long-term success – defined either in terms of integrity or in terms of the bottom line – are considerably diminished.
So what do we mean when we refer to “tone”? Tone is much more complicated than it sounds.
In this context ethical “tone” means the tone or tenor that a leader sets with regard to choices between right and wrong, between more and less admirable forms of behaviour. Tone is the signal that is sent from top to bottom within an organization about what kind of behaviour is to be admired and emulated, and what kinds of behaviour will not be tolerated. Ethical leadership means taking responsibility for the tone you set.
But tone takes many forms. It is crucial to see that setting the right tone means much more than just sounding ethical. It also means acting ethically, and being seen as acting ethically. Tone consists in the set of signals given through the words a leader says and the deeds she does and the attitudes she displays.
It means doing what you can to manage that elusive something called “organizational culture,” and knowing that culture trumps strategy every time.
In particular, setting the right tone means avoiding – in both words and deeds – excuses and rationalizations. Rationalizations (“I had no choice;” “No one was really hurt;” “It’s not my job;” “It’s a stupid rule anyway…”), are an absolutely key ingredient in a great many instances of wrongdoing. And we don’t generally make up rationalizations on our own and learn how to apply them from scratch. We learn them, unfortunately, from our role models, from people we look up to, from people we see as leaders. Leaders can and must set the tone, in neither helping themselves to such rationalizations, nor tolerating them when used by others.
Setting the right tone also means fostering open conversation about ethics, about the obligations of and obligations within your organization. It means putting ethics on the table. It means letting those who work for you know that it’s OK to ask questions about ethics, and to make values and principles an explicit part of their decision-making. A leader needs to build decision-making capacity and empower employees to take responsibility.
We can sum up the significance of tone this way: A great deal has been written about ethical leadership, and the significance of ‘tone at the top.’ That literature might be usefully summed up by two sweeping statements, two unavoidable truths:
1) Ethics must come from the top down. People take their cues from their leaders. Yes, people learn their basic values from their parents and other childhood role-models, long before they become employees. But they learn how to enact those values in a business context from their workplace mentors and leaders. All of us learn basic lessons about honesty and integrity from our parents. But few of us learn about technical concepts such as Conflict of Interest from our parents. They don’t teach us about the moral obligations embodied in fiduciary relationships, or about how to balance the various interests at stake in a quasi-adversarial relationship between buyer and seller. We need leaders – specifically business leaders – to teach us those things. So: Ethics must come from the top down.
The second grand lesson is this:
2) Ethics cannot come from the top down. It cannot be imposed. You need buy-in. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. You can hand every employee a copy of “their” brand-new code of ethics, commissioned by HR and endorsed by the CEO and the Board. But that doesn’t guarantee that anyone will read it, let alone take it to heart. A code won’t overcome an organizational culture that puts short-term profit-seeking above all else; or a culture where individuals put moral blinders on, focusing narrowly on their own jobs rather than taking responsibility for the ethically-significant elements of the organization’s mission. It won’t make up for a culture that tacitly endorses playing fast and loose with accounting rules. That’s why tone – not just sermons handed down from on high – is so important.
A focus on tone can of course easily become confused with a focus on words, and on the personal integrity that a leader takes him- or herself to have. We see this all the time. When the mayor of a major city prides himself on integrity, on wanting to “clean up City Hall” and to put an end to the “gravy train,” but then cannot recognize a blatant conflict of interest when he sees one, you see “tone at the top” gone awry.
In my next blog entry, I’ll continue this topic by addressing what it means to focus on “tone at the top” and whether it can ensure or at least contribute to success.
More than a few leaders in the corporate world could learn a lesson from Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down. The 85-year-old leader of more than a billion Catholics is making a move that is nearly unprecedented, for a pope: he’s going to walk out of office, rather than being carried out. It’s a decision one that should give pause to some CEOs and senior members of corporate boards of directors.
The Pope’s stated reasons are simple: at his age, he simply doesn’t feel like he’s got the strength to do a good job. Assuming that’s really the reason — and there is always speculation at times like this — the pontiff has made the right move. Part of the ethics of leadership is knowing when to call it quits.
Of course, wise leaders and wise organizations don’t just make the right decision at the right time; they plan ahead for when the time comes. But too few organizations think far enough ahead, partly because a leader’s future departure is an awkward topic, and partly because when things are going well it just doesn’t seem like a pressing matter. But leadership is too important to be left to the last minute.
There can be lots of good reasons for an aging leader to step down. Sometimes it’s a matter of failing health, and the resulting inability to keep up with workload. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of having been at the helm too long. An organization that never changes leaders can grow set in its ways and resistent to change. For corporate boards, having a very senior member — statistically very likely to be a white male — step down can be an opportunity to increase diversity on your board. In other cases, when a team of leaders (such as a board of directors) ages together, with insufficient turnover, it simply fosters group-think and complacency.
None of this needs to be agist. The problem here is not with old leaders, but with leaders who stay later than they should, whether in terms of biological age or just length of tenure.
No, in the end, none of this is about age. It’s about understanding that leadership means knowing that it’s not about you. It’s about the organization, and what’s best for it. And sometimes, what’s best is for you to go.
On the occasion of the launch of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program, a new effort for which I’m the director at the Ted Rogers School of Management, I want to take some time to talk a little bit about the program and ethical leadership.
At the program we’re aiming to go beyond the “mom and apple pie” aspects of ethical leadership, to look not just at the values and skills of ethical leaders, but also at the particular institutional mechanisms that ethical leaders use to shape institutional culture and to put their vision into practice throughout business organizations.
Leaders are by their very nature fascinating people. The news is replete with stories of the victories and foibles of leaders in the worlds of business and politics and entertainment. From an ethical point of view, the decisions they make and the values to which they subscribe are disproportionately important. Not only do they make crucial decisions, but they influence the decisions of others, both directly through the instructions they give and indirectly through the examples they set and the atmosphere they foster.
So ethical leadership is a compelling issue—even among those who don’t bother to think critically about the topic. It is all too tempting to think of ethical leadership as a question only for CEOs or for top-tier executives. And while I have high hopes and high expectations of my undergrad business students, not all of them will go on to leadership positions at that level. But what I’ve been teaching my students is this: leadership is an activity that goes on at all levels of a business organization. Whether you’re leading a publishing empire or a small sales team, you face the challenges implied by the term “ethical leadership.” You are faced with not just doing the right thing, but also with helping others to do the right thing and building organizational contexts that will foster people in doing the right thing.
The question, of course, is whether a program like ours can make a difference. And I think it can. And the reason has to do with how I understand the goal of ethics education itself.
I’ve long argued that an ethics course at a business school isn’t designed to make you into an ethical person, to teach you to be good. If making you ethical was the aim, then ethics education would be either redundant or hopeless: critics are probably right to think that a basic understanding of right and wrong is either there by the time kids enter university or it isn’t.
Ethics courses should assume a basic desire to do the right thing, and focus on giving students the ability to understand the special kinds of ethical issues that arise in business, along with the tools of teamwork and leadership that let them put their ethical understanding into action.
Students don’t come to business school to be educated on how to be employees. They come to learn how to be managers, and a manager with vision is what we call a leader.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been found guilty of violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, and will be removed from office. The much-anticipated court decision was handed down this morning.
Regrettably, this is unlikely the end of the story. Ford had announced, prior to the decision, his intention to run again should the judge remove him from office. The judge had the option to include, as part of Ford’s sentence, a prohibition on running again, but opted not to do so.
Ford has plenty of detractors. Some don’t like his politics. Some question his aptitude for the job of mayor of Canada’s largest city. Others worry about his being implicated not just in one but in a string of conflict of interest violations. But he also has plenty of defenders — after all, there are an awful lot of people out there who voted for him, and many of them are sticking to their guns on that choice. So the debate will rage. Plenty of ink is sure to be spilled in by both camps in the wake of this decision. I’ll limit myself here to just two quick points. One is about leadership, and the other is about governance.
First, leadership. Whatever your views of Ford, and whatever your views about the severity of his breach of the Conflict of Interest Act, you pretty much have to agree that Ford demonstrated a disappointing lack of leadership ethics, here. Yes (as his lawyer pointed out) people do make mistakes, and even a mayor can be forgiven for an incidental breach of a rule now and then. But what’s particularly worrisome here is that Ford, who by all rights ought to be the guy who leads Council in understanding its ethical obligations, seems to be utterly clueless about them. And he doesn’t seem terribly worried about that, either. According to a report of the court proceedings, Ford “testified he never read the Conflict of Interest Act or the councillor orientation handbook. Nor did he attend councillor training sessions that covered conflicts of interest.”
My second point has to do with governance. As Marcus Gee pointed out in the Globe and Mail recently, bumping Ford from office might be a case of ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire.’ Turmoil is likely to ensue. Council is now faced with the choice of having someone else — someone not elected to be mayor — serve out the rest of Ford’s term, or spending several million dollars of taxpayer money to hold another election. The result of turfing Ford seems especially troubling when we compare Ford’s ethical cluelessness with the out-and-out corruption that has brought down mayors in other major cities.
But what was the alternative? A judge has no choice but to call ‘em like he sees ‘em. Ford violated important rules, and those rules say he should be removed from office. Note that the judge in this case would have had the same range of sentencing options if the dollar amount at the heart of this case had been $3.15 rather than $3,150. A more sane system would perhaps allow for a broader range of penalties. Examples could be found in other systems and at other levels of government. A fine? Censure? Limitation of future mayoral discretion? Mandatory ethics training? I don’t know the answer. But a governance system that allows a political leader to blunder this way and then throws a city into turmoil is not a good system. Principles matter, but so does the way we implement them.
This past Friday, David Petraeus, a retired 4-star general in the US Army resigned from his position as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He resigned because evidence had surfaced that he had had an extramarital affair.
On the surface, of course, this is just another example of a powerful man succumbing, as all too many seem to do, to the all too common temptation to betray his marital commitments. And, again on the surface, it raises questions about whether private foibles are sufficient reason to think a man unfit for public office. Petraeus himself, in his letter of resignation to President Obama, said he had shown “extremely poor judgment.” The question that always arises — remember Clinton/Lewinski? — is whether poor judgment in personal matters necessarily implied poor judgment in public matters, or whether instead the scandal really just amounts to a puerile bit of titillation.
But the fact is that Petraeus is not just another man, and not even just another man in a leadership position. He was, until November 9th, Director of the CIA, the most important intelligence organization on the planet. He was, in other words, one of the world’s most desirable candidates for blackmail. And so any transgression that could serve as fodder for blackmail is immediately amplified in magnitude. Clearly, marital infidelity is pretty high on that list. Someone in a position like the one Petraeus had has to stay squeaky clean, not for moralistic reasons, but for national security reasons.
And the seedier details that have been emerging seem to bear this worry out, at least to some extent. The woman with whom Petraeus is said to have had the affair, Paula Broadwell, is now said to have sent threatening letters to another woman who she saw as a rival for the general’s affections. That’s not to say that anything like blackmail was in the offing. But it suggests that the Petraeus/Broadwell affair had dark edges to it beyond your standard tale of marital infidelity.
There will surely be, in the coming weeks and months of analysis of this matter, plenty of talk about the demands of leadership and the character and integrity it requires. But what leadership at the highest level really requires is not just character, but an acute awareness of your own weaknesses — including weaknesses you share with the rest of the human population — and the ability to foresee and forestall the risks the flow from those.
A parliamentary committee in the UK has decided, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, that media baron Rupert Murdoch is “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.”
This is not exactly good news for Murdoch, but nor is it catastrophic. The parliamentary committee that chastised him has no real power, and certainly not the power to act on its assertion that Murdoch is unfit to run a company.
The power to make that determination, and hence in principle to hobble the UK branch of Murdoch’s media empire, is “Ofcom”, the UK’s Office of Communications, a regulatory agency set up by, but arm’s-length from, the UK government. According to the Washington Post, “The independent agency has the power to take a TV license away from anyone deemed ‘unfit’ to hold one.”
But assertions by a parliamentary committee that a corporate leader is unfit should give us all pause — not to contemplate the fate of the accused, but to contemplate the larger question of governments telling us who is fit to be in business. Trust me, I have no particular sympathy for Rupert Murdoch, but I also think it’s a very good thing that the committee wagging its collective finger at him has no teeth.
One of the virtues of free markets is that governments don’t generally play a role in deciding who gets to be an entrepreneur or who gets to run a corporation. A corporation is a piece of private property, albeit a rather complex and unusual kind of private property. In small organizations, you get to be chief by starting the business yourself; in larger ones, you get hired by the shareholders or (as in the case of cooperatives) by the employees or customers who own the thing.
Contrast this to a communist or feudal system under which an aspiring entrepreneur has to grovel at the feet of some bureaucrat or feudal lord just to be granted the privilege of starting a business and supplying his or her fellow citizens with the products they want and need. Under such a system, you only get to be head of a large, productive organization if government officials give you the nod. Now of course, some people won’t see that as such a bad thing. If you see a corporation as primarily a public institution — one whose goals ought to be public ones — then perhaps you also think its leaders ought to be chosen by (or at least subject to veto by) representatives of the public.
But consider: the committee mentioned above was composed of members of two different political parties. The report the committee issued was approved by a 6 to 4 vote, a vote that divided the committee along party lines. So before you give a hearty cheer for this instance of government censure, remember that under a different system such censure might have teeth, and such a committee could easily be dominated by a party other than the one you prefer.
This is the third in a series of postings on the bribery scandal at Wal-Mart de Mexico and its parent company, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
I’ve already dealt with why bribery is so seriously problematic in general. But let’s look here at why this particular instance of bribery (or pattern of bribery, really) by this particular company is especially problematic.
It goes without saying that the bribery that allegedly took place at Wal-Mart de Mexico is a wonderful example of lousy “tone at the top.” Eduardo Castro-Wright, who was CEO of Wal-Mart de Mexico during the bulk of the wrongdoing, is centrally implicated, as are senior people at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., including CEO Mike Duke. How on earth can they now hope to exercise any ethical leadership? Clearly, they can’t, and that’s why in my opinion they both need to resign or be fired.
But the bad example set by this set of behaviours goes well beyond the walls of Wal-Mart itself.
Wal-Mart is an industry leader, taken by many as an example of how business ought to be done. The signal sent here is particularly corrosive with regard to doing business in Mexico. Mexico clearly has its problems with corruption. But there’s a self-fulfilling prophesy in this regard. If companies see Mexico as a place where bribery is necessary, they’re sometimes going to offer bribes to public officials who, in turn, will come to expect bribes. And if Wal-Mart, of all companies, says it can’t compete effectively in the Mexican market without engaging in that sort of thing — well, the lesson for merely-mortal companies is clear. If Wal-Mart can’t thrive there by playing by the rules, who can?
Think also about Wal-Mart’s supply chain, and the example this behaviour sets for the thousands of companies that supply Wal-Mart, directly or at one or more steps removed, with the goods it sells. Wal-Mart is notoriously tough on its suppliers, insisting on lower and lower prices and higher and higher levels of efficiency. But naturally — naturally! — Wal-Mart wants its suppliers to do all that within the limits of the law, right? Or at least that has to be the company’s official policy. But now, what are suppliers to think? With the revelation of Wal-Mart’s own lawless behaviour, the message to suppliers — thousands and thousands of them — is that getting the job done matters more, and that the ends justify the means.
OK, but won’t the fact that the Wal-Mart executives involved got caught also serve as an example? Well, perhaps. But that depends in part on what action is taken by law enforcement agencies and by the company’s own Board. I strongly suspect that decision-makers at a lot of companies will continue to fall prey to the cognitive illusion that so often facilitates wrongdoing of all kinds: “I’m too smart to get caught.”
So Wal-Mart has provided a clear example in terms of the benefits of bribery, and only a weak one in terms of the costs. Wal-Mart’s shareholders lost $10 billion this past Monday, in the wake of these revelations. But I fear the real impact of the scandal will be much bigger, and broader.
Shareholders at Citigroup have voted against the pay packages granted to the company’s top executives. Under Dodd-Frank, major firms are now required to hold shareholder votes on executive compensation at least once every three years. But the vote held Citigroup’s annual meeting on Tuesday was historic: it was the very first time that shareholders at a major financial firm have used this mechanism to express displeasure.
OK, now what? Well, that’s not entirely clear. Such votes are non-binding, and so the Board at Citigroup is legally entitled to ignore this recent vote entirely. But a widely-cited statement from the company includes the following assertion: “The Personnel and Compensation Committee of the Board will carefully consider their input as we move forward.” But really, what does that mean? And really, what should a Board of Directors do in the face of such feedback?
One problem is that a simple yea or nay vote is not very eloquent: there can be lots of reasons for saying “no” to a compensation package, and of course speculation is rampant. The Board (and its Personnel and Compensation Committee) now needs to talk to major shareholders — presumably it is already doing so — to find out what the problem is.
One analyst has been quoted as noting approvingly that this vote means the owners of big corporations are finally yanking the leash, a move towards getting things back under control. Mike Mayo, author of Exile on Wall Street, says that “[T[he owners of the big banks, namely the shareholders, are finally taking a greater amount of responsibility by speaking up.” The thinking here is that shareholders may have been objecting not just to Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit’s $15 million dollar pay, but also to the $10 million retention payment awarded to him, and the general lack of correlation between Pandit’s pay and the company’s financial performance.
But then, while the idea that shareholders “own” the company is common, it is not uncontentious. The connection between most shareholders and the company is indeed pretty tenuous. And regardless of ownership claims, lots of people reject the idea that shareholders have any special role here, or that their voices should count for more than the voices of other stakeholder groups. Under such a view, a shareholder say-on-pay vote deserves little more than a shrug. After all, if shareholders are just one more stakeholder group, then evidence that they don’t approve of CEO pay is no more important than evidence of similar disapproval on the part of workers or suppliers or whomever.
But a shareholder vote has to count as more than just one more bit of moral suasion. For better or for worse, shareholders are, under most companies’ systems of governance, the ones to whom all insiders, including the CEO and Board of Directors, swear allegiance. Managers don’t promise to make a profit — such a promise would hardly be credible — but they do promise to at least try to make a profit, to have something left for shareholders after the bills are paid. It’s the one bit of accountability that every CEO, regardless of political persuasion, pays homage to.