The Week in Ethics: GM’s New CEO

Posted February 13, 2014 by Gael O'Brien
Categories: Diversity, Leadership

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Update: March 27, 2014, GM CEO Mary Barra will testify before Congress next week, answering questions about consumer safety and the process (a decade before she became CEO) of how GM handled faulty ignitions without recalling cars impacted (which resulted in at least 12 deaths). NYT piece speculating about what in GM culture might have contributed to its ethical failures in behavior here.

This column originally appeared in Business Ethics Magazine, January 30, 2014 entitled “GM’s New CEO: Demonstrating How Less Can Be More.” This week (February 10, 2014) GM Chairman Theodore Solso  announced new CEO Mary Barra’s “total compensation is in line with her peer group and properly weighted so that most is at-risk.” Her salary had originally been reported as lower than her predecessor’s, giving rise to criticism about gender bias.

I’m reminded of a line in the lyrics of a song from the movie My Fair Lady which asks, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Seeing the film at an impressionable age, the refrain lived in my head for years. Was the message that women needed to be more?

The very small number of women who’ve made it into the CEO pipeline has given rise to ongoing articles analyzing why so few, and research by Catalyst and others making the case for diversity. Currently, less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies and less than 10 percent of the Fortune 1000 are led by women.

In January 2014, Mary Barra, an engineer and General Motors (GM) veteran became its first woman CEO. In spite of a number of talented women in leadership positions at GM, a woman leading GM or any global automotive company is a well-heralded first. Also in January, with far less media acclaim, another woman engineer from another field considered traditionally-male become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Jacqueline Hinman was promoted after a long career at CH2M Hill, a global engineering firm.

The start of the new year brings the total of women heading Fortune 500 companies to 23 or 4.6 percent. In cross referencing their backgrounds, 16 were promoted internally after being tested in many roles. Of the seven brought in from the outside, four have been CEOs five to ten years so far, and the remaining three (HP’s  Meg Whitman (2011), Avon’s  Sherilyn McCoy (2012) and Yahoo’s  Melissa Mayer (2013) held long-term senior positions at their previous companies. Whether an insider or outsider is a good CEO fit depends on factors like personal attributes, strategy, execution, support, culture, and how they engage others to work for the company’s success.

Given the tiny pool of women CEOs, there is the understandable lament of the loss to organizations of not having more senior women. And beyond diversity of gender and ethnicity, the critical need to have more diversity of thought, approach to problems, and ways of leading that bring out the best from stakeholders. Because there are so few women CEOs, there is also a danger that in celebrating them we can go too far — celebrity status conferred on, cultivated or accepted creates a rock star status which when associated with leadership has real risks.

Barra has had a low key reaction to the considerable attention about her heading the 7th ranked Fortune 500 company. When asked about being an inspiration to women, she replied  she hoped her credentials as an engineer make her a role model to inspire young men and women to go into science.

She has deflected focus from herself to GM’s products and team, which suggests she will successfully resist rock star celebrity, something that characterized much of Carly Fiorina’s tenure at Hewlett Packard (HP) 15 years ago when she became the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. (There were only eight other women CEOs on the Fortune 500 list when she was ousted in 2005 when her approach didn’t yield expected results.) Yahoo’s Mayer in her first year continues to attract significant visibility as a CEO, mom and geek fashionista, with a personal brand “hotter” than her company’s.

Celebrity and leadership generally aren’t a sustainable combination because when the focus is allowed to stay on the leader and not redirected back to the organization, it becomes a story of “I” and not “we” which leaves the company and employees behind. While there may be short-term publicity value if a CEO becomes a darling,  as JP Morgan’s Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon did after the financial crisis, attention allowed to stay too long on the leader backfires, especially when a company makes mistakes.

It has only been four years since GM emerged from reorganization and bankruptcy after a federal government bailout. Expectations for Barra’s leadership are enormous against the backdrop of a turnaround occurring in an unpredictable, constantly changing global environment. However, by not letting it be about her, the entire company is called to meet the challenge.

In interviews about her leadership attributes, colleagues have volunteered Barra has a passion for GM and its products, focuses on team building, seeks consensus, is fact-based and decisive, “an outstanding listener,” challenges thinking about assumptions and is very methodical, logical and fair. Others have pointed to her openness and inclusiveness, active seeking of others’ opinions, lack of big ego and “the self-described ‘nerd’ qualities that guide her gut.”

Many of these qualities are also reflected in general in women’s leadership styles. “What Women Bring to the Exercise of Leadership”  cites a 2008 Pew Research Center study where 2,250 adults (almost equally split between men and women) “ranked women better than or equal to men in seven of eight primary leadership traits.”

And yet, how hard it continues to be in many organizations for women to be given opportunities that allow them to be considered for the top jobs. Time and experience teach us that no gender, male or female, should be THE standard in leadership. To the degree that has been ignored in an organization, women have had to work much harder to do and be “more.”

“More” is an archaic standard that only fuels more and higher expectations that can cause good people to bow out because leadership seem too great a sacrifice. Or can self-justify why the story is about “I” not “we.” The more the expectations, compensation and hype are ratcheted up and accepted, the greater the chance of failure for all concerned.

Photo: © General Motors

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, February 13, 2014

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where this column was originally published.

The Week in Ethics: Why Purpose Matters to Leaders

Posted January 24, 2014 by Gael O'Brien
Categories: Leadership, Social Conscience, Social Responsibility, Sustainability, Trust, Uncategorized

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Leaders who unite their teams around a purpose beyond creating profit redefine what is possible. They show a road map for how collectively each person can have a positive impact on customers, an industry, community, and society. The lens these leaders hold up allows individuals to see how they can make a difference, a key element in employee engagement.

We don’t hear a lot about companies that are focused on a bigger purpose because they are far less likely to derail and become headlines in scandals or crises. They are grounded by company values which creates a common language and sense of “we,” which is a ballast in the constant change of our unpredictable world. Unilever and its Sustainable Living Plan is an illustration of purpose in action that is part of a business strategy. It sets out a plan that expects the company to double in size while also decreasing its environmental footprint and increasing the company’s positive social impact.

Business can no longer afford to be a bystander,” according to Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman, “content to sit on the sidelines doing the minimum necessary to acquire its ‘license to operate.’” Polman is also one of the founding leaders of the B Team, a global initiative calling for a new kind of leadership — more inclusive and driven by a moral compass. The B Team seeks to redefine obligations to stakeholders — replacing maximizing profit with a focus on people, planet and profit.

The “business as usual” short-term profit lens has spewed out all kinds of red flags morphing into the recent financial meltdown among other problems. Last fall, a Washington Post column “How the cult of shareholder value wrecked American business” addressed the “self-reinforcing cycle in which corporate horizons have become shorter and shorter” with reduced CEO tenures and patience for the long-term, as well as the decreased average time stocks are held (now less than six months).

The irony, columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote, is that the focus on maximizing shareholder value hasn’t actually done that much for shareholders.  “My guess,” he said, “is that it will be a new generation of employees that finally frees the American corporation from the ­shareholder-value straightjacket. Young people — particularly those with skills that are in high demand — today are drawn to work that not only pays well but also has meaning and social value.”

The push for purpose has many advocates in addition to Gen Y employees. The impact social entrepreneurs are having on creating positive social change as well as global giants like Unilever demonstrate that innovation, financial gain and societal benefit can fuel each other. Research also supports that purpose is as great a motivator as profit as Daniel Pink pointed out in Drive.

Purpose matters.

Inspired leaders know, says Simon Sinek, that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, January 23, 2014

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her December 2013 column is “Why Do Good People Do Bad Things? The Role of Spiritual Intelligence.”

The Week in Ethics: Is Ethical Leadership Contagious?

Posted July 24, 2013 by Gael O'Brien
Categories: Code of Conduct, Culture, Ethical Behavior, Ethical Leadership, Influence, Integrity, Leadership, Tone at the Top, Trust

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If you were trying to foster ethical leadership in your organization, could anything make it “contagious?”

For starters, labeling it as “ethical leadership” might not take you as far as you’d like. How often do people say they are on board, “get it” and don’t need more?  While they might be willing to read about or take courses in strategic or global leadership, for example, many equate ethical leadership with what they learned growing up; if they need to spend more time talking about it, it might look like they are deficient in Golden Rule 101.

That’s the problem with blinders leaders, high potentials and any of us can have about our own ethical development — why it can suddenly be hard to give voice to values (because we’ve never thought about a potential conflict that suddenly surfaces) or why decisions are made weighing only legal and financial consequences (without noticing the potential for unintended ethical consequences) or why we need to be right.

When we talk about ethics and leadership in organizations, we need to translate it into values and behaviors we want visible in the culture that in turn build off a company’s values. While we say that ethical leadership encompasses the highest personal and organizational standards that vagueness creates an abstraction where everyone “gets it”  in theory, and can overlook it in practice.

Our language sets up creating the norm of what the organization stands for — and the behaviors supporting that — which then demystifies and brings the type of leadership we want to see and cultivate into day-to-day reality. If those qualities are talked about in examples and stories when the CEO meets with the board, direct reports and others; if they are linked to business success, reinforced in informal and formal mentoring programs, meaningfully incorporated into performance reviews, and play a role in why people get recognized, promoted or let go: the norm can be imitated and then owned.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is increasingly being reinforced in organizations as a way to develop leaders and help them succeed. (See Daniel Goleman’s What Makes a Leader.) Reinforcing EQ reinforces attributes important in ethical leadership so it is a win-win.

Some resources for thinking about how ideas can take hold in a culture include Contagious: Why Things Catch On by  Jonah Berger (video above) and the books that fueled his thinking: Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the Heath brothersMade to Stick.

Applying that to what could make ethical leadership contagious involves first looking at what  natural advantages exist in your culture to tap into to help ideas take hold. Then, what ideas might offer perceived value. For example, creating a special leadership forum site with links to good articles, blogs, book reviews and news stories fosters leadership development that reinforces the norm you want, with triggers to keep the subject top of mind, while saving leaders’/potential leaders’ time in finding useful information they can apply and share with others. Launch it with a sense of exclusivity: perhaps needing a password. Enlist the support of admired leaders in the organization to make reference in meetings to an article on the site they liked, and find other ways to have the site talked about and positioned as a place high potentials go for useful leadership tips. Who wouldn’t want to be considered “high potential”?

How do the values and attributes of ethical leadership become contagious in organizations?

They are modeled by the board, CEO and other leaders. They are talked about and interrelated with business and personal success. They are mentored and cultivated, enmeshed in the culture’s stories and allied with how people feel/see they can make a difference. They are linked to reducing stress. They are connected to what stakeholders’ value, attached to what it takes to belong and reinforced throughout the organization.

Gael O’Brien July 24, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. Gael is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her November 6, 2013 column looks at whether loyalty is owed when a boss acts as a good leader. 

The Week in Ethics: Peace, Education, Equality and Malala Yousafzai

Posted July 15, 2013 by Gael O'Brien
Categories: Influence, Leadership, social consciousness

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“Let us pick up our books and pens; they are our most powerful weapons,” Malala Yousafzai told the United Nations General Assembly on July 12, 2013. Her compelling 17-minute speech advocated for peace, education and equality around the world so that schools and education can be “every child’s bright future.”

What is especially remarkable about her comments, aside from wisdom well beyond her just sixteen years, is that on October 9, 2012, she was shot in the forehead by the Taliban and left for dead. Rather than the Taliban silencing her, she said at the UN, “weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”

Malala paid tribute to all those who have fought for their rights: “Their right to live in peace; their right to be treated with dignity; their right to equal opportunity; their right to be educated.”

Her path to activism for education, and for girls and women to have a voice, began long before she was a teenager. Having grown up in an environment of political violence, she knows peace is essential for education.

Extremists, she said, are afraid of books and pens, and also women, change and equality.

Her life experience so far pushing against intolerance is another dramatic illustration that the purpose of intolerance is to silence. It barricades itself and everything it dominates in ignorance. Pens and books are powerful steps in breaking through intolerance.

Her leadership journey is launched, fueled by purpose, resilience and a passion that children be protected from brutality and harm, able to change themselves and the world through free, compulsory education.

Dignity, equal opportunity, education….Malala reminds us, “We cannot all succeed if half of us are held back.”

Gael O’Brien July 15, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. Gael is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her June 2013 column looks at leadership vulnerabilities of departing OSU president Gordon Gee.

The Week in Ethics: Wisdom in Action, Andrew Pochter and Martin Richard

Posted July 13, 2013 by Gael O'Brien
Categories: Ethical Behavior, Influence, Integrity, Leadership, social consciousness

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Our individual wisdom is what shapes our leadership and determines our humanity. It comes out of how we see, feel and interpret joys and sorrow in life and what we’ve learned from others.

How we live and act on our wisdom is our legacy, a true measure of how we inspire and impact others.

The deaths of eight-year old Martin Richard in the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and Kenyon College student Andrew Pochter, a bystander in Egypt’s June 2013 political uprising, are among the more recent tragic consequences of a world-wide breakdown in wisdom when intransigent intolerance and random violence become the overpowering language.

Martin Richard cropA makeshift memorial in Boston’s Copley Square, bound on three sides by what seemed like thousands of running shoes, framed the tributes to those killed and the more than 260 injured in the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Martin’s parents were injured in the blasts and his sister, an aspiring dancer, lost a leg. The tribute to Martin focused on his own words: “No more hurting people. Peace.”

He had written that message on a poster for a class project after 17-year old Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida.

Andrew Pochter was in Alexandria, Egypt for an internship teaching English to children Martin Richard’s age when he was stabbed to death watching a protest. He had planned to return after college, his parents said, “to live and work there in pursuit of peace and understanding.” At his funeral July 12, 2013, his sister read a letter he had sent recently to a 12-year old he’d been mentoring the previous five summers at a camp for at-risk youth in Maryland. The camper was graduating from the program.

In the letter, Andrew congratulated him on all he’d accomplished, called out his strengths and offered snippets of Andrew’s own wisdom, telling the 12-year old: to surround himself with friends who do “good deeds” and care about his future, not blame others for their mistakes, and speak with confidence “because your personal confidence is just as important as your education.”

We can’t know what Martin or Andrew or any of the thousands of youth killed each year by political, religious and sexual violence or other forms of rage could have contributed by their leadership had they lived. However, globally there has been a huge loss of potential talent and contribution. We know that Martin and Andrew, among so many others, knew the wisdom of peace.

That legacy in a world torn up by intolerance — the opposite of peace — fueled by the legacy of so many others who died in service of peace demand that leaders at every level start by acting on their wisdom to rout out intolerance in their own spheres crippling governments, workplaces, families, and communities, and then advance the conversation to act globally.

Intolerance is poison. The lyrics of “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” in the iconic 1949 musical South Pacific (which Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific) continue to resonate through Broadway revivals and community theaters. It reminds us of what we have yet to undo:

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear….You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Gael O’Brien July 13, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. Gael is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her June 2013 column looks at leadership vulnerabilities of departing OSU president Gordon Gee.


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