Author Archives: Gael O'Brien

It’s Not Altruism. Just Good Leadership

Reprinted with permission from my 5/26/18 column in Business Ethics Magazine  

Leaders who believe they have a responsibility to create conditions so that employees can flourish aren’t altruists. They’re just good leaders equally committed to maximizing financial success. They know the two are connected. They also know engagement occurs when employees feel accepted and valued for their contributions. These leaders understand the role respect plays in flourishing so they pay attention to, and address, issues like bigotry, sexual harassment and exclusion before talented people leave or the culture becomes toxic.

When big or small companies miss the mark on paying attention to respect and are in the headlines or become a cautionary tale (because we know someone who works there) it raises the obvious question of how could the CEO, senior leaders or Human Resources not see or act in time?

What we know about conduct is that when leaders model and insist that certain behaviors are a foundational priority and condition of working at a company, a culture shows different results than leaders just expecting we all understand how we should behave. The discrepancy illustrates the chasm between aspirational values and values that are actual cultural building blocks that define how an organization treats customers and each other. The defining question: how important is it to leaders that employees feel safe and have a sense of belonging?

If the “yes” is without enough anchors supporting it, the companies navigating current problems remind us that good intentions may win some diversity awards (as the three companies below have won) but won’t create sustainable change.

What follows are recent examples of what isn’t working and some suggestions of what companies can do to create conditions so that employees have the opportunity to flourish.

Visa, Nike and Microsoft

Leaders at Visa and Nike apparently failed to know female employees complained of misconduct, discrimination and a “bro culture” but now have culture change on their radar. After many female senior leader departures, Visa CEO Alfred F. Kelly, Jr.  met in May with women executives about advancement issues and inappropriate behavior they’ve experienced. Visa has also just created a Women’s Advisory Group. At Nike women, who’d said they’d been marginalized and sexually harassed with no action taken, initiated a survey. The survey results were left on Chairman, President and CEO Mark Parker’s  desk. Subsequent investigation into behaviors resulted in 11 senior executives resigning or losing their jobs.

Microsoft is among technology companies dealing with complaints of a “bro culture” and gender discrimination. An April 2018 Seattle Times article (“’I felt so alone’: what women at Microsoft face and why many leave”) captures the isolation, discouragement, bias and lack of support (from human resources as well as leaders) reported by media about women in other companies.

Creating conditions so employees can flourish

2018 isn’t our first rodeo for diversity and inclusion. The business case for diversity has been made, reiterated with new data for gender diversity and there are even CEO testimonials on business impact.  The human case for diversity has been evident for decades. However, it seems in change and uncertainty — where innovation, collaboration and conversations about new ways of seeing and doing are badly needed — there is an even greater dependence for some to surround themselves with “people like us” and act out unacceptable behavior to gain dominance and control over others. When unchecked by leaders, any sense of belonging by those harmed – and those watching who know it could also happen to them — is destroyed.

Companies of all sizes have been addressing in some way issues of bigotry, sexual harassment and exclusion because they know it’s illegal and toxic to a work environment. The bigger question is how good is their information about what is actually going on? And, are actions being taken designed to support employees in flourishing? Some suggestions for consideration:

Augmenting what CEOs know

First-hand information is the most useful.

  • Most CEOs need to get out of their offices more often to evaluate if their sense of reality is corroborated by what they hear and see. For example, what might Nike and Visa CEOs have known far sooner if they’d practiced managing by walking around (MBWA) and had a series of random skip level meetings to listen and learn?
  • As town meetings can inhibit some from asking questions, CEOs might encourage questions through an internal blog.  They may find their time well spent scanning comments and arrange with the internal communications team the best way to handle CEO responses.
  • Once a quarter, CEOs could initiate an open door policy for a few days, and encourage direct reports to do the same, to encourage two-way exchanges.
  • CEOs need to send Human Resources and their direct reports a clear message that they want unfiltered, accurate information about how complaints and problems are being handled – particularly those that address whether employees feel safe, have experienced intimidation, harassment or exclusion and how issues of fairness and respect are being addressed. Presumably someone from the CEO’s office is on the company’s diversity committee to give feedback on how issues are being addressed there.

Using information to strengthen culture

Speaking at a global business ethics symposium on diversity and inclusion this month, State Street Corporation’s  Chief Diversity Officer Paul Francisco indicated that a lot of implicit bias happens in workplaces when people are under stress. He advised slowing down to ask oneself if a decision is being made with the right context and facts or just because it feels easier.

How feedback is given, support provided and values linked with behaviors influences a workplace environment.

  • Research indicates some managers are uncomfortable giving feedback. In addition to getting tips from Human Resources, here are additional suggestions.  It’s important that employees receive constructive support and encouragement so they know what they are doing well and have specific suggestions for improvement. For employees violating policies, consequences need to be clear and consistent.
  • Managers should ask employees what support they need. Getting employees’ ideas in each team can help managers understand how to support team members and encourage them to support each other. This fuels a spirit of community and identifies values most important in that team.
  • Values need to be cultural building blocks with behaviors identified. Nike is an example of a company whose mission and 11 guiding principles are heavily brand driven.  The principle, “Do the right thing,” needs elaboration especially in light of Nike’s current crisis. Elaborating on what is meant by that principle could serve as an opportunity for teams to discuss how that should show up in how they treat each other.

BlackRock’s  Managing Director and Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion Jonathan McBride  has said his goal is for the company’s 14,000 employees to have a sense of belonging. He is actively discouraging employees from surrounding themselves with people “just like them” because “it creates risk, hampers resiliency and lowers performance.” McBride is using survey questions to get more data on employees’ sense of belonging to the company, team and global function.

Information provides insight and ideas for leaders to build understanding, strengthen culture, learn from mistakes and work together with employees to create a sense of belonging and safety so employees are motivated to do their best work.

It isn’t altruism, just good leadership.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics, is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University and Senior Fellow for Social Innovation at the Lewis Institute, Babson College.

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The Week in Ethics: Leaders and Culture

photo gold key in puzzle doorWe know that fostering the right culture promotes engagement, nurtures innovation and fuels both purpose and profit. The key word here is “right” culture. It is about the desire to pursue what enables people and financial results to flourish together.

According to the Fortune Magazine commentary on the Best Companies to Work For 2018 list “…it’s the companies that employees say are great workplaces that demonstrate stronger financial performance, reduced turnover, and better customer and patient satisfaction than their peers.” The commentary continues: “Caring and high-trust company cultures with a sense of purpose and clarity are consistently associated with strong revenue and stock performance.”

Great workplaces aren’t about who offers the best perks or highest salaries. The simplest thing leaders at every level can do on the road to creating a great workplace culture is sustaining an environment where employees are and feel respected, valued and supported in doing their best work.

Granted, not rocket science. Yet, it does require that a leader be self-aware, understand his or her impact on others and make it safe to share feedback about what is or isn’t working. All skills that can be developed. And when they aren’t? Well, we’ve seen in far too many recent crises, including at Google, Wells Fargo and Uber, how the absence of respect and inability to navigate conflict or hear bad news in a work environment bring repercussions.

An April 2017 Gallup report indicated there is 21 percent greater profitability from engaged business units: “Organizations have more success with engagement and improve business performance when they treat employees as stakeholders of their own and the company’s future.”

Treating employees as stakeholders means there is a level of engagement between a boss and an employee around finding synergy in what an employee needs to do his or her job well and how and why what they are doing matters (to the business and all its other stakeholders). It is a dialogue that enables work to become more meaningful, taking it from the isolated individual and team silo and connecting it to the whole.

So how do these conversations so fundamental to healthy cultures start and take hold?  They are second nature for some leaders. For those for whom it isn’t, the company’s Human Resource team should be helpful. In addition, key points in two recent leadership books, Radical Candor and Stretch, offer relevant suggestions that can  build better understanding in work relationships affecting the bottom line and engagement. (Radical Candor offers pointers on caring personally and challenging directly; Stretch provides tips on how “to untap the value in front of you.”)

Culture defines what is possible in an organization. It is human nature that with overloaded plates, leaders look for evidence that things are going well, not what isn’t. At least until a red flag is impossible to miss. However, if culture leadership isn’t a top priority and early warning signs are overlooked, untold time, energy and money may be required to fix it while other business goals are derailed.

CEOs need to ask themselves, their team, employees and Human Resources what more they can do on every level to get their culture right: to enable their people and financial results to flourish together.

Not to do so puts all other achievements at risk.

Gael O’Brien, March 5, 2018, The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is an executive coach, consultant and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute, Babson College.

The Week in Ethics: Fraternities, Charlie Rose and the Hope of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving invites our being more aware of others’ impact on us. How it feels to be seen, heard and valued for who we are. When we think about gratitude, it is people who generally first come to mind: those who have made a positive difference in our lives.

Events this year have shown what happens when our emotional intelligence is undeveloped or just shut down. When we are blind to our impact on others and they become merely a means to an end that works for us. We lose touch with our own humanity and ignore the essential elements of dignity in our treatment of others.

Two examples:

It was excruciating to read the November (2017) Atlantic Magazine’s “A Death at Penn State” about the hazing and death of sophomore Tim Piazza. To protect themselves and their Beta Theta Pi fraternity, his 16 fraternity brothers didn’t call 911 for 12 hours while he lay in pain and semi consciousness after falling head-first down a flight of stairs. The irony was that for security reasons the fraternity house had security cameras throughout, which is how the picture emerged of Tim’s fall and the next 12 hours. And yet there was still blindness.

photo of courageFor fraternity brothers who rationalize they are following a manly tradition, Penn State and any university whose “zero tolerance” is empty, alumni who shirk responsibility and national fraternity organizations who could control the harm and don’t, the unseeing eye leads to sexual assaults, traumatic injuries and student deaths.

The irony of the blind eye and myopic self-interest is that it makes us blind to ourselves and anything we think we stand for.

The current wave of powerful and prominent men — movie producers, actors, comedians, journalists, talk show hosts, executives and others — who’ve been blind to whether their serial sexual behavior toward those with little power was welcome — are learning it wasn’t.

Forced silence out of fear of reprisals has given way to women and men coming forward in the wake of sexual harassment moving out of the shadows of rumor. From ongoing revelations of sexual harassment at Fox News Division, to movie producer Harvey Weinstein last month and more than 30 other leaders in their fields since, distinctions between mutual consent and abuse of the power have made headlines.

Yesterday, (11/21/17) journalist and former talk show host Charlie Rose was fired from his roles at CBS, PBS and Bloomberg TV. The reason? Inquiries into the sexual misconduct allegations made by former employees and others associated with his work. In talking to a friend, we expressed a mutual sense of betrayal over the two sides of Charlie Rose. The person on TV who was so gifted at bringing out the essence of whomever he interviewed with a seeming stellar emotional intelligence. And how he acted when the camera wasn’t rolling, apparently so disconnected from himself; blind to the effect his unwanted attentions had on others.

Ironically, last week Rose interviewed columnist David Brooks about Brooks’ take on sexual harassment. Brooks talks about the harasser’s “inability to put yourself in the mind of the person you are pushing yourself all over. It is sort of humanistic blindness to another human being’s experience.”

So where does Thanksgiving this week come in?

In our digital world where we are looking to discoveries in artificial intelligence to advance productivity and innovation, we are still grappling with what emotional intelligence means in leadership — both leadership of ourselves and the impact we have on others. It is important to talk about this with people we trust to better understand ourselves and them.

The hope of Thanksgiving is that it can be a pause point.

Either enjoying our own company or surrounded by family or friends, it offers a time to  focus on our heart, not our head. To consciously take off any blinders that stop us from seeing our humanity and its connection to everyone else’s. It is a time to think about our impact on others and the impact we’d most want to have.

And in the midst of filling our plate with delicious food, to give more thought to how to feed our souls.

Gael O’Brien, November 22, 2017, The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is an Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute, Babson College.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Week in Ethics: Wells Fargo Culture Lessons 8 Months Later

After eight months of headlines, with likely more to come, Wells Fargo’s consumer fraud (affecting at the very least two million customers) echoes so many other corporate crises….what some of us did isn’t who we are. The drama playing out at the bank underscores the importance of companies regularly addressing how their values and actions align.

Wells Fargo certainly isn’t the first company in crisis where leaders have justified their efforts, defended their culture and blamed a few bad employees. Or been dropped from the list of most admired companies. Their approximately 235,000 employees and 70 million customers suggest they knew the check list of Leadership 101 as well as anyone, including: respect your customers, reinforce your code of conduct, make it safe for people to give you bad news, ask the right questions and expect answers.

And yet, it didn’t happen. Yet another company with a values statement that if followed would have avoided crisis. Touting values and ignoring them when making business decisions invites crisis.

In April 2017, Wells Fargo’s independent directors released the findings of an internal Sales Practices investigation report on the consumer fraud; it placed blame on specific leaders’ failings, organizational decentralization, sales integrity issues, and made a case for how the board was misled. The report identifies 10 corrective actions done or underway. While risk measures and having the ethics function report to the board twice a year is included, absent is the role of values in helping reshape culture.

The report pointed to culture chaos using a variety of descriptions: “culture of strong deference to management,” “sales culture,” “cowboy culture” and “insular culture” along with “company culture.”

Culture failures are hugely embarrassing. Changing leaders doesn’t ensure a culture regains health and purpose, especially if values have been passive, more marketing slogans than actually defining a culture. The report indicates that as early as 2002, there was evidence that sales goals couldn’t be met without “gaming” the system to the detriment of customers. The commercial bank unit had at least 14 years operating in conflict with the bank’s stated values which impact the spirit of the entire culture.

For years, Wells Fargo’s values statement has said: “We strive to be recognized by our stakeholders as setting the standard among the world’s great companies for integrity and principled performance. This is more than just doing the right thing. We also have to do it in the right way.”

This standard now needs to move from platitude to practical application. It needs to be looked at with humility and fresh eyes –no matter how long someone has been on the board or worked at the bank.

Questions the board and leaders should ask themselves and each other include:

  • What specifically (in behaviors and actions) do we want striving for integrity and principled performance to look like in 2017 and beyond throughout the bank?
  • What does respect for customers mean at every level and how will we demonstrate accountability in delivering it?
  • How do we expect leaders to show up in ways all leaders did not before?
  • How will we re-earn employee trust and inspire them to live (with us) the bank’s values?

There is distinction between aspiring to the highest operating standards and holding employees accountable to unattainable sales goals. The report indicated: “In many instances, Community Bank leadership recognized that their plans were unattainable….” Those goals were demoralizing and incentivized unethical behavior. While striving for the highest standards of integrity and principled performance can transform an organization.

In the words of Thoreau’s Walden “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

The report likely won’t change the minds of opinion leaders angry at the harm caused to customers in their community. Short of extraordinary measures, the bank’s explanation of what it’s doing to right wrongs won’t generate quickly the trust Wells Fargo wants regained. That was evident last month at Wells Fargo’s annual Shareholders’ meeting by the “tepid” re-election of board members. The board chair’s defense “…the board took the appropriate actions with the information it had” falls short. However, a focus on the ethical implications of the report findings offer a direction to identify what integrity and principled performance will mean going forward.

Three additional lessons grow out of the Wells Fargo experience that address culture:

Wells Fargo’s report indicated direct reports and others recognized former CEO/chairman John Stumpf  disliked conflict and receiving bad news. This weakness impacts what is shared, held back and received by the board. CEOs often won’t see themselves as conflict or bad-news adverse, winning at any cost or not aligning business strategy with company values. Even when CEOs have the dual role of board chairman, (now separated at Wells Fargo) independent directors create success when they clarify leadership attributes expected, discuss areas of potential concern and ensure CEOs receive developmental support when falling short.

A board should monitor regularly, with HR facilitation, how company leadership shows up in feedback (surveys, town meetings and ethics hot line etc.) to enable a more complete picture. The Leadership Circle’s Leadership Culture Survey is one of the outside assessment tools available. It looks at the health and effectiveness of organizational leadership and measures the balance between creative and reactive leadership competencies.

Given the huge internal, reputation and financial costs of ethical failures, board members should consider recommendations in “The Ethics Officer as Agent of the Board” to leverage ethical governance capability. In addition to walking the talk themselves, they create focus when they reinforce organization accountability to live up to its stated values.

Gael O’Brien, May 21, 2017, The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University.

Additional Wells Fargo columns: Where Wells Fargo Goes From Here (December 2016) and Wells Fargo’s Next Move? 10 Suggestions (September 2016)

The Week in Ethics: Corporate Citizenship in a Trump Administration

trump_white-house-photo-2017-featureCircumstances have caused an increasing number of companies and CEOs to speak out in recent years on hot-button social issues that previously weren’t part of traditional corporate citizenship. For example, nearly 400 companies filed an amicus brief on marriage equity with the Supreme Court, and employers and organizations banded together using economic leverage to fight legislation discriminating on the basis of sexual-orientation in IndianaNorth Carolina and Georgia. CEOs also weighed in against policies that exacerbated racial tension, like flying the Confederate flag and excessive use of force by local police.

This experience will serve corporate leaders well in navigating the challenges ahead. Issues of gender, race, sexual-orientation, pay equity, gun control and climate change are among the many hot-button social issues not going away – and likely to become more divisive — under the administration  of U.S. President Donald J. Trump. Corporate citizenship may be entering its greatest test.

Will a Trump presidency have the effect of muting CEO voices for fear of reprisals and Twitter attacks in a government now controlled by one political party? Or will corporate citizenship, acting out of a bigger sense of purpose, gain increased public trust and support?

The new landscape offers unknowns, perils and opportunity even as the administration’s agenda isn’t finalized. As president, Trump wields enormous power and a low tolerance for criticism which makes dissent tactically sensitive. Companies have a full plate keeping up with economic policies impacting their business. However, the hot-button social and environmental issues will create defining moments for leadership and corporate citizenship.

Three of my observations from recent corporate citizenship challenges: 1) how a company defines its purpose fosters momentum; 2) using economic leverage isn’t corporate bullying; and 3) it’s critical to speak up collectively for what’s right.

How a company defines its purpose fosters momentum

When company leaders see the purpose of business as delivering value to society and the environment in tandem with delivering financial results, things change. They create stakeholders, shifting into a more authentic and aware relationship with employees, customers and all those impacted by the business. It makes “community” personal and shapes values and behaviors around what enables the community to flourish or be harmed. If everyone has a stake in its success as stakeholders then what everyone does matters more. If a law or action discriminates against anyone in the community, for example, it is a catalyst in seeking out like-minded leaders to join in addressing the problem.

Using economic leverage isn’t corporate bullying

Under pressure from many business leaders, Indiana, former Governor Michael Pence, now Vice President Pence, backed down on provisions in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that invited sexual-orientation discrimination. If the provisions weren’t dropped, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff was the first to threaten economic sanctions  (like reducing investment in the state and offering employees a relocation option). Economic leverage, used in other states to address discriminatory legislation was called “corporate bullying”  by critics. As discrimination is illegal, how is it bullying for companies not to want their employees put at risk?

It’s critical to speak up collectively for what’s right 

Corporate Citizenship is an individual and collective act. It involves working continuously to reinforce ethical behavior in one’s own company and working collectively with other CEOs and like-minded organizations to address social and environmental concerns important to you and your stakeholders. There is strength in numbers, especially in uncertain and volatile times. Commenting  on corporate social activismBank of America’s  Chairman and CEO Brian Moynihan  said, “Our jobs as CEOs now include driving what we think is right. It’s not exactly political activism, but it is action on issues beyond business.”

Climate change is just one example of the persistence needed for progress. Climate action to create a low-carbon economy and support the Paris Climate Agreement faces a challenge getting President Trump’s commitment as he has called global warming a hoax. The most recent Gallup Poll on the subject, found 64 percent of Americans surveyed expressed some to great concern over global warming.

It is unclear how, if at all, dissenting popular opinion will impact the Trump presidency and social and environmental issues. He lost the election’s popular vote by an unprecedented 2.9 million ballots. The day after the Inauguration over 600 peaceful marches  – 400 in the U.S. cities and more than 200 around the world –  put the president on notice regarding grassroots support for human rights issues. The president’s popularity (and how it impacts members of Congress) will be a bellwether of his ability to get his agenda through. Likewise, a company’s continued strong financial performance creates latitude to address controversial social issues.

Those companies whose business purpose is more than just profit are likely to avoid ethical problems longer if federal regulations and enforcement are relaxed. According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, 75 percent of respondents agree that “a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.” While 53 percent believe the current overall system has failed them, many continue to have faith in business as an institution. “Among those who are uncertain about whether the system is working for them,” the survey found, “it is business (58 percent) that they trust the most.”

Whether or not progress can be made on hot-button social issues in a Trump administration, acting out of a bigger sense of purpose and drawing strength from collective voices will likely gain increased public trust and support of corporate citizenship.

Photo via Whitehouse.gov.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics.

Reprinted with permission: This column was originally published January 23, 2017 entitled “Corporate Citizenship in an Age of Uncertainty” in Business Ethics Magazine.

Gael O’Brien, January 26, 2017, The Week in Ethics