Category Archives: Influence

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: Is Ethical Leadership Contagious?

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

“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

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.

The Week in Ethics: Pepsi’s Advertising Disconnect From Social Responsibility

Update: May 4, 2013: Pepsi pulled the ad, but a segment of the ad is still available to view as of today here 

Having a woman CEO hasn’t sensitized those at Pepsi making advertising decisions based on an ad pulled this week showing a hysterical blond, battered, white woman intimidated by a policeman who is drinking a Mountain Dew demanding that she pick her batterer out of a line up of African-American men and a goat.

The ad, part of a series, developed by Tyler, The Creator, an African-American rapper, is a reminder that in the search for hip the lens of celebrity has its own focus.

Does Pepsi’s pulse on America really think the new edgy is taking half-a-dozen demeaning stereotypes, throwing them at the wall and not caring what sticks as long as you notice the can of soda?

The ad blunder for Mountain Dew is a reminder to companies that the definition of corporate social responsibility goes beyond the dollars they give to improve causes important to them. If they don’t link their influence in the world to how they sell products, their corporate responsibility becomes just veneer.

When every nine seconds in the U.S. a woman is beaten or assaulted  (the leading cause of injury to women), when a Georgia High School just had its first-ever integrated prom, when a Chicago Police Department is criticized for racial stereotyping and ”accidental racist” is too common……when rape in India — a four-year-old girl sexually assaulted died this week — continues to underscore attitudes toward women and girls — pandering to demeaning stereotypes in attempts at hip and wannabe amusing advertising betrays corporate responsibility.

USA Today illustrates recent advertising missteps that resulted in bad press and pulled ads: parodies of suicide (Hyundai zero emission cars) and depressed women (McDonald’s regional Big Mac ad) and Ford’s depiction of sexily-dressed women bound and gagged in the back of a Figo compact car — all tributes to bad judgment.

Hip is seductive– it crowns itself its own cool, evaporates in backlash and leaves corporate responsibility without much to say for itself.

Gael O’Brien May 2, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine; she is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine — her April column is about the road to second chances.