Category Archives: Leadership

The Week in Ethics: Making Ethics Real Makes Leadership Real

What is the key to effective leadership? The answer is ethics.

However, if this doesn’t seem an easy sell…stay with it. Making ethics real makes leadership real.

We’ll look at four ways to bring this home. First, some context.

Ethical Failures

When ethics isn’t a key driver in an organization, the fallout from ethical lapses can have catastrophic financial impact. (The liability for Bankrupt Pacific Gas and Electric for the 2018 “deadly wildfires” can’t yet be determined; as of October 2018, Volkswagen’s diesel emission scandal hit $33 billion since 2015.)

Ethical failures often occur because what was known or should have been known were not addressed. When ethics isn’t considered a business fundamental (like finance, operations, strategy, planning, marketing) vulnerability increases.

In addition, smart, strategic, successful and numbers-focused leaders have harmed their companies by ethical misconduct.  Some held dual roles of CEO and chairman including Les Moonves at CBS and John Stumpf at Wells Fargo. What they did or ignored put them counter to professed company values. This underscores the importance of board members integrating company values into board discussions and having a better understanding of — and acting on — how CEOs actually show up. This is even more critical  when a CEO is also chairman. If information is siloed the board can’t verify reality beyond a chairman’s assurances.

A May 2019 study by Strategy& that includes 2018 CEO turnover analysis indicated: “For the first time in the study’s (19 year) history, more CEOs were dismissed for ethical lapses than for financial performance or board struggles.” This reinforces the need for a board to be engaged with company’s values and tone at the top.

Four Recommendations for Making Ethics Real 

1/   Accept ethics as a business fundamental! Without its ongoing influence of “what we stand for” (that can inspire employee engagement and customer connection), the best strategy, marketing and financials are more vulnerable. Just as leaders invest time and increase knowledge in marketing and other fundamentals, investing time in ethics (for CEOs as well as board members) involves, among other things:

  • Asking more questions, listening and observing and connecting professed values to the business of the organization. (Not limiting ethics in discussions to risk mitigation or hotline statistics.)
  • Paying attention to each other, noticing whether susceptibility to CEO disease is emerging. Recognizing when someone is in self-seal and respectfully calling that out so that board and C-suite discussions can be more collaborative.

2/   Encourage in the culture Giving Voice to Values! An employee recently shared with me her discomfort when her boss told her to add a particular expense as part of his travel expenses. She’d expressed concern over its inappropriateness but he restated his reasoning. However, the next day, the leader told her he’d been thinking about her comments and saw her point. He told her not to include the expense. The experience telegraphed to her that the organization’s polices and values were real and applied to everyone.

  • When leaders make it safe for employees to disagree and explain why, leaders can move beyond their own point of view to see a broader picture. Listening to information challenging their perspective can stimulate further thought and potentially avoid embarrassment and poor decisions.

3/   Share personal values as a leader! The 2019 Eldelman Trust Barometer report indicated 79% of respondents said “knowing the CEO’s personal values is important to building trust.” Many startup founders have incorporated their personal values into the companies they build. That’s been the focus for Yvon Chouinard founder of Patagonia in the company’s advocacy for the environment. However, it’s also what former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill did in his focus on safety as CEO and Chairman of Alcoa. Values at Alcoa under O’Neill and later at Ford under Alan Mulally’s leadership connected employees to a vision that inspired successful financial turnarounds at both companies.

  • Values shared, followed by a visible focus of action, communication and accountability make them real in a culture. It also transforms the impact of leadership. It signals a direction that is relatable, authentic, trustworthy and inspiring to follow.

4/   See ethics as finance’s best ally! 

  • In a conversation with Paul O’Neill about 10 years ago, he illustrated how ethics — in this case worker safety — supports and can drive company success. In 1987, he created an accountable, transparent, global internet system of real-time reporting of workplace injuries against the advice of his legal team who feared it would invite litigation. “In the 13 years I was at Alcoa, we never had a single lawsuit about workplace injuries” he told me, mentioning also that Alcoa had also had record profits and growth. “If you are elected to be the CEO of an organization,”he added, “why wouldn’t your leadership be about creating a wonderful, fulfilling organization that is not about money? Money is a consequence, not an object.”

Ethics is the key to effective leadership. Making ethics real does make leadership real.

Gael O’Brien, July 19, 2019, The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist,  a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

 

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The Week in Ethics: Gillette’s Leadership, the Backlash and Possibility

 

Gillette released this week a short film “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” Some criticize it as an attack on men; others disagree and see it as inspiring and hopeful. My take is the under two-minute video illustrates another Fortune 500 company’s courage and leadership to try and use the power of its brand to create a conversation about personal accountability in how others are treated. And let’s face it, that conversation is overdue.

The video’s message is “things have gotten out of control.” It calls out bullying, “boys will be boys” justifications, “toxic masculinity,” gender put downs and sexual harassment and assault. It calls on men “…to say the right thing, to act the right way.” Pointing out that “some already are, in ways big and small, but some is not enough because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

I grew up in the city where Gillette is headquartered. For over 100 years it has carried itself, and been accepted, as an icon of masculinity. At the same time, what is meant by femininity has undergone an evolving transformation since women gained the right to vote in 1920. The meanings of respect, fairness, inclusion and trust still shudder for mutual acceptance. Gillette is stepping up and into a maelstrom of public emotions and opinions about power and its abuse, clearly doing it wide eyed. The company, and its parent Procter and Gamble, had to know there would be fallout. The question is what role can they play in leading by example and supporting an evolving definition of masculinity now that their ad has become a focal point of attention?

Gillette, wrote, in explaining its video, “that brands like ours play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.” The company pledged “to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette.”

As with the experience Starbucks faced in 2015 in its “Race Together” initiative on racial inequality, Gillette’s video immediately proved controversial — offensive to some (a call for a company boycott) and garnering praise for the backlash it is creating. Stepping up to address social problems is tricky for companies as Starbucks learned; there were mistakes along the way as Starbucks acknowledged in how it made sure it was leading by example.

However, when attempting difficult conversations (whether in the living room, classroom, break room, board room or using social media as a platform) it won’t be perfect. In the best of intentions and aspirations, mistakes will be made but so will progress. Mistakes anticipated and prepared for (the smartest way), or addressed when made, chart progress in how to improve individually, as a culture and as a society. If nothing really important is attempted, learned from and tried again, nothing changes.

For 30 years Gillette has used the tagline “the best a man can get.” They’ve changed it to “The Best Men Can Be.” The company statement on the video continues: “we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and coming communication and reflecting on the types of men and behaviors we want to celebrate. We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.”

Gillette’s closing line in the video — “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best”– could be the motto of a team striving to win the Olympics. It also expresses the aspiration and rigor we should expect of business leaders and all of us in the conversations ahead.

Gael O’Brien, January 17, 2019, The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is an executive coach, consultant and presenter focused on helping leaders and organizations build trust, engagement 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: 2018 Leadership Lessons

It isn’t just leaders’ abilities and experience that give them confidence. Authentic confidence means leaders realize that as smart as they are, their view or approach might be wrong. And what they do about that either fuels ethical leadership or spawns disaster.

A significant cause of leadership failure in 2018, as in the past, was the failure of a leader to vet adequately assumptions about a course of action and its unintended consequences.

What is hopeful and points to continued benefits in 2019 is the focus on ethics, business and leadership evident in the call to action by BlackRock founder, chairman and CEO Larry Fink in his January 2018 annual CEO letter: “A Sense of Purpose”.  In addition, the unexpected death this month of business ethics pioneer W. Michael Hoffman, who founded the center for business ethics at Bentley University 42 years ago — the first of its kind in North America — offers another call to action through the inspiration and impetus of his legacy.

In spite of our living in a time of great disruption and innovation, being wrong isn’t comfortable, especially for hard charging leaders who often rely on their own counsel. Pulitzer prize winner Kathryn Schulz’s TED Talk “On Being Wrong” explores the danger in our believing we are on the right side of anything. Being an effective leader requires the emotional intelligence to be alert to when we close down on an issue, trust our own counsel too much or don’t routinely explore with others potential unintended consequences in decisions.

Leaders can’t mitigate what their leadership styles preclude them from seeing. When leaders lose themselves in their own sense of power, the rightness of their ideas or how their ideas must be carried out, they invite unintended consequences as well as create significant vulnerabilities for themselves, their organizations and shareholders.

This problem applies to governing a country or leading, for example until just a few weeks ago, the world’s largest automotive alliance. (Carlos Ghosn’s world collapsed last month; he is indicted and in jail.) This malady of a self-serving point of view affected what was the world’s most valuable bank in 2016. In addition to fines already paid, Wells Fargo agreed in 2018 to pay settlements of more than $2 billion to federal regulators, states and shareholders for its massive customer fraud which was rooted in being irrevocably wedded to a cross-selling culture that ignored the red flags raised.

Refusal to listen to experts, hiding failures, misleading investors and doing it her way set a course for why Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes failed in 2018 in her startup’s big, audacious vision to disrupt healthcare. This fall, Telsa CEO Elon Musk forfeited his chairman role for two years because of a tweet likely anyone on his board or team, if consulted, could have told him would be a huge mistake. Examples of companies’  actions creating unintended consequences go on and on, which is why this issue is so important to address.

In Fink’s “A Sense of Purpose” letter, he raised the bar, aligning ethics with business. He wrote to CEOs: “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose.” He continued, “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”  Fink’s 2019 annual CEO letter, expected in January, will likely take farther his theme of company leadership accountability.

Hoffman, who was the Hieken Professor of Business and Professional Ethics, used to say that “Ethical theory without practical application is empty and useless and business practices not grounded in ethical principles are blind and dangerous.” He played a dominant role shaping the business ethics movement. For over 40 years he mentored, shared information or training and gave career support to thousands of faculty members (starting or expanding business ethics centers or business ethics curriculum), business ethics officers and others in the field around the world, in addition to his teaching responsibilities, books and articles.

The long-term success of business depends on the capacity of leaders to integrate ethical approaches with business strategy. Larry Fink seems poised to have tremendous influence in advancing ethical leadership. In addition, Mike Hoffman’s legacy is something those who knew him will carry in our hearts.

Gael O’Brien, December 31, 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.

Can Civility Be Saved? Should It Be?

Can Civility Be Saved? Should It Be?

by Gael O’Brien (Reprinted with permission from Business Ethics Magazine 8/26/18)

An abundance of research on incivility points to the mountain we need to scale. Incivility (which includes behavior or language that is rude, disrespectful, offensive or demeaning) is on the rise. It’s also contagious – which is why it’s called “the incivility bug” – according to incivility and respect expert Christine Porath.

How does this apply to us? Well, few of us get a free pass here. In research done by psychologist Tasha Eurich and her team, as many as 90 percent of us are likely overconfident about how self-aware we actually are. This puts the kibosh on grade inflation around how well we know ourselves, our impact, how others see us or just how respectful we actually are. This “incivility bug” doesn’t just contaminate our work environments, it pollutes our leadership. It deals a blow to employee engagement, trust (on every level) and why anyone would want to be led by us or buy what we sell.

Asking the bigger question about our own leadership

These challenges inherent in being human go back to Adam, Eve and the snake. Nonetheless, the timing now seems critical to develop further our leadership capacity, challenge our own overconfidence and deepen our awareness of ourselves and how respect shows up in our impact on others. The outcome is a greater sense of personal wholeness – always helpful given the pressures of leading – as well as a more authentic, compelling leadership presence. To that end, let’s look at some resources and ideas supporting respect, self-awareness and presence. Afterward, you might even be inspired to reread psychologist Daniel Goleman’s classic on emotional intelligence “What Makes a Leader.”

Some might argue this approach is futile, going against the flow of the tone being set by the President of the United States communicating in tweets many consider bullying. For example, his encouraging a boycott of Harley-Davidson, when they pushed back against proposed tariffs. However, straw horses won’t take us where we need to go.

The bigger question is very personal — about the kind of leader your team and company need in order to achieve results, organizational purpose and mission as well as sustain crucial relationships. Leadership around civility and respect turns around organizations, creates sustainable engagement and changes lives.  Two examples: Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, led a financial and employee engagement turnaround with a conscious agenda to lead with civility. And it worked. Retired Boston Police Commissioner William Evans was honored for his “gift of empathy” during his tenure which saw a reduction in crime as well as a new vision for community policing that demonstrated respect and  earned him most Bostonians’ trust, according to a Boston Globe editorial. Evans is now Executive Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police at Boston College.

Leadership Failures

When our agenda rushes past the needs and humanity in others, we get outcomes like:

  • German scientist and preeminent empathy researcher Tania Singer, who was relieved of management responsibilities of her lab and agreed to a sabbatical as a result of accusations from lab colleagues that over the years, while doing her ground-breaking empathy research, she created an environment of emotional abuse and intimidation.
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s derisive tweet backfired. He was outraged at a diver involved in the underwater rescue of trapped Thai athletes because he’d criticized Musk’s solution.
  • CBS has begun an investigation into six sexual harassment and intimidation complaints against Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves. Moonves recently had become a prominent voice supporting Hollywood’s #MeToo movement, helping establish the Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equity in the Workplace.

What to do; what not to do

In a recent podcast, “Curing the Incivility Bug,” Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said stress and technology are the top reasons people give, according to her research, to explain why they are uncivil.

Stress overload is a signal every leader needs to monitor, but everyone is different in what methods most help recalibration. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Exercises are one option. Recognizing our reactiveness and probing what is driving it can also help us slow ourselves down. If we allow stress to compound itself, it can lead to a situation Elon Musk described about himself in a recent interview with The New York Times, “Elon Musk Details ‘Excruciating’ Personal Toll of Tesla Turmoil.”

Respect pointers

As civility is also contagious, Porath had suggestions about how leaders can be more respectful in conversations with employees. Being present includes:

  • Making eye contact
  • Attentive listening (as opposed to multi-tasking on the lap top or iPhone)
  • Not interrupting whomever is speaking

Porath points out, little things (like smiling when you pass someone in the hall and saying thank you and expressing appreciation) add up. These gestures demonstrating you value others catch on and are replicated by others.

In a July-August 2018 Harvard Business Review article “Do Your Employees Feel Respected?” author Kristie Rogers cites Porath’s research that 20,000 workers worldwide ranked respect as the most important leadership behavior. However, they also said disrespect and uncivil behavior were increasing each year in their workplaces.

Rogers, an assistant professor of management at Marquette University, offers seven ideas for how managers and leaders can convey owed and earned respect in their workplace. One suggestion is establishing a base line of respect that is made clear throughout the organization; something Conant at Campbell’s and other companies have done.

Self-Awareness

Which brings us back to self-awareness: our ongoing discovery process of going deeper into what makes us who we are (strengths, weaknesses, values passion etc.), how we can sabotage ourselves and what our feelings and instincts tell us. It’s triggered by our focus on development or when we are in change, challenge or crisis. New insights break through our old sense of self. In doing so, we often have to surmount the human hurdle of our not seeing what we don’t want to see; as well as what author Anais Nin wrote nearly 60 years ago (that had its origins in the Talmud). “We don’t see things as they are,” she wrote, “we see things as we are.”

In addition to Daniel Goleman’s and Tasha Eurich’s work on self-awareness, leadership development experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman address diagnosing our weaknesses. They recommend searching out “a truth teller,” a person whom you can count on to share honest feedback who sees that you really want that feedback. If that doesn’t work, they suggest hiring an executive coach or therapist.

Presence

 The net result of our work to know ourselves far better offers the reward of creating what social psychologist Amy Cuddy refers to as presence. She describes presence with six words that translate into body language in her Ted Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are:” passionate, enthusiastic, captivating, comfortable, authentic and confident.

In “Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges,” Cuddy explains we have presence when we are able to express our true self, operating out of values etc. that make us who we are. We have it, she elaborates, when we feel personally powerful—which is a power that comes from believing in and trusting ourselves. We have it when we are fully in the present moment.

It is presence, she explains, that enables us to meet life’s inevitable challenges with equilibrium and confidence, not “raging anxiety.” It isn’t a permanent state obviously. We move in and out of it based on our self-awareness.

The ROI is worth the journey.

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.

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.