Archive for the ‘Tone at the Top’ category

The Week in Ethics: Wells Fargo’s Next Move? 10 Suggestions

September 22, 2016

How will Wells Fargo resolve the ethical and culture issues it faces? And, how will it move beyond a poor showing at the Senate Banking Committee hearing and start to rebuild trust? First some background. Then 10 suggestions.

The best thing a CEO with strong convictions about the “rightness” of his/her own position can do when embroiled in a crisis is to spend time with trusted sources (inside or outside their company) who see things very differently. Being open to these viewpoints and questions iphone-pictures2-222and multiple perspectives raised make it harder for  CEOs to stay wedded to their position. However, once a CEO is under fire the temptation to stick with like-minded people can increase. What’s lost then is stimulation to think deeply about different aspects of an issue to gain new insights and awareness that enable developing alternatives legitimately aligned with values. Being stuck in “rightness” can lead to error blindness, a term popularized by Kathryn Schulz  who points out, “Trusting too much in feeling you are on the right side of anything is dangerous.”

It can lead to decisions that put a CEO on the defensive in front of a U.S. Senate hearing, as John Stumpf Chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo experienced September 20, 2016 testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs.

Stumpf was questioned about the bank’s unauthorized accounts and allegations of a pressure-cooker sales culture which became public in 2013 (Los Angeles Times story) and continued. Wells Fargo has fired 5,300 employees, paid a fine, faces an investigation into its sales practices by New York and California federal prosecutors and can anticipate an upcoming hearing by the U.S. House Financial Services Committee in addition to follow up from the Senate Banking Committee. Earlier this month The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed a consent order outlining findings of the bank’s “improper sales practices”from 2011 to 2016.

A few days before the Senate hearing Stumpf, in an interview, disputed Wells Fargo has a culture problem. He maintained that stance with Senate committee members, while indicating changes the Bank planned to make. However, the bipartisan committee was united in criticism that Stumpf, the Board and senior leadership hadn’t gone far enough, fast enough and weren’t showing accountability. From the Republican Committee chair to Democratic challengers, Senators didn’t buy that the bank’s culture isn’t an issue.

Where does this leave Wells Fargo? Anyone who has been through corporate crises — as I and many others have — knows that criticism from outsiders is hard to take. However, there are huge pitfalls if Mr. Stumpf stays locked in the “rightness”of his position (in spite of his 30 plus years service at Wells Fargo, presiding over several of its acquisitions and knowing his industry and company better than outsiders).

His performance at the Senate hearing this week indicates his time has been spent with legal and public relations teams and like-minded insiders. Getting out of a crisis, turning around a culture and re-earning political and public trust, doesn’t happen by working harder with the same mindset. (The much touted definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.)

I’ve limited myself to 10 suggestions for Wells Fargo to support the start of a turnaround:

  1. The board should appoint a new chairman — an independent director — separating the role from the CEO for many reasons including signaling stronger board governance.
  2. The board should immediately decide about claw backs related to compensation of former head of community banking Carrie Tolstedt, Stumpf and any others. As part of re-earning trust, all their actions should be transparent and well communicated.
  3. The board should direct Stumpf and his team to meet with Wells Fargo’s ethics and compliance teams and risk officers to discuss/evaluate ethics, compliance and risk operations for strengths, weaknesses and safeguards to better integrate sales and all business strategies with corporate values and prepare a report for the board.
  4. The compliance and ethics leaders (and C-suite leader to whom they ultimately report) should initiate meetings with leaders of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative and the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics to address best practices, implementation challenges and examples where ethics and compliance leaders weigh in on business strategy discussions in sales and all areas.
  5. The board and senior management should identify outside experts to discuss how to  realign authentically culture around values. A place to start is the nearby Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
  6. Stumpf and his management team should become acquainted with Margaret Wheatley’s concept of self seal (the rightness of one’s position), Kathryn Schulz’ TED Talk (error blindness) and Margaret Heffernan’s  Willful Blindness for starters. These are lenses that encourage conscious and unconscious unethical behavior.
  7.  A cross-functional team of senior leaders with ethics and compliance leaders should review the company’s five primary values; for each, identify five or six specific expected behaviors to be incorporated into company policy and discussed in ethics training and performance reviews. Currently, the values are too abstract.
  8. Under the value “Ethics” the company says “We strive to be recognized by our stakeholders as setting the standard among the world’s great companies for integrity and principled performance. “This should become a business objective with Board and CEO focus to keep this commitment at the center of the turnaround’s activities.
  9. At the upcoming House Financial Services Committee hearing, Stumpf and those testifying can start rebuilding trust by being fully prepared to answer questions directly and completely, having with them information relevant to committee questions. Stumpf should also make himself available to Senate Banking Committee leadership to make sure information provided since that hearing addressed open questions.
  10. Trust is a relationship where “integrity” and “principled performance” are realities, not marketing slogans. In relationships with employees, customers, customers affected by unethical actions, employees pressured by aggressive sales tactics, Wells Fargo leaders have to admit what went wrong and make systemic changes. A start is to amend the vision statement that says “We want to satisfy our customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially” and add “in ways that build lasting relationships of trust and integrity.”The Week in Ethics

    Gael O’Brien, September 22, 2016

    Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist  for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where her September column is “One man’s Leadership Toward a Goal: ‘The Great Mission of Business Ethics.'”

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The Week in Ethics: Is Ethical Leadership Contagious?

July 24, 2013

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: Abramson, Mayer and the Road Ahead for Women Leaders

April 25, 2013

Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times, whose tenure in her first 18-months has yielded four Pulitzer Prizes. is the subject of a hit-and-run POLITICO piece this week quoting anonymous journalists at the paper criticizing her brusque, dismissive, non-empathetic style, labeling her “very, very unpopular.”

It is difficult to imagine a reporter having access to or using such anecdotal anonymous information about male leaders in other industries.

Much has been said in recent weeks about a double standard in judging men and women leaders. For example, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly was treated very differently in the media than Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer when both leaders ended their company’s telecommuting policies. Mayer’s decision, which came first, received national media coverage and criticism. However, inherent in the double standard is also an evolving expectation of what it expected of women leaders in turbulent times.

Over centuries, “leader” solidified  as a male noun. Labels of first female engineer at Google (Mayer), first female executive editor or just female CEO mean something in the lexicon of moving toward gender parity, but can rankle those who want to be judged by their results not gender.

Male leaders have had centuries to toughen to the inevitable criticism inherent in the accountability of leadership. Women leaders, in adjusting to the glare of attention now as part of a small group face the double-edged sword of presumed expectations about the kind of leaders they are or should be.

Research feeds the expectation that women are expected to have more developed emotional intelligence (EQ) than men. EQ’s self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation and social skills– the so-called softer skills — are counted as crucial leadership skills and ones where women are considered to have an edge.

However, Abramson and Mayer emerged from the cultures that raised them — news organizations and engineering/technology — where outperforming, excelling, and high reliance on IQ and Systems Intelligence have high priority. Both assumed leadership in troubled organizations where they are required to drive change as their companies deal with economic, relevance, and technology challenges.

There is an expectation that women won’t make the same EQ blunders many men have. Mayer, who juggled her new parent status by building an office nursery, didn’t factor into Yahoo’s strategy and communication what the impact might be for employees who were also parents when she ended telecommuting; media had a field day with anonymous employee reactions.

Given the last several years of ongoing cuts in newsrooms, journalists still standing — perhaps even more especially those at the venerable New York Times — may feel demoralized. Not to operate with a heightened awareness of one’s impact on others invites criticism. One of the anonymous New York Times’ employees complained about Abramson: “There are days when she acts like she just doesn’t care.”

Sandberg photo.pdf Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg reinforces in Lean In (her book about empowering the next generation of women leaders) that  “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women.” She cites a Harvard Business School case study of an entrepreneur who got negative reactions when the name Howard was changed to Heidi. Qualities that weren’t an issue for Howard became “not the kind of person you would want to hire or work for” when the gender was Heidi.

Further proof of the challenges facing successful women is evident in the controversy over Sandberg’s book,  several women reviewers indicated her wealth and status made her out-of-touch with ordinary career women. Leadership books written by men of status and wealth haven’t received similar critiques.

We don’t have yet an objective way of appraising women leaders — both accomplishments and criticisms can lend themselves too quickly to hyperbole. As things sort themselves out, one of the safety nets is to pay attention to red flags and address them. Abramson has been tagged (fairly or unfairly) with having a style attributed to many male leaders who’ve not been called on it publicly.

Expecting more from women leaders is about our giving and asking for more from everyone involved in service of creating highly productive workplaces that build trust and engagement.

Leadership is an intentional act of development evolving imperfectly. The road ahead for women leaders is helping define what is possible for leadership to create, moving into a way of being that is every bit as important in our increasingly unpredictable world as the way of doing.

Gael O’Brien April 25, 2013

The Week in Ethics

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

The Week in Ethics: Petraeus’ Derailment Invites Focus on the Heart of Leadership

November 16, 2012

Too many assumptions are made about leaders once they reach the highest levels of their organization: that they are at the top of their game, operating out professional clarity, and have themselves figured out.

Ivy league educated, storied-career David Petraeus is a poignant illustration.

As director of the CIA, and one of the most acclaimed and highest ranking generals, he seemed among the least likely to derail his career in an ethics scandal. He resigned last week (11/9/12) when an affair, allegedly with his biographer Paula Broadwell, became public.

Beyond issues of national security — which Petraeus said he didn’t violate — the critical question here is a very human one. It gets to the heart of leadership.

How do high achievers driven to achieve, fueled by the desire to have the achievement matter, consistently stay committed to their values and highest aspirations for themselves as a human being?

That is one of the most important questions leaders can ask themselves on a regular basis.

Reflecting on it, they have a better sense of how to unite the pieces of their lives into a wholeness, an integrated self. They can notice more consciously the interplay of their ego and how it may be at loggerheads with their values, or what they say they stand for. It is more possible for them to detect red flags about what is going on within them and around them. It is the essence of being self aware.

Nearly 20 years ago, Daniel Goleman’s “What Makes a Leader” identified emotional intelligence (self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills) as a critical dimension of leadership that one can continually learn and develop.

Leaders’ vulnerability to ethical lapses, mistakes in judgment, and a sense of entitlement increase when self awareness and self regulation are low, or there is complacency about one’s own ethical development.

Consider very recent exits for CEOs who’ve lied on resumes (Scott Thompson at Yahoo), had “inappropriate relationships with subordinates,” (Christopher Kubasick at Lockheed Martin and Brian Dunn at Best Buy ), or committed “serious financial violations” (Ernst Lieb at Mercedes-Benz USA).

When caught in an ethical lapse, responses like “I regret my conduct in this matter did not meet the standards to which I have always held myself” reflect the language of detachment from self-awareness. On one side — the standards I say I hold myself to; on the other side — how I behave.

Values that become passive do us no good.

In his new book The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward, leadership development expert Kevin Cashman writes about the importance of a leader’s ongoing focus on self-knowledge and how to expand self-awareness. I interviewed him recently about ways leaders can mitigate vulnerability to ethical lapses.

Leaders reach their career pinnacle for many reasons, often because of their track record, business acumen, strategic ability, and ability to influence and get others to follow.

As mistakes are all too human, what is a safety net?

At the heart of leadership is what sustains leadership.

It is the questions we ask ourselves as we deepen self-awareness that provide answers to how we stay aligned with the values and purpose that express who we are. It a creates the foundation for a leadership that is conscious, authentic, and ethical.

Gael O’Brien November 16, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her November 2012 column is “When CEOs Self-Destruct: Lessons in Values for Corporate Boards.

The Week in Ethics: How “Family” Backfired at Penn State

November 5, 2012

When leaders refer to their organizations as a “family,” it can be dangerous when they don’t also have a full understanding of the implications and expectations of that metaphor.

While presumably their reference is to a functional family, the question is… what kind of unremitting vigilance is required to spot and address the dysfunctional elements when they show up?

The “family” metaphor is complex as it applies to how organizations operate. Is the parent-child dynamic transcended? Is ego in check? Does everyone feel safe in raising problems? Are leaders seeing the reality of a situation in its totality, taking an accurate pulse? Or, are blinders interfering?

When problems surfaced at Penn State University in 1998 and 2002 regarding the Sandusky child sex abuse incidents, former president Graham Spanier indicated he was not aware that child sex abuse was involved; criminal charges filed against him last week (11/1/12) address allegations of perjury and child endangerment.

In an August 2012 interview Spanier defended his decision (while still president November 2011) to unilaterally support former athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, former vice president, when criminal charges were filed against them. (They were accused of perjury and a cover up.)

Spanier said he held a meeting of senior administrators and reminded them they had all worked with Schultz and Curley for years; that “honesty, integrity and always doing what was in the best interests of the university” was how everyone had agreed to operate. He added he’d defend any of them under those circumstances, as he was Curley and Schultz, if they had also been falsely accused.

Elaborating in the recent interview, Spanier said “…we’ve always operated as a family. Our personal and social and professional lives were all very intertwined. It’s all wrapped up together, and I would never have had a basis, nor do I now, for doubting them.”

At the end of the interview he reiterated: ” We always talked about the Penn State family, and that is how this place feels and how we operate. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody’s connected and everybody’s intertwined, and this is a trauma in so many ways and at so many levels.”

In late September 2012, Spanier gave a lengthy Nightline interview; he was repeatedly asked why he hadn’t asked more questions, gotten more involved, personally ensured that everything was done to investigate whether Sandusky was sexually abusing children. Spanier replied that he had insufficient information to know children were at risk.

Penn State remains under a microscope, with a great deal of input from others on ways to address what went wrong. It is up to them to understand fully how Sandusky, now a convicted pedophile, could operate for so long in the university family and what is needed to ensure their culture is never so vulnerable again.

It turned out that everybody didn’t know everybody. How some were connected didn’t result in Sandusky’s young campus visitors being safe.

Gael O’Brien      November 4, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her October  2012 column is an interview with Kevin Cashman about ethics, leadership and The Pause Principle: Step Backward to Lead Forward.