Category Archives: Trust

The Week in Ethics: Why Purpose Matters to Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purpose matters.

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

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, January 23, 2014

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

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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: Words Conveying Empowering Values Falling Out of Use

photo of courageWords matter. We know that from the impact they can have on us. And the reaction our words can have on others.

Words can package the fuel that inspire us to behave in a way that brings out the best in ourselves and in others.

Using words like “courage,” “decency,” “honesty,” “conscience,” “patience,” “compassion,” and “modesty” paint a picture of someone who has qualities that inspire trust, whose behavior gives life to values we can admire. Perhaps someone whose leadership we’d willingly follow.

When we use the word “courage,” for example, to reflect back to a friend how we see her meeting cancer head on or whisper it to ourselves before having a difficult conversation with a boss or customer…..the word, and its connotation, fortifies.

“Courage” is one of many words that empower. However, to be a sustainable resource “courage,” and words like it have to be expressed; they need to describe behavior made evident or desired. And ironically, evidence points to these words falling out of use at a time when we need them most.

Shifts in language reflect a shift in culture based on the frequency of their use, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks who cites several studies in “What Our Words Tell Us” that indicate that words like “courage,” and the others just mentioned, decreased in use in the 20th century.

“A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir,”Brooks writes, “found that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently.” Of the 50 words associated with moral virtue that their study identified, Brooks says that the Kesebirs found “that 74 percent were used less frequently as the century progressed.” According to the findings, particularly hard hit were courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” which fell by 66 percent; while words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent.

We know that ethical behavior doesn’t flow from throwing the right words into a speech or on a website, poster or piece of paper. Enron’s Code of Conduct (63 pages) and personalized note paper printed at the bottom with the values “Respect,”Integrity,”Communication,” and “Excellence” attest to that. However, words in the mouths of leaders whose behavior consistently strives to model the values they talk about set a benchmark about what is expected. It sets the standard for “how we do things around here” where getting to stay means you “opt in.”

Low trust in institutions and leaders is a consequence of words and actions not matching. However the remedy for lost trust isn’t talking less about values so as not to hold one’s behavior up to scrutiny. It is having the courage — yes, courage again — to give voice to values and give support, as well as draw support from others, in the ongoing process of practicing, modeling and living the values that make the individual, the organization, and society stronger.

Community can be the best re-inforcer of values. And herein lies the rub. Brooks also cites a study by Twenge, Campbell and Gentile that found that between 1960 and 2008, words like “community,” and “common good” receded from use, while terms like “self” and “I come first” increased in use.

The reality is that what we focus on we get more of. “I come first” doesn’t inspire the trust of other stakeholders and calls into question the capacity for long-term sustainability. Leaders making a mid-flight correction to restore trust in their institutions will need courage, one of many words that enrich all of us when practiced and used.

Gael O’Brien May 22, 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 May 2013 column takes on the siren song in “hip” and “edgy” advertising. 

Note: Photograph is of a rock painted by a student at Robert Adams Middle School displayed on the grounds.

The Week in Ethics: Abramson, Mayer and the Road Ahead for Women Leaders

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: “Engaged Trusteeship,” Stakeholders and UVA Governance

photo of strength

Strength invokes a sense of power, muscle, vigor, and force.

It can, under the right circumstances, be a source of wisdom that invites collaboration, engagement, innovation and inspires trust.

In university governance, there is increasing tension about how authority is held or shared — how strength plays out. With the increasing involvement of business leaders in higher education, will they use the business style most comfortable to them or consider what would work best in a traditionally collaborative environment?

Turmoil at the University of Virginia (UVA) continues around how the Board of Visitors (trustees) is carrying out its authority. In spite of the board’s requesting that the Faculty Senate rescind its June 2012 vote of no confidence in it (for its process in ousting President Teresa Sullivan) the Senate has yet to comply. Sullivan, in her remarks to the board when she was reinstated June 18, 2012  said, “Corporate-style, top down leadership does not work at a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work.”

One proponent of the actions of UVA’s board was the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). In emails made public, ACTA President Anne Neal commended the board for doing its job, saying faculty and public outrage was “misplaced.” Neal wrote: “This is about the board’s responsibility to bring courageous, even innovative thinking to higher education when it is faced with many challenges….” ACTA is a proponent of what it calls “engaged trusteeship.”

This raises the question of what engaged trusteeship means in application. Does it preclude acknowledging a shared responsibility for governance among trustees, administrators and the faculty even as trustees by law have ultimate responsibility? Or preclude a recognition of the importance of stakeholders and building trust? The UVA experience would certainly seem a poster child for lost trust.

This week, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a report on its investigation of President Sullivan’s dismissal, which it termed a “breakdown” in governance. The report referenced the business background of chair (rector) Dragas and most trustees, saying few had any experience in the governance of large, complex institutions. The report took issue with Dragas’ justification for Sullivan’s removal (that she lacked “boldness” and alacrity in “effecting transformative change”).

The report said in part,: “The rector’s rhetoric reflects a mindset of entrepreneurial control common in small and medium-sized business enterprises. The firms that occupy that economic niche must adjust quickly to changed market conditions, consumer tastes, and rapid shifts in financing or other aspects of the business landscapes. Managers of such enterprises may be taken on or let go, on short or no notice on the basis of a perceived need to change direction…or even a lack of compatibility with those in entrepreneurial control. This mindset ill fits the role of trusteeship in the modern university.”

AAUP and ACTA disagree on whether UVA’s accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), had the authority to place UVA “on warning”  for governance violations involved in removing Sullivan. ACTA has made an appeal to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan whose department upheld SACSCOC’s authority.

Meanwhile the issue of whether the board is micromanaging Sullivan and setting her up to fail persists. Information this month revealed that the board committee evaluating Sullivan had increased her goals for the academic year to 65, more than 20 of which Sullivan said she hadn’t seen before; the Faculty Senate responded to this and Dragas responded to them asking that they work together to build trust.

The challenge is that trust isn’t a top down invitation; it is a by-product of how authority is used and stakeholders involved and engaged.

While the top-down method isn’t a model for rebuilding trust, increasingly, business culture has changed for many companies as stakeholders have taken on greater importance and caused shifts in organizations’ openness,  transparency and desire to build shared value. Ironically, for UVA, they need look no farther than their Darden School of Business, and Professor Edward Freeman, for a leading authority on stakeholder management.

UVA has been under a microscope for nearly 10 months, a bellwether for issues facing higher education. How engaged trusteeship and engaged stakeholders are defined and connected will determine the university’s strength and its capacity for sustained growth and innovation.

Gael O’Brien March 15, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her February 2013  column in Business Ethics Magazine is on trust in leaders and institutions. She is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

Note: The  rock pictured above was painted by a student at Robert Adams Middle School.