Ethics and Success

There is no guarantee that doing the right thing will lead to personal success. In thirty plus years as an ethics consultant, I have seen ethics undo more than a few brilliant careers. But I have also seen leaders whose ethics helped make them successful. You may think that rising to the top with your ethics intact is a matter of luck. But my observation is that ethical leaders follow a conscious strategy for building success upon their ethics. Here are a few steps to help you align your ethics with your career goals.

Choose who you work for. If your ethics and the ethics of your employer are in significant disagreement, your career success is certain to be limited. Organizations seldom promote individuals who are outside of their cultural boundaries, which include the organization’s ethics. It is not reasonable to expect perfect agreement between your ethics and the ethics of an employer. But a vegan who works for a meat packing company can expect problems. While most of us cannot change jobs at will, you increase your chances of advancement when you are employed by an organization with which you are in ethical agreement.

There are more steps that will be covered in future posts.

The 5th Biggest Ethical Mistake

The fifth biggest ethical mistake is assuming that a business practice is acceptable because it is a common practice in the industry. Just because a practice is common in an industry does not mean that it is safe or ethical. It all depends on which companies in an industry you compare yourself to. For example, Enron was the most admired company in the energy industry – until it wasn’t. If you are the first one in an industry caught doing something wrong, you often pay the price of the entire industry correcting its practices. Think of the scene in The Tin Men in which two aluminum siding salesmen sit outside a Congressional hearing saying to one another, “We only did what everyone was doing.” If this sounds a bit lame, avoid putting yourself in the same position.

The 4th Biggest Ethical Mistake

The fourth biggest ethical mistake made by leaders is confusing legal advice with ethical advice. The job of legal counsel is to tell you the legal consequences of various courses of action – and not whether you should take those actions. Many of the investment activities that led to the 2008 recession were perfectly legal and also perfectly unethical. The training that makes a good lawyer does not make the lawyer an ethics expert.

The 3rd Big Ethical Mistake

The third big ethical mistake that leaders make is allowing managers in an area suspected of wrong-doing to investigate the matter. Leaders believe they should show trust in the their managers and allow them to investigate accusations. But the chances that the manager is conflicted are too great to take this path. By the way, I discuss ways of avoiding these mistakes in my book Make an Ethical Difference.

2nd Ethical Mistake

In my pursuit of the biggest mistakes leaders make, the second biggest mistake is fixing a problem going forward without owning the problem’s history. This would be like GM fixing its ignition problem going forward without owning the problem in cars currently on the road. This never works but it is very tempting to leaders who don’t want a past problem dragging their organization down. But you have to own the organization’s history to be able to move on.

Question re Ethical Mistakes

What ethical mistakes do you see leaders making? I have an odd view since I only hear from them when they have problems. What do you think?

Ethics Masters and Slaves

In my book Make an Ethical Difference I use the following quote: The master knows the rules without suffering them; the slave suffers the rules without knowing them.”

The Biggest Ethical Mistake

I was recently asked to write something on the biggest ethical mistakes made by CEOs. There are a lot to choose from so this took some thinking.

And the winner is: Judging information you receive by the person who delivers it. I know of no ethical fiascoes, including Enron, that did not have clear warning signs. Somehow these signs were ignored – and not without reason. The information that  enables a CEO to prevent an ethical crisis often comes from individuals who are afraid of taking any risks, whine about everything, and have a chip on their shoulder. I have just described one type of whistle blower. Really sharp CEOs ignore the source and act on the information, often at the objection of the top tier of their management. An ethical CEO is always asking, what if this information, although from a questionable source, is true? Would I gamble the future of the company on it not being true?

Lessons of the Secret Service Mess

Here in the DC Metro area, everyone is asking is how things could have gotten so bad at the Secret Service. Many employees of the Service must have known the vulnerabilities, so how could the folks at the top ignore this? My answer is that the bad news may never have reached the top. Several Service employees commented to the local media here that you simply did not raise issues or complaints. This is typical of line-of-command organizations, which turns out to be nearly all sizable organizations. In business, companies establish hotlines and compliance programs so that down line employees can short circuit the line of command. In fact, government often orders businesses to establish these mechanisms! But these mechanisms do not prosper in Federal agencies. Yes, employees can go to the Inspector General for their agency but these individuals are often closely bonded to the agency’s senior leadership. It is time for government to take some of the advice it freely gives to business and create genuinely safe channels through which employees can report concerns.