Do not, under any circumstances, tell a lie – of either commission or omission. Do not stretch the truth, exaggerate, or make ___ up to get out of trouble or make yourself look good…
Do not attempt to project different images depending on whom you’re with. People can spot inauthenticity… Show up as yourself consistently. Unless, of course, you are a jackass.
Susan Scott, Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today
I’ve been thinking about ethical responsibilities…
You remember ethics don’t you: the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation. — Moral duty and obligation. Duty…obligation. In other words this is important stuff here.
First, let me state the obvious. To put it in terms well known from the Bible, “all have sinned, and fall short…” Including me. And, I say with confidence but no mean-spirited intent, including you. So, yes, we all have some work to do in this part of our lives.
But it seems to me that falling short has hit epidemic proportions these days. I don’t know where to put the blame. Is it the argument culture that Deborah Tannen saw coming? (see this earlier post here). Is it exacerbated by the constant spin required on today’s cable news, which flows from this argument culture mentality? (see my partly tongue-in-cheek Campbell Brown for CEO! here). Is it our lawyer-laden era, in which if anyone with any power admits fault, then the liability becomes too great?
Or is it a true, genuine, really, really alarming decline in ethical standards?
I don’t know.
But this is what I think I do know. We have more and more mistakes being made (from the mining disaster to the Toyota problems to the oil rig disaster) where there seems to be a pattern emerging:
• a serious problem occurs;
• part of the cause of the problem is some form of negligence;
• evidence surfaces that warnings were given, but not adequately heeded;
• and then when the full disaster hits, there is some form of denial and shift of blame (“it’s not my fault!”)
In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande describes how for most of human history, most big problems were issues of ignorance. We really did not know what caused disease, we really did not know how to successfully treat a heart attack. But the pendulum has now swung to the other problem: human ineptitude is now a bigger problem than human ignorance. We know more – we just don’t deliver on what we know. And, as Gawande states:
Failures of ignorance we can forgive. If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort. But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.
In the latest illustration of this problem, we have a lack of transparency by BP. They have a genuine, whopping disaster on their hands. The ripple effects are massive, from lives lost, to jobs lost, to the environment damaged, possibly on a massive scale. But as we follow the BP response, we see the pattern I described above, and during the aftermath we discover that it has taken a lot of pressure – a lot of pressure! – to even get video released of the oil leak for scientists to study.
We all, of course, could give many more examples – from plagiarism by famous authors (there are substantial new plagiarism discoveries regarding now quite discredited author Gerald Posner) to failings of elected officials in categories too numerous to enumerate.
But it really does boil down to this: our ethical responsibilities are not being treated responsibly.
I’ve grown fond of this phrase: “you get what you pay attention to.” I think it’s time for companies, and organizations, and elected officials – really, all of us – to pay a lot more attention to our ethical responsibilities.
In a 2006 internal memo to underground mine managers, Blankenship’s exasperation with what he saw as excessive caution was evident: As the New York Times reported, in the memo, Mr. Don Blankenship (CEO of Massey Energy Corporation) instructed the company’s underground mine superintendents to place coal production first.
“This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” he said.
(read about this here).
Here’s a business book that needs to be written. How to Handle a Real Mistake – I Mean, a Real Whopper.
There is a long list of people who should not write this book: The CEO of Massey Energy Corporation, the CEO of Toyota, Alan Greenspan. And the list is really much longer. They all seem to have the same message, that in one way or another, is this message:
“It’s Not My Fault – I’m Not Responsible.”
Now, of course, I do not believe that the CEO of Massey Mining personally caused the death of those miners (though his company is certainly negligent; possibly criminally negligent), nor did Greenspan personally cause the crash, nor did the CEO of Toyota personally design the flawed vehicles. But in each case, and many more, the warning signs were clear, and no leaders stepped up and yelled fire loudly enough to clear the theater.
And if you listen to interviews with such people, especially Don Blankenship of Massey Energy, they come across as evasive (and, though this is quite subjective, there seems to be a genuine compassion shortage).
Whatever else business leadership is, it is this: the leader assumes and takes and acknowledges responsibility.
And I assume we have now learned this truth (although, many do not seem to have fully grasped it): there will be big time mistakes made in companies.
Some of these mistakes or deficiencies can be life threatening. And it is the job of a leader to say, “if we find a mistake, a deficiency, in our company that is life threatening, then we stop what we are doing, now, and solve this problem. Now!” Any failure to do this is a clear statement of priorities, and reveals the true priority — of profit over human life.
And I will state my bias – any leader that places profits over human life is not worthy of leadership at all.
The Wall Street meltdown may not have endangered human life like Massey Energy and Toyota, but the tendency to say, in one way or another, “It’s not my fault – I’m not responsible” is not the kind of leadership we need in this very difficult era.
Someone needs to actually lead!
(yes, I have posted on this earlier. I keep learning more, as we all do. And it is a big, big deal. Actual people died. And there is quite an important business lesson in here).
It is Rhetoric 101. A speaker has to be both qualified and trustworthy. Lose either, and you have a bad/failed messenger.
So let’s start by listening to the words:
Here’s the key excerpt from the commercial:
“History has shown a good company will fix its mistakes. But a great company will learn from them… We’re working to restore your faith in our company by providing you with safe, reliable vehicles, like we have for over 50 years.”
So says the new Toyota Commercial. I hope it is true. But I’m not sure they have yet learned from their mistakes. Because the mistake is not “we had a deficiency in our cars,” the mistake was “we had a deficiency in our cars, we knew about it, and we kept selling them and let people keep driving them.” The mistake was not the deficiency, the mistake was that they kept it pretty quiet and did not act.
And cars crashed… and people died.
News item: State Farm warned the NHTSA about Toyota’s acceleration problems in 2007. Toyota certainly got the word then.
State Farm insurance said it noticed an uptick in reports of unwanted acceleration in Toyotas from its large customer database and warned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in late 2007. NHTSA officials said the report was reviewed and the agency issued a recall later that month.
News item: Oops – State Farm has now double-checked, and the NHTSA was first notified in 2004. Toyota got the word then.
In the latest development in the Toyota recall crisis, State Farm, the US insurer, said it had reviewed its records and found it had contacted safety regulators in 2004.
Toyota said Thursday it is recalling 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. to fix accelerator pedals that can become stuck, the latest in a string of quality problems that have bedeviled the Japanese automaker.
Am I sure that they kept it hidden? Just look at the time line demonstrated above. For at least part of those “50 years,” they kept dangers hidden – dangers they knew about.
Now, I don’t run a big company. I don’t know what I would do if I had a problem on my hands that would cost billions of dollars. But I am certain that there are families who lost loved ones in the crashes that occurred because Toyota knew of the problem and did not deal with it. For at least 5+ years. (The first warning came at least as early as 2004. And call me a cynic, but don’t you think someone within Toyota might have known something before the first State Farm notification?!)
Ask these grieving families what Toyota should have done, and I’m pretty sure they would have said this: “Toyota should tell people not to drive these cars until we figure it out, and fix it!”
Here’s my problem – why should we trust a company, even after watching such a nice commercial, when they knew about the problems, and violated people’s trust, for at least half-a-decade?
For a company, credibility is the gold standard. That standard is quite tarnished for Toyota. And, on a personal note, I come close to resenting their commercial.
(And — on a better note — maybe State Farm really is like a good neighbor!)
Time has a terrific overview, with some insightful analysis, on the Toyota meltdown: Behind the Troubles at Toyota by Bill Saporito with Michael Schuman and Joseph Szczesny. Here are three key excerpts:
“The big deal is this question, Does an organization know how to hear and respond to weak signals, which are the problems, or does it have to hear strong signals? You have to listen to weak signals. By the time you get to strong signals, it’s too late.” (Steven Spear of MIT, author of Chasing the Rabbit: How Market Leaders Outdistance the Competition and an expert in the dynamics of high-performance companies).
When weak signals started coming out in 2002, Toyota’s top management wasn’t listening.
Complexity is the enemy of any manufacturer, and rapid growth increases it.
We’ve already posted a couple of times about Toyota’s failed crisis management (its “dreadful crisis management,” says the Time article). It is clear that they knew of their problems long before the current crisis. The Time article points out that the first National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigations came in 2003.
I keep thinking about the counsel I get consistently from the best business books, and one clear and oft-repeated message is this:
stop, look, pay attention, spot problems, and open your mouth loudly to call attention to these problems!
Here’s a quote that might put it in simple English:
The design thinker, in the words of novelist Saul Bellow, is “a first-class noticer.”
(from The Design of Business by Roger Martin).
The process really is simple. Make sure you have a number of “first-class noticers” in your company, encourage them to notice things, and listen to them, actually listen to them, when they tell you something.
Toyota had these “weak signals” coming at them, but they did not pay attention. I suspect that workplace segregation played a key role – the people at the top just simply do not interact often enough with the rest of the people in the real world, from employees to vendors to customers… (Note: “interact with” means have conversations with means listen to…) And, as the Time article says, “by the time you get strong signals, it’s too late.”
So it seems to me that this rather old and well-worn advice could have been pretty helpful:
Stop – look – listen.
News item: Toyota’s January Sales Drop 16 Percent After Recall
There are books that I read years ago that pop into memory over and over again. One such book I presented back in May of 2002 at the First Friday Book Synopsis. It is a brilliant, incredibly practical book. And though it is written by partisans that worked and succeeded to get Bill Clinton elected, the wisdom and counsel is absolutely right-on for any one in business and in life.
The book is Buck Up, Suck Up… and Come Back When You Foul Up (12 Winning Secrets from the War Room) by James Carville & Paul Begala. Here’s just one short quote to give you a feel for their style and their directness:
You can throw the rest of the book away – and have a damn good shot at being successful in life – if you swear, right here and right now, that you’ll never, ever quit.
I thought of the book again as I watched the Toyota problem unfold. And I remembered their advice about what to do when a real, big, serious failure of some kind or another threatens your very existence. They knew something about such a problem, and probably wished that their boss had followed their advice a little more fully.
Their advice can be summed up this way – when you have a big-time failure on your hands:
• you tell it
• you tell it now
• you tell it all
• you take the blame.
• you fix it as quickly and as thoroughly as you can
Their reasoning is simple. It will come out. And if you can get ahead of the revelations, then you look like a bad guy, but at least you came clean about it.
I thought of this as I saw a series of incomplete and delayed reactions from Toyota to a problem that, we now know, has something of a history. Many observers agree, their response was slow in coming, incomplete… And I think there is a sense that people are not fully satisfied that the fix will fix it.
Here’s my take: you will mess up someday. Maybe in a big way. And we’ve learned that the aftermath of such a big-time failure, in far too many cases, makes the whole matter worse. So, remember their advice: tell it, tell it all, tell it now…
By the way, here are their twelve winning secrets. It’s a great list.
1) Don’t quit, don’t ever quit.
2) Kiss Ass.
3) Kick Ass.
4) Frame the Debate.
5) Understand the difference between strategy and tactics.
6) Be open.
7) Know how to communicate.
8) Work your Ass off.
9) Turn weakness into strength.
10) Be nimble, Jack.
11) Know how to recover when you really screw up.
12) Know what to do when you win.