Sunday, August 10, 2008

Embracing Ethics

The sordid tales of politicians having “zipper problems” and then lying and covering-up their foibles are erupting at a sickening rate. Former Senator John Edwards is now on record accusing the media of lying and making-up stories about an affair that was, in fact true. We now know that Edwards was the one spreading lies. Kwame Kilpatrick, the Mayor of Detroit, landed in jail for ignoring his bail arrangements (see my March 25, 2008 blog). He remains unrepentant and defiant to the detriment of his constituents.

It was, therefore, wonderfully restorative to spend that last few days fully immersed in a discussion on professional and health care ethics. The American College of Dentists is developing ways to enhance the ethical standards and practices of dental professionals: dentists, their assistants, students, and faculty. The ACD was founded in 1920 by a group of visionary leaders who believed dentistry must always plan for the future. Their goal is to elevate the standards of dentistry, to encourage graduate study, and to grant Fellowship to those who have done meritorious work. The ACD has long been regarded as the "conscience of dentistry."

I was invited to participate in the ACD’s latest planning session. It was very much like sessions I have attended related to other industries and corporations. It is reassuring that there are so many corporate and industry leaders who understand how important ethics are in assuring integrity and professionalism. In each case, they understand that ethics is an operational imperative and their duty is to make ethics an operational reality. This is no just about doing the “right thing”, but about achieving a competitive advantage in the global marketplace by assuring consistent excellence and earning trust.

It brought to mind two vivid examples of private sector leadership in ethics. In the early 1990’s the Independent Insurance Agents of America hired my team to help them rethink and reposition their industry for the information age. They were concerned that the rise of ATMs would make local insurance agencies obsolete as people would opt to file claims electronically. Extensive meetings with the association's leaders and the staff of ACORD, their industry “think tank”, resulted in discovering the fundamental strength of local insurance agents – their generational knowledge of their clients changing needs. I coined the term “relationship banking” to describe this long-term relationship and the ability to anticipate and assist customer needs based upon earned trust.

More recently, Hershey Foods offered an "early out" retirement package to "thin the ranks" of its supervisors and managers. Unexpectedly, far more people took advantage of this generous offer, leading to a major challenge for their manufacturing operations. They turned to my team to help them build a new generation of leaders.

Hershey is one of the most ethical companies in America. Their top executives understood that it was imperative their new leaders fully embodied their ethical culture. Therefore, the very first action was for Hershey's top executives to define and describe their culture and ethics as tangible, observable, characteristics. They then asked us to identify how their new leaders displayed these characteristics as part of their daily activities.

We asked people to agree or disagree with a series of declarative statements, both as they related to themselves as individuals and for their plant collectively. We assumed people would rate themselves higher than their colleagues so the object was to find the biggest gaps. These gaps helped us target individual, plant-wide, and company-wide interventions to bring the entire organization up to it ethics aspirations. Our interventions were through training or coaching.

Most importantly, Hershey executives were highly active in every step of this process. It was the most vivid display of ethical leadership I have ever witnessed. The result was an “echo-chamber” of validation and affirmation that resounded throughout every level and location of Hershey Foods. The years I spent assisting Hershey Foods were some of the most uplifting in my career.

It is truly unfortunate for our nation that our politicians see ethics as compliance and not as a personal attribute. Even more unfortunate, most politicians see ethics as a “flag of convenience” or more accurately, connivance. As long as they can wave the ethics banner they do not have to actually be ethical. If they are caught being unethical, they parse and pander hoping they can survive the news cycle.

We need to find ways to demand ethical behavior from our elected and appointed officials, at all levels. Only when ethics becomes a fundamental element of our democracy will credibility be restored to our public institutions.

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