It took me a while to decide, but I have decided to subscribe to a physical newspaper again. You know, a ‘paper’ version that someone actually delivers to your doorstep every morning. I haven’t had a paper subscription for about 10 years. I have been reading the news casually on my tablet or laptop. What made me decide to subscribe to a paper version again? Compliance and Ethics! Every time I open the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, I read news and articles about our great profession. 10 years ago, we were lucky if a single article about ethical misconduct hit the news. I used to tear it out of the paper and scan it, so I could use it during my Board Reports or as content for conducting compliance training sessions. But now that there are so many stories that we could use, I really need to keep up with the daily papers.
I wonder if our senior executives and Board members are also reading these newspapers. Or do they leave that part to us while they are busy doing other things? The stories I read every day tell me that all too often, companies have a hard time acting ethically when that gets in the way of making money. Whether it is the CEO of a bank trying to unmask an anonymous whistleblower or the boss of a large car manufacturer pinning the blame of bad behavior on lower level employees, they all tell the story of senior executives not always living up to their own company values. They love to shout about the virtues of their unique corporate culture, with their photos and messages prominently present in their companies’ Codes of Conduct. It always surprises me that in this day and age, large corporate scandals still exist, and the involvement of senior leadership in these scandals, even when there is an ethics and compliance program in place, often depresses me. Where were the compliance officers when it went so horribly wrong for these companies?
It reminds me of an eighties movie that I have been a big fan of since I was a young kid: “Planes Trains and Automobiles” (1987). Two sales guys (played by the fabulous John Candy & Steven Martin) miss their flight home for Thanksgiving and decide to share a car back home to their families. In one particular scene, we see the couple driving the wrong side of the road because they were fighting over the wheel and didn’t pay attention while taking a wrong turn. A driver on the right side of the road pulls down his window and tries to help them by shouting “You’re going the wrong way!”. But the two laugh at him while shouting back “How do you know which way we’re going?” This particular situation describes quite accurately how we as compliance professionals (obviously driving on the right side of the road) often have to solve the problems of our leaders, after they have taken a wrong turn and are stuck on the wrong side of the road. Unfortunately, by then it is very difficult to turn around. Problems only get bigger now that their journey continues: stock price goes down, reputations get tarnished, bad statements are being given to the press all the while you are thinking ”If they just would have consulted me before all of this happened!” After all, as Warren Buffet once said “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and 5 minutes to destroy it.” But their problems are our problems, aren’t they? We can try to avoid some of the damage, or try to pull someone out of that car before it goes horribly wrong, but damage will occur.
A core element of our job as Ethics and Compliance professionals will always be trying to put out fires like that. After all, companies are still run by people, who often make really good, but also really bad, decisions. We need to commit ourselves to a transformation of our roles, from being that fire fighter to becoming a pro-active, trusted, business advisor who is involved in the daily decision-making process of the company’s management. To achieve that, we need the active buy-in from our leadership (starting with the CEO and the Board).
If your company is serious about building an ethical, values based culture, that transgresses from just words and pictures in a Code of Conduct to serious commitment, the first action should be to create some space at the decision-making table for the Compliance officer as the guardian of value-based leadership.
How we can convince our leaders to give us that seat at the table? Show them some paper clippings of today’s and yesterday’s newspapers. Or, maybe better, show them that rather funny clip of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.Planes, Trains and Automobiles - The Often-Bumpy Ride of ManagersClick To Tweet