Over the last half century, I’ve worked with companies in a range of industries and with people at every level of those organizations, advising them on listening to the customer and improving product and service quality. As such, I’ve been given a terrific ringside seat to great comeback stories, staggering losses, acts of courage and generosity and stunning scandals.
Through these observations I have come to understand that in business, as in life, the choices you make are wholly informed by your values. But staying true to those values can sometimes be a challenge. At every stage of your career you will encounter options presented as opportunities and will face expectations to conform to different corporate cultures. It will be up to you to consider each of these opportunities and pressures and weigh them against your own sense of personal ethics.
“To thine own self be true” may be an oft-quoted line from Hamlet, but it is also an axiom that should guide your career: You are the one who knows whether you are living in accordance with your beliefs.
I feel fortunate to have had parents who shared, candidly and often, their perspectives on various ethical issues they faced and observed others facing. Dinner was a time for us to discuss our experiences of the day, and both my mother and my father often tied the conversation back to lessons from their own careers.
As a recent high school graduate, my mother worked as a bookkeeper at a car dealership for six months in 1923 before becoming dismayed about the firm’s questionable business practices; she left to become a stenographer for her hometown mayor.
My father worked as a high school English teacher, interacting with people from all walks of life and providing them with the tools to communicate and appreciate literature. Both my parents approached the world with curiosity and discernment, and the perspectives they gave me when I lived at home would serve as touchstones throughout my life and career.
The next influence on my values system was my Jesuit education at the College of the Holy Cross. In a Jesuit classroom, students are encouraged to look at topics from all sides, to ask questions, challenge established principles and develop a core belief system based on wrestling with moral dilemmas.
The third experience that formed the basis for how I approached business came from my time as an officer in the Coast Guard. I served on an icebreaker that traveled to the Arctic and Antarctica and found myself in the position to respectfully (and more than once) challenge the authority of a captain who, in my opinion, had his judgment clouded by shortsightedness and alcohol.
It was aboard that icebreaker that I discovered my ability to speak truth to power and to do so in a way that showed respect and sympathy. The secret was to confront the captain privately in his cabin: Only the two of us were privy to my complaint. I also discovered that I had a store of courage to face the consequences of speaking up, allowing me to be more forthright than if I had been fearful of the fallout.
These early experiences led to my commitment to the values of independence and integrity and making an impact -- keeping me on a certain path so that today I can look back at my career without regret. During my career, however, I rubbed shoulders with a number of individuals who could not say the same.
I also faced criticism, intimidation and marginalization in the early years of my business that required me to draw on an inner confidence that the path I was taking was the right one. Career managers with a vested interest in preserving the status quo did not like the quality problems that my firm's independent surveys of customers exposed and often attempted to block their companies’ participation in receiving the reports. I also faced incidents when my company’s methodology was challenged -- sometimes with great fanfare.
In the 1980s I was invited to offer the keynote address to a group of about 60 people (almost half of them top Pontiac executives) by Pontiac’s new division manager. Figuring that he wanted to stir things up a bit to help get the Pontiac line back on track, I prepared a series of slides to make the industry insiders aware of what needed to be done.
The event started at about four in the afternoon, and I figured that I would be going on an hour or so after the people arrived. But as the cocktail hour was extended, it pushed dinner and my postdinner address later and later.
When I finally did take the podium and presented my projections that General Motor’s market share would be down below 30 percent by 1990, several members of the audience -- some surely emboldened by alcohol -- began to hoot and make catcalls from their seats, angered by the numbers.
Only when the new division manager who had invited me passionately defended me to the audience was the crowd silenced. The next morning at a breakout session, it was clear that despite the uproar the night before, even the most outspoken critics were giving my findings some thoughtful consideration.
For a number of years, I shared values lessons with students in the graduate business program at California State University, Northridge, by taking part in an annual ethics seminar. One of the incidents I recounted was the kickback scandal that rocked American Honda in the 1980s and ’90s.
At the time, Hondas were so popular -- and in such great demand due to Japanese automakers’ voluntary restraint agreements -- that Honda executives could literally charge dealers for the privilege of a running a franchise. The kickback scheme was widespread within the organization and involved people at nearly every level, making it appear to be an almost sanctioned practice within the U.S. arm of the corporation.
The culture was similar to that of a street gang, I’d explain to the MBA students. New hires, often young fellows, would be indoctrinated into the system by serving as “bag men,” picking up the cash from the dealers and delivering it to Honda executives. They might get a fancy watch out of it, while individuals further up the chain of command would bring in tens of thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise. And just like in gangs, once a new employee agreed to participate in the scheme, he was stuck -- put in the position of having to live by the rules set by those corrupt managers.
When the voluntary restraint agreements were lifted and dealers no longer saw their franchises as so lucrative, the grousing by dealers about the kickbacks grew louder. Ultimately, the scheme was uncovered. Thirty-two people were fired and a few individuals served time in jail. Even those who didn’t go to jail had their professional reputations tarnished by the scandal: The fact that their behavior had been condoned by the organization provided no personal or professional cover for their actions.
In the course of my discussions with the MBA students, I would present various ethical dilemmas, and it was often interesting to hear how a few students would rationalize behavior. The term that was often used was “accepted business practice.” To my mind, whether something is an accepted practice or not should not be a deciding factor if it does not sit right with your personal belief system.
As was seen with the Honda scandal, even if you are following the expectations of a particular corporate culture, that corporation cannot shield you from the fallout of acts of impropriety -- whether it’s legal ramifications, a damaged reputation or simply nicks to your soul.
It is critical that you not let yourself be pressured to take part in activities that you know are wrong. Give yourself time to reflect before making a decision and call upon the values and beliefs that you formed prior to entering business. Last, remind yourself that you will always be the one left to deal with the consequences of your actions.