Is it really so hard to figure out what it means to be an ethical leader?
I’ve heard a lot of pontificating on the subject, but at the end of the day, I keep coming back to the same two takeaways: Do the right thing. And use good business judgment.
It sounds unsophisticated, but there you are.
These two ideas work very well for the dilemmas that crop up over and over again in business. I recently asked a small group of CEOs, after a peer-group meeting, about the ethical challenges they’re facing, and I jotted down their answers on — literally — a napkin. They mentioned five same-old, same-old issues, and three rising trends. Please add your own to the list — and feel free to challenge my advice.
First, the same-old, same-old:
- Should we sell the customer something he doesn’t really need? Answer: No; the best customers are often long-term customers, and this type of activity will eventually catch up with you.
- Should I buy stock in a company after hearing “inside” news? No; it’s illegal.
- Should I expense “entertainment” costs that cross the line (dancing, anyone)? Ask what the company rules are and be transparent so the decision doesn’t come back to bite you.
- Should I push that last sale to make the quarter, even if it’s not yet a done deal? Don’t preship to make a number. Wait it out. Long-term customer relationships are worth more than a short-term spiff.
- Should I use the competitor’s customer list that I just lucked into? No; think long term, not short term — it’s a small world and a smaller industry.
The three emerging trends:
- Social media. Should companies to restrict what employees say on Facebook, for example? This is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. I recently heard a colleague mention that an employee was deposed on behalf of their company as a result of a Facebook posting.
- Government business. Stimulus money is flowing freely in some sectors. How do businesses that are getting some of it, but are new to government work, make decisions with respect to campaign donations and lobbying?
- Global expansion. What policy should a company adopt on the subject of “gift giving” or “favors” as it enters a new market where such practices are commonplace?
If you start with do the right thing and use good business judgment, you can make a lot of quick progress in answering these questions. Doing the right thing and using good business judgment means embodying simple human values such as being polite, constructive, and honest and doing your personal best. It also means respecting that you represent your company and must act in a manner that’s consistent with its corporate expectations and policies. If you’re still having trouble with this concept, just think about the people you don’t like doing business with, and do the opposite of whatever they do.
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