Three Traits of Ethical Senior Managers

A question that I’m commonly asked whenever I speak at corporates or conferences is ‘what should I do if a senior manager asks me to change a report?’. My answer is often blunt: “Tell them the answer is ‘no’, but if they want to submit the report with their name on it, then that’s their prerogative as a senior manager.”

Being asked to change the commentary on a report to something that is not representative of the actual status is an ethical decision that many of us find ourselves in. It’s one I had to deal with many times in my career and I remained resolute throughout as I always felt that it called my integrity into account.

Sticking to the absolute truth requires attention to detail, self-awareness and courage. These are qualities that we don’t all have and even when we do it’s hard to display them all the time. However, those that do so have the respect of their colleagues, are fair and balanced in their opinions and sleep well at night!

The South Carolina nuclear reactor project in the US is a high-profile project failure in which a lack of senior management ethics has been laid bare by a recent Securities and Exchange Commission review. The review found that those in charge of the facility (with the full knowledge that the project was likely to fail) still paid themselves $21m of performance bonuses. Much of this bonus money came from customers.

Similarly, the East-West roading project in Victoria, Australia, in 2014. The contract for the construction of this highly contentious link road was signed by the then state government, two months prior to an election. At this time, there was a strong indication that they wouldn’t be re-elected and it was well-known that the opposition were fiercely against the project. But they signed it nonetheless.

In a scathing report into the project’s failure, Victoria’s then auditor general, Dr Peter Frost, found: “The advice provided to the then-government was disproportionately aimed at achieving contract execution prior to the 2014 state election rather than being in the best interests of the project or use of taxpayers’ money.” 

Worse was to follow. Not only was the state government that signed the contract voted out, but the terms were so bad  it cost the incoming government over $1bn (of public money) to get out of it.

As ever with these big project failures, what followed was some childish political mud-slinging and a distinct lack of public accountability.

These actions are all ethically questionable and yet these kinds of situations are still all too commonplace.

We’ve got a pretty clear idea of what ‘bad’ looks like – but what does ‘good’ look like? Here are three traits that ethical senior managers display:

1.  Treating people in the right way – displaying empathy, being calm under pressure, not talking about people behind their back, not apportioning blame, role modelling behaviours, having a flexible mindset, encouraging participation, being approachable, making time for issue resolution, showing gratitude and humility

2. Adhering to the code of conduct rules and regulations – being health and safety conscious, following recruitment and people guidelines, having the organisation’s best interests at heart during contractual negotiations, being transparent and honest in supplier dealings, not taking ‘kickbacks’ or ‘favours’, understanding the law

3. Performing in line with their role – visible acceptance of accountability, giving autonomy, managing performance, overcoming bias and promoting equality, rewarding good behaviour, continually developing employees and organisation culture, challenging the unethical behaviours of others, enabling quick decision-making, ensuring that projects deliver value

Ethical leaders are a joy to work for. They look after you; challenge you to be better; show you how it should be done; roll their sleeves up when necessary; ensure that the right things are done for the right reasons; have a strong attention to detail; keep things moving; don’t have favourites; ensure equality and relentlessly develop themselves so that they are never ‘out of touch’.

Indeed the 2016 Millennial Survey from Deloitte listed Ethics/Trust/Integrity/Honesty as the second most important factor to the next generation workforce (Employee Satisfaction was number one).

Ethics cannot be delegated and being ethical at all times requires hard work and time. However, in his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman states that ‘strong ethics translate into higher motivation, zeal and persistence’.

So, whilst it may be harder to remain ethical, nobody has ever said that it wasn’t worth it.

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