In Search of Executive Integrity

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“There is great integrity when we integrate our inner strength with our other reach.”– Rabbi Karyn Kedar

With corporate scandals making the headlines on an almost daily basis, our confidence in business executives has plummeted. More than ever, we are distrustful of their motives, their message, and their actions.

In fact, two recent surveys confirm that employees are losing faith in corporate leaders. A poll of nearly 13,000 workers conducted by consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide found that confidence in senior management has fallen so far over the past two years that it threatens to reduce corporate competitiveness. A survey done by the Gallup Organization and UBS, a financial services firm, showed that only 48 percent of U.S. workers believe that most corporate executives are honest and ethical, a drop of 6 percentage points in just one month.

There is a lot of debate about what is causing this apparent surge in executive duplicity. Is it bad individuals? Is it loopholes in the financial reporting laws? Is it “infectious greed,” as Alan Greenspan suggested. Regardless of whatever is causing executive duplicity, we have to reverse this trend. We must ask: what do we, as corporate colleagues, executive coaches, and citizens, do to ensure that more of our leaders act in accordance with the law and our shared values?

There is clearly no silver bullet. This is a complicated situation that will require a multi-faceted answer. In the immediate, we must catch and punish the bad guys to send the message that illegal and unethical actions have personal consequences. We must also review executive compensation and financial reporting systems so short-term wins are not valued or rewarded at the expense of longer term organizational viability.

We must also look at this situation from another angle: Rather than focusing solely on the villains, we need to understand what the good guys do differently to generate significant and sustainable results responsibly. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, reports in his five year study of corporate excellence, moral character and exhibiting the right actions daily are not only good for the soul, but are good for business. In Collins’ words, “They (the successful and responsible leaders or “Level 5” leaders) channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It is not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”

Therefore, what would we do differently if we tasked ourselves with promoting more corporate excellence? First, it helps to have some insight into the executive terrain.

In my work as a psychologist who studies excellence in the workplace, I find that honorable people in executive roles, not unlike others with demanding jobs and family responsibilities, can lose touch with themselves and their values. They can get caught up in the pressures of working hard, proving their value, and producing (often short-term) results. They can see their world as full of “should” and “paying dues,” and less about personal choices or having their own individual signatures.

This myopic view prevents them from address a very important part of their role as a leader: creating a legacy they can ? and should ? be proud of. Studies have found that people at the end of their lives are more likely to feel angst about not having lived a life of meaning than about not having had enough wealth. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who has extensively studied death and dying, summarized all related research showing that, when people look back on their lives, they look to three questions to tell them and others whether or not their lives were significant: (1) Did I become all that I could be? (2) Did I leave the world better for having been alive? (3) Did I give and receive love?

What gives us meaning and what keeps us on track is connecting who we are and what we care about with how we spend our time. For executives, this connection involves their work and their capacity to influence the hearts and minds of many people.

Most executives that I work with want to lead others responsibly and to improve the way things are. Their work is the avenue they choose to use to make their mark. This is where they look to answer the questions: Have I made a difference? Am I all that I can be? But they need to ask more specifically: Have I made the difference that I am uniquely called upon and suited to make? That answer does not lie in a job description or a boss directive: it lies in our individual leadership commitments.

Personal Leadership Statement

To know if you have made a difference, you have to know what you set out to accomplish. Executives are asked to create a mission, vision or strategy for their business… But what about creating their individual mission? A personal mission guides how an executive will work to lead others to fulfill the mission they have laid out for the business. It is key in helping them stay focused on what they are good at, what they are called upon to do, what they want to be remembered for, and what, authentically, gives them meaning.

In my 15 years of executive coaching, I have found that very few people in their mid-career can easily articulate what their individual mission is as it relates to their leadership. To help me get to know clients, and to help them identify easily who they are, both to themselves and to others, and then to stay focused on achieving something bigger than an acceptable response to day-to-day demands, I require my clients to prepare what I have termed a “Personal Leadership Statement” which identifies answers to the following questions:

1. What is my core purpose as it relates to leadership?

(Mission)

2. What will make me better in delivering my mission or core purpose?

(Goals for improvement)

3. How will I ensure that I am indeed more effective a year from now?

(Strategies for improvement)

MISSION: A leadership mission captures the essential reason we, as individuals, choose a leadership role. It encompasses the core products, services, or values that we are committed to imparting as our vocational contribution. Our personal leadership mission represents the decisions and choices that are our own. In delineating our choices, we can look at the following questions to help us hone in on our personal “why” about our role as a leader. Keep in mind that the “why” tends to be different across individuals, but not across time within an individual. And, within one role, a leader can and does focus on a number of ways to make a difference.

  • Why is it that you want to lead others and/or create a future that is different than our current state?
  • What is the imprint you want to leave…and for whom?
  • What are the skills, abilities, experiences you are interested in applying and how will you apply them?
  • What services can you be counted on for providing, each and every time you partner with someone to get something done?
  • What are you uniquely qualified to offer?
  • What are the core operating principles that colleagues and customers can hold you accountable to when you work?
  • Who are you most called to serve and what contributions will you make to them/for them?
  • What is the ‘right’ relationship between your work and your non-work related pursuits?

GOALS FOR IMPROVEMENT: If we are individually committed to excellence, there undoubtedly is a gap between where we are today and where we strive to be in terms of effectively delivering our stated mission. To concretize our vision for improvement, we need to consider the following questions:

  • What are you not doing now that you think you could be doing to better deliver your mission?
  • What are you doing now that you could or should perhaps stop because it interferes with the delivery of your mission?
  • How are you working that can or should be remedied so you can better deliver your mission?
  • What would be some measures of your career progress in 12-36 months?
  • What should your colleagues, customers, and supervisors be saying about your value, your contribution and your services in 12-36 months that we can’t say today?
  • What could or should you be more skillful at to better deliver your mission?
  • What will be the ‘right’ relationship between your work and your non-work pursuits in 12-36 months?

STRATEGIES for IMPROVEMENT: Our strategies represent the ‘broad levers’ that should be pulled to close the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in 12-36 months. In developing our strategies, we need to determine if closing the gap is related to focus, skill level, job assignment, context or company affiliation, committed deliverables, colleagues, expertise, or association with an inspiring purpose. Once we have identified which areas most need redressing, then we need to pinpoint what factors we might target within those areas to close the gaps (i.e., research, decision, support, accountability, challenge, visibility). We should consider the following questions when creating our strategies:

  • What is most effective way(s) to improve where I want to improve?
  • Who has closed the gap I am invested in closing? How did they do it?
  • How could I do it more effectively and efficiently?

Creating a Legacy

Developing a personal mission statement is essential in ensuring that the legacy we leave is the legacy we want to leave — which is at the core of reviving executive integrity. Ethical dilemmas often arise because leaders put short-term results and reactions from others ahead of longer-term results (i.e. quarterly earnings), reactions (i.e., reactions from Wall Street, bosses, quarterly earnings) and impact (i.e., improving capacity).

To reverse this, we need to ask executives point-blank to articulate and then announce what they want their legacy to be. By naming it and sharing it with others it becomes more real. It becomes something that others can help remind them of and make them accountable to.

The Personal Leadership Statement forces us to get clear about our personal purpose as it relates to our leadership role. I ask the executives I work with directly about their intended legacy. Many tell me that without having creating the Statement, they could not have the articulated their intended legacy. After all, everyone wants to be remembered for something. Being able to identify our intended legacy drives us to channel our gifts, our passions and our values at work.

Do you, as a leader, know what your personal purpose is? Do you know what legacy you want to leave behind? If you do not answer yes to these questions, chances are that your personal leadership purpose is not top of mind:

  • Are you overly concerned with what others (especially your boss) may think?
  • Are you over working about short-term impact at the expense of long-term gain?
  • Do you feel unhappy and unfilled?
  • Does it feel like the stressful times never end?
  • Do you find that you never tell others what matters to them personally?
  • Are you very reactive to what others (i.e., senior management) say they need or want?
  • Is work uninspiring?
  • Do you get caught up in activity versus accomplishment? Do you feel busy but not impactful?

If you think that your personal leadership purpose is not top of mind, you’re not alone. When asked what legacy they want to leave behind, many executives don’t know the answer. They have not taken the time or don’t have the personal insight or support to connect the dots of their values and their passions. Some executives respond that they don’t know how to name it. They have a sense, but they never put it into words. Others think they know, but they’re not sure. They tend to turn out to be more focused on what they think they should care about, than what they genuinely care about.

Leading on Purpose

So, how do a Personal Leadership Statement and legacy tie into integrity? How do we use these tools to bring integrity back into the executive suite?

Executives need to be able to articulate their personal reasons for taking on the leadership tasks that they have been assigned. They need to announce their personal accountability to making something better that people over time will benefit from. They need to talk about what specifically they intend to create or contribute that will make them, and their kids and parents, proud. They need to make it personal ? to make it an issue of legacy.

At some point in an executive’s career, as Halftime author Bob Buford points out, the executive realizes that it’s not about doing what others think they should do, but what they themselves what should be done in order to leave the world and their organization a better place. This is what fosters integrity. Walking our talk. So before we can walk the talk, we have to talk the talk.

As we often find with ethical situations, there is a proverbial fork in the road: If the executive takes the road marked TODAY ONLY, it means betraying what he/she wants to be known for later…. And therein lies the struggle. Our job is to make our intentions for our leadership legacy known… To ourselves and to those around us.

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Laurie Anderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience as an executive coach to leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies to the World Bank. Visit www.drlaurieanderson.com or call 1-708-524-2444 for more information on Laurie’s services for individuals, groups, and organizations.

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