Culture of Integrity

Gustavo Grodnitzky Culture Trumps Everything, Organizational Culture

Integrity is about ensuring that your words are aligned with your actions.  When a company announces its cause/purpose/values, it is making a statement about what it finds important and what will drive its decision making.  However, when those words don’t govern the actual behaviors and decisions of senior leadership, the words ring hollow. Human beings easily identify hypocrisy; people smell hypocrisy like dogs smell fear.

There are executives that understand this intuitively.  I was once told by a senior executive at a client company that he didn’t want to work on cause/purpose/values because he simply believed that organizations are political systems and hypocrisy is inevitable. My response was: “That’s one perspective.”  His statement demonstrates a critical point, which is that when leaders act only out of self-interest, anything they say about their motivations outside of that self-interest is seen as disingenuous.

When I hear this type of statement from any executive, my response is always the same.  What if we can change that?  What if we can build the organization around cause/purpose/values and ensure that everyone in this organization lives these concepts with integrity?  At this point there is either a deafening silence as leaders contemplate what I’ve just said, or I am politely walked out of the room.

As an example of how a genuine cause can change behavior, let’s look at Sandler O’Neill and Partners, which is an investment bank.  As with most investment banks, they help financial institutions raise capital, and they have the standard goal of maximizing shareholder value.

On September 11, 2001, when two planes flew into the Twin Towers in NYC, Sandler O’Neill and Partners were directly affected.  In the moments following the attack, they lost 66 people (more than one-third of their staff), two of their top executives, and the company’s physical infrastructure, including computers and customer records.

Shortly after the initial crisis, Jimmy Dunne was named Sr. Managing Principal.  As the crisis continued, and in the face of exceptional demands on daily business operations, Dunne made the decision that a Sandler partner would attend the funeral of every fallen employee.  As a result of witnessing the direct suffering and devastation to the families of their employees, Dunne became aware that the purpose of his firm was not only to satisfy customers and create shareholder value, but also to treat employees like genuinely valued human beings.

Sometimes, when an organization begins to operate from its cause/purpose/values, changes must be made regarding standard protocols.  Dunne asked his CFO if the company would survive if it payed the families of all the deceased employees their salaries and bonuses through December 31, 2001.  The following year, he asked if the company could do the same for all of 2002. The CFO said the firm could survive, but doing this would violate its fiduciary responsibility to the partners. To address this concern, the firm offered to buy out the ownership stake of any partner at par. Not one person accepted.

If your purpose/cause/values are genuine and authentic, people know it, because it drives every decision – and because you do things other companies would not.  That is the ultimate display of integrity…and success….