Who’d have thought that the Atlanta Public Schools and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. would have so much in common? One’s a city school system, the other a global media empire. On the surface, they differ by location, mission, ownership and structure. But in terms of culture, leadership and values, they share common organizational DNA and practices.
In Atlanta, we’re learning every day of the broadening scope and duration of massive cheating involving doctored standardized test scores dating back about 10 years. This isn’t a scandal launched by adolescents but rather by teachers, principals and administrative leaders who combined to falsify exam results aimed at inflating Atlanta students’ test performance. This made Atlanta’s school system appear to be a case study in excellence and renewal. For a while, it worked. In reality, it appears more aptly a study in corruption, mismanagement and fear.
For years going forward this fraud will damage the credibility of the Atlanta school system and our confidence in those officials who have the solemn responsibility to educate our children. The tragedy is that the students whose scores were inflated will suffer the most. Fraudulent test scores may have helped gain acclaim and money for the school system and key employees but won’t help under-prepared students a whit when they need real knowledge and skills to compete in our unforgiving job market.
In London, The News of the World, a News International tabloid, and other related publications, apparently, stole confidential personal data and hacked into private phone accounts. Reporters and investigators invaded the privacy of public figures and innocents including a missing murder victim to sell more products. As a result, The News frequently scooped and led the competition. For a while, their practices also worked. Now, the paper has closed, the publishing empire is losing top leaders, inquiries are spreading from England to the United States. Most recently, one top executive, Rebekah Brooks, has lost her job and been arrested while the head of Scotland Yard, Sir Paul Stephenson, has resigned. Soon there will be a barrage of international criminal and civil proceedings and more shocking tabloid headlines.
While details surrounding these events continue to surface, this much is clear:
Leadership: Top leaders must have either actively encouraged a “win at all costs” mentality and/or failed to inquire or care how results were obtained. In either case, leaders are responsible for either active malfeasance, willful blindness or, more likely, both.
Culture: The violations involved purposeful misconduct not benign or subtle practices – falsifying test scores and hacking into phone lines and other like invasions required repeated intentional actions. Ongoing misdeeds like these can’t continue without organizational cultures supporting them. Surely, both organizations had policies prohibiting such activities. Once again, these cases illustrate that rules are important only if they’re followed. And culture more vitally than policies and processes determine if they are.
Fear and Retaliation: In Atlanta, reports are surfacing that teachers and administrators tried to halt cheating at various stages as the scheme continued year after year. They claim to have been told to keep quiet and threatened with job harm or loss. This is the typical pattern of organizational catastrophe and one common to what we have read about with Deep Horizon, Massey, and financial meltdowns. There is misconduct, it is well recognized, some try to stop it, they are stymied one way or the other until catastrophic collapse. We haven’t heard much about those who complained within the News Corp yet but as I write anecdotes are beginning to appear.
Hypocrisy and Greed Trumped Other Transcendent Values: The Atlanta schools are in place to educate. News organizations exist to inform the public. Supposedly, each is governed by laws and professional rules of conduct reflecting institutional values. In both cases, greed, a drive for recognition, false acclaim and other rewards in Atlanta and for reputation and revenue in London proved to be the real values at work.
Pick any scandal – this is the same pattern we see over and over. It doesn’t matter what the issue, industry or fact pattern is. Get leaders who stick to their organization’s values, build organizations and cultures around them, and you won’t have these disasters. Do the opposite and you will. It’s that simple.