I was visiting with my friend last week just as two scandals broke. We watched the headlines –Lockheed Martin’s incoming CEO, Christopher Kubasik, resigned his position as a result of having a “close personal relationship” with a subordinate. General David Petraeus’ resignation as Director of the CIA hit the news in the middle of our conversation. His departure is a result of his admitting to an extra marital affair with his biographer. Both careers are ruined. Their untimely and unexpected departures will cause turmoil in organizations vital to our national security.
My friend is a member of the defense community working for a firm which manufactures tanks. He’s an engineer with an engineer’s bent for facts and analysis. He shook his head. He looked at me and said, “You know what that means don’t you?” I wasn’t sure I did. “More training for them –that’s what they’ll say. The next thing we’ll hear is that we all have to go through another online compliance course, review our code of conduct and sign off”. Let’s just say he’s right –he does have the experience of a 30-year career to back him up. Then apply his assumption to Lockheed Martin, which has about 130,000 employees. If each one takes a two hour course, that’s more than a quarter of a million hours of training. If the average wage and benefit cost for time away from the job is $ 40.00 per hour, that will cost Lockheed at least ten million dollars, not counting charges for course content and any other related expenses.
Learning is important but to be meaningful, the lessons have to change and sustain daily behavior. As I’ve written before, the most serious forms of misconduct don’t generally involve abstract principles that are hard to explain: don’t steal, don’t have workplace affairs or overly personal relationships, don’t lie and don’t cover up facts. Those are the kinds of behaviors which rock organizations and shatter lives. And when they do make news, it’s typically because of the misdeeds of senior executives and leaders.
The problem is not in their ability to understand these rules; it’s rather in their ability to apply them to their own conduct. From all I’ve learned, I believe many who get into trouble believe they are immune from the standards that govern everyone else. This is why the reaction of training for “them” as a first response is misguided. It will do little to stop the most serious infractions. Ultimately, if that’s all that’s done, it will waste a lot of time and money focusing on the wrong audience.
Instead, what organizations need to do is to start at the top. Everyone knows the basics – the key is to make sure that leaders believe they apply to them, no exceptions. When senior executives’ misbehavior is uncovered via complaints of one sort of another, the more public the actors the more devastating the impact to that person’s name and standing as well as to the organization.
Values, standards and key behavioral principles need to be understood, modeled, and effectively communicated and followed. But start at the apex of the organization, not the middle and below, to guard against the greatest risks.