High Performance Ethics by Wes Cantrell and James Lucas
TWO features differentiate this book on business ethics from the rest of its genre: the author and the message.
The author, Wes Cantrell, started at the bottom at Lanier, the company he eventually ran as chief executive and chairperson, overseeing its growth, listing as a separate entity, and finally, its sale to Ricoh.
The message is very practical: you can do well financially by deliberately and consistently living to high ethical standards because ethical leadership creates high performance. This is in contrast to: you can do well and live to high ethical standards.
Cantrell cites 10 principles required for what he calls "high performance ethics".
They mirror the Ten Commandments, but not simplistically, and while the book is faith based, rooted in Christianity, it provides keen insights to business and ethics that will inform beyond this faith community.
The opening chapter (echoing the first commandment) is "First things only". This is a strong call to get priorities in order and then to address them. The chapter deals with the common idea of vision – where are we going? - and missions – what will we do to get there?
However, it goes further with a strong call to get everyone involved in the formulation of the inherent values that will underpin the mission and vision. All too often this is left to an executive subcommittee rather than, as Cantrell recommends, calling for company-wide discussion of the value and its implications.
Without this discussion there will be no shared values, merely an executive note with the impact of an inconsequential policy change.
The discussion is necessary, he explains, because as common a term as "loyalty" can be variously interpreted. It can be understood as "don't rock the boat", or as "love the boat so much you will rock it if there is a problem".
Following on the first principle is the second – "Ditch the Distractions". When all members of staff are informed of the company's strategy and the critical success factors that can get them there, they are able to perform.
Excluding anyone from the requirement to understand the strategy scores low on both ethics and performance. The former because it devalues people's "need to know" and their ability to contribute intelligently, and the latter because it allows people to function on low-value work through management-induced ignorance.
The fourth principle, echoing the call to Sabbath observance, is entitled "Find Symmetry". Taking issues with the idea of "work-life balance", Cantrell talks of a symmetrical life where no part is larger or smaller than it should be.
The contrast of work and life denigrates work as the enemy of living, so we get through the "work" to make it to "life"” at the end of the day or the end of the week.
The idea of prioritising one's life in a fixed order, for example family, work, community, and self, is "phony and misleading".
To be ethical and effective we have to shift these priorities around, probably on a daily basis. The key question is not what one's priority list should look like, but rather what should I be doing right now?
Under this principle, Cantrell also addresses the need for a "pit stop" each week, a time to ensure that the wheels don't come off when the car is back on the track.
This is not time without structure in contrast to the structure of work, and using the racing analogy, the time off the track is planned, organised and effective even though the car isn’t running.
The best life, he asserts, is one lived hard, worked hard, played hard, rested hard and shared hard and the pit stop is the time for all but "work hard".
Burnout, he contends, is not usually a function of working too hard, rather it is a function of playing a role that robs us of our spiritual connection to work. His father, he explains, was called to serve God as a preacher and teacher; he was called to serve as a businessman.
There are many ways to "kill" people – we can kill their minds, their passion for work and life, their ideas, their careers and their sense of worth. This is the topic of the fifth principle.
High performance, ethical leaders refuse to kill others to get ahead; on the contrary, they value others and infuse their organisations with an "others first" humility.
He sees a manifestation of this approach in the need to start at the bottom. Too many people today want to start at the top, because they are oblivious to the value of starting at the bottom.
There is a humility one learns in the bowls of an organisation that is extremely valuable, especially as one rises to the top. Additionally, he points out, if you are not able to handle working at the bottom, in attitude or performance, you will never be able to handle it at the top.
The foundational principle of Cantrell's approach is that high performance ethical leaders are willing to take short-term losses because they want to avoid the biggest loss of all – themselves.
Sticking to principles has a cost not just a payoff. As Samuel Goldwyn of MGM said: "I don’t want any 'yes' men... I want people to tell me the truth, even if it costs them their jobs.
With the deluge of news about corrupt bankers, corrupt officials and the rest, it is easy to become inured to life as the survival of the fittest. If a species becomes extinct or a careless organisation destroys an ecosystem or twenty-five thousand careers, why should we mourn?
Isn't this the way the world works? To this question, Cantrell has provided compelling answers – it doesn't have to be this way. You can do well by doing good. Very well.
Readability: Light --+-- Serious
Insights: High --+-- Low
Practical: High ---+- Low
* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy.
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