Leadership Ethics – Top down or bottom up?

Each month we ask a leading Business Coach to share their methods with the3rdi.co.uk.

This month Zoë Hanks MSc, Managing Director, Grassroots Ideas Ltd. talks about ethics in business.

Grassroots Ideas are a vibrant and passionate ethical communications and branding agency who are strong advocates of a more socially responsible way of thinking. Zoë’s background in international Marketing, Branding, Communications and PR – along with her ‘glass half full’ attitude to life and good sense of fun – delivers real tangible results to the businesses and individuals she works with.

We’ve all been brought up to know right from wrong. Right?

We all know ‘thou shalt not steal’, ‘thou shalt not lie’, ‘thou shalt not have extra-marital affairs with anyone with a pulse’ (OK, so not everyone gets that do they Tiger?) but how about ‘thou shalt not nick 2 reams of paper because thou art running a bit low at home’ or ‘thou shalt not have a 4 hour boozy lunch break with an old friend under the guise of ‘networking’.

We tend to interchange the terms ‘Manager’ and ‘Leader’ – but are they one and the same thing? They possibly were 10, even 5 years ago. But that’s certainly not the case any more. In the words of Peter F Drucker “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”.

And there-in lies the root of the problem that many organisations are currently facing with senior leadership. In a time when all eyes are on the bottom line, it is more than likely that leaders are recruited for their skills, experience, contacts – in essence their ability to ultimately increase production and profits because, let’s face it – that’s what being in business is all about. Very few companies recruit leaders based solely on their values, behaviours or their ability to ensure good standards of moral conduct throughout the organisation – because that just doesn’t make money. Or so they think. Good leadership is not just about competence – it’s about transforming fortunes and transforming people too.

There are many companies that are now waking up to the benefit that a strong ethical code can have on their balance sheet. Some are really living and breathing it in everything they do. M&S are making headway at the moment with their ‘Plan B’ and ‘Look Behind the Label’ campaigns. Others are simply paying it lip-service by recruiting an extensive (and expensive) Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Team to shout about meaningless activities that they think will make them nicer people. Funnily enough, Enron springs to mind here.

It’s a bit like those big corporations that set-up an ‘Innovation Team’ to come up with exciting and inspiring ideas. The very fact that they have had to set up such a team in the first place inevitably means that there is not one ounce of creativity in their business so they are fighting a losing battle from the start. Yes, they can come up with some cracking concepts that could revitalise their brand offering or totally change the way they do business – but can they really expect to inject this into the veins of their business just because a small team of people ‘get it’? Highly unlikely in my experience.

So how can leaders inspire their teams to do well and do good?

First and foremost – they need to be inspired themselves. This is not about jumping on the bandwagon in the vain hope you won’t be left behind. This is about leading the way with a truly ethical vision for how the company can improve the whole way they operate, whilst improving the bottom line.

At this point, those with large pots of money to spend bring in the ‘big boys’ to tell them how to do it. The knights in shining Jaguars majestically sweep in, share with them a ‘framework for success’ or a ‘blueprint for improvement’, throw in a few KPI’s for good measure, and promptly leave so that they can get to the wine bar on time. Not forgetting of course the whopping invoice thankyou very much.

And yes, even I have to admit that this approach can and does work for some companies. But they are seriously in the minority.

If you want to establish a shared vision for the future – then it has to be just that – shared. The best ideas for such radical changes, dare I say it, tend to come from the bottom up. These people are really at the grassroots of your organisation. They tend not to play the political games, they are in contact daily with your customers, they work day in day out with the policies that the leaders put in place and can see what works and what doesn’t. It’s frightening the number of companies I meet with who tell me “It’s pointless inviting the XYZ team as they have nothing to bring to the table”. As I smile sweetly and ask them to consider what they have just said, inside I am screaming “Give them a break – why would you employ them if you didn’t think they are capable of using their brains?!”. By encouraging employees to have an input into developing your ethical code – half the job of implementing it has already been done because they will be totally on-board with what you are doing. There will be no persuading and cajoling – in fact they will be able to do the job for you. And who knows – they may even inspire their leaders along the way. Fancy that!

Of course, all this rests on the premise that the leaders in your organisation have a strong ethical code of their own. By becoming a leader – your ethics and morals are immediately under the spotlight – so you had better make sure that you are happy for people to understand the real you.

Clearly, I am not saying here that anyone in a leadership position needs to be squeaky clean. A) Because no-one is perfect and B) Because statement A includes me. What I am saying is that leaders absolutely need to be authentic in how they approach instilling an ethics based culture in their company – not least because they will be under the microscope and will not be able to get away with a ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ approach.

For example, you cannot roll your eyes when a team member gets in at 9.04am – when you swan off at 4pm every day so you can ‘miss the traffic’. Seems obvious – but it still happens.

And the same goes for outside the business too. You are quite within your rights to demand prompt payment for your invoices in accordance with your payment terms. But it’s a bit unjust if you rarely pay your creditors on time and won’t even answer the phone to them. Just remember – it’s a small world out there when all is said and done and these things have a habit of catching up with people.

There are ways, of course, to ensure that leaders are recruited on the basis that they share the values of the organisation and teams within it. In fact more and more companies are asking employees to be involved in the recruitment of their management so they can ensure there is a good fit from the start. OK, so they may not have the final decision, but again, it’s much more likely to work if employees feel involved and valued in the process from the get go.

For me, ethical leadership has the following hallmarks :-
Shared – So it can really have an impact on the culture of a business.
Inspirational – Are you someone’s mentor or trusted advisor?
Trustworthy – Truly authentic and not just paying it lip-service.
Genuine – With no expectation of return.
Measurable – How has it changed the organisation?
Sustainable – Is it something that can be built upon in future?

To sum up, ethical leadership is not like Katie Price. It can’t be bought. You can’t throw money at it in the hope that it will cover the ugly bits and no-one will ever know. And it can’t just be about expanding your business empire in your quest for world domination. I prefer to think of it more like Nigella Lawson. It has to be discovered, be allowed to develop naturally, be embraced for it’s uniqueness and nurtured and loved in order for it to have a devoted army of followers.

Find out more at www.grassrootsideas.co.uk

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