A CEO Leadership Forum co-hosted February 1, 2008 by the NASBA CPT and Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management provided insight into the practical decisions made by businesses during the current media era, where “spin” is a way of life and justifiable lying has become acceptable.

Nationally-recognized moderator, Jack Faris, set the tone of the Forum by quoting his father, “If it’s gray, put it away.” Faris, who has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Newsweek and Fortune, pointed out that no one is infallible and leaders must be prepared to address various shades of ethical violations with creative solutions. “Failure is the laboratory for future success,” he stated.

George S. Barrett, CEO of Cardinal Health’s $81-billion Healthcare Supply Chain Services sector, identified specific tools for success in the area of ethics. He urged executives to include ethical standards as a part of the organization’s mission and to promote success by providing procedural guidance. Barrett believes “tone at the top” is critical to the ethical foundation of any organization and staff cannot be expected to act ethically when leadership is seeking ways to exploit confidential information. He stressed that an enemy of ethical standards is blame and that organizations must create an environment where accountability is the accepted norm. The underlying theme of Barrett’s comments focused on incorporating ethics into the company’s overall strategic plan.

CEO of the Bun Companies, Cordia Harrington, described her interactions with McDonald’s domestic operations. She was evaluated as a potential supplier based on how she conducted business as the CEO of a growing bun manufacturing company. Harrington was subjected to 32 interviews during a four-year time period and was finally invited into the “club” with a handshake – not a contract. Harrington recently joined the list as one of McDonald’s international suppliers. Based on her strong convictions and experience with different cultures, Harrington chose to limit her interactions to countries that shared similar ethical foundations as those within her own organization. She agreed with Barrett in that creating an atmosphere of trust leads to an ethical foundation and that believing in people helps them do the right thing.

Turney Stevens, dean of the College of Business at Lipscomb University, highlighted how each person has their own perspective on what is right and what is wrong. However, if we contemplate the relevant questions and then ask ourselves how we would respond to a reporter asking those questions, we will typically identify the best course of action. Turney referred to the law of unintended consequences in discussing how one seemingly minor, bad decision can snowball into a mountain of ethical dilemmas. Turney also emphasized that currently, ethical challenges are enormous and management must lead by example. Laws such as the Sarbannes-Oxley Act cannot regulate behavior or integrity.

As questions from the audience were discussed, a common theme emerged. Ethical reactions to informal decisions are absorbed by those around you all of the time—by your children, co-workers and staff. Ethical discussions and behaviors are not just for formal education and major decisions, but a way of life. As Harrington noted, “How do you know you’re winning if you’re not playing by the rules?”

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