Thursday, November 15, 2012

Culture: It Starts at the Top

A lot is written in the press and the academic journals about culture and its importance in guiding the employees and activities of any organization.  The culture or tone of an organization has to be top down.  Its an essential part of leadership and one of the most important responsibilities of a leader.  

I was fortunate to work for 35 years in an organization that has a strong and unwavering culture; Exxon and ExxonMobil.  In all areas of the business; safety, financial controls, procurement, operations, dealing with vendors, business partners, shareholders and customers, there was no ambiguity about what was expected of employees.  There is a sense of discipline that permeates the organization.  Employees understand that there is a right and a wrong way to conduct business and it is good for the financial health of the business.  I have talked to many employees over the years that left to pursue other interests and without exception they missed the controls and standards the company established because it made their job easier and less risky.

So we shouldn't be surprised to learn recently that employees of the Metropolitan Airport Board have been abusing travel policies, contracting standards and hiring rules.  A recent article in the Washington Post listed numerous circumstances of ethical lapses by managers and executives, some of whom resigned after an audit uncovered some pretty outrageous violations.  It was just a month ago that I wrote a blog about the same audit uncovering the same types of violations among the appointed Board of Directors of the MWAA.   

And this is not the first hint of problems at the MWAA.  A decade ago, another audit uncovered problems in contracting practices.  This is an organization that oversees a budget of two billion dollars and employs 1400 people.  That's not trivial and they are stewarding the taxpayers money.

So let's connect the dots here.  The appointed board members violate policies and the managers and executives see this and decide the rules don't apply to them either.  You're left to wonder when the next shoe will drop as they drill down further into the organization. Will employees take their cue from their managers and rationalize it is also ok for them to violate policies?  It's not a stretch to think so.  That's how a culture works. 

Shanahan losing his cool
All organizations have a culture, not just businesses.  Consider our beloved Washington Redskins.  Does the culture start at the top?  Of course it does.  This is an organization that is the second most penalized team in the NFL.  And not just any penalties, fine generating penalties; Offensive Coach Kyle Shanahan berating an official ($25k), Josh Morgan throwing a football at an opposing player ($8k), DeAngelo Hall being ejected from a game for arguing with and cursing an official ($TBD).  If it's ok for the coach to do it, it must be ok for the players.  And let's not forget this is a team with a 3 and 6 record.

Fred Davis
To me the problems are more deeply rooted than just lack of discipline resulting in penalties.  Consider last year when first round draft pick Trent Williams and veteran tight end Fred Davis were suspended for half a season for substance abuse.  An organization with a strong and unwavering culture does not tolerate such behavior.   But the leadership of this organization named Fred Davis, who had just ditched his team for his selfish purposes, their franchise player at the end of the season.  Not only were there seemingly no consequences for his illegal behavior (other than losing a few paychecks), there was a reward!  The franchise player must be paid the average of the top 5 players at his position!  I think its a sign that the organization and it's leadership has not established the right kind of culture that enrolls employees in a higher purpose and provides them with a sense of personal responsibility and devotion rather than a selfish mindset. 

Culture is real and it's important and it starts at the top.

Stewart McHie
Director, MSBA Program


1 comment:

  1. Congrats for writing an open article. It is true that ethical business practices should start from the top. The present recession is an ample proof how the unethical methods adopted by the big bosses of the big companies to stay competitive can brought out economic disastrous.
    Online Business Ideas