Brandt On Leadership -- Ethics For Sale! CEO Ethics Here!

Dec. 21, 2004
Forget what mom and dad said. You can play by different rules.

Ladies and Gentlemen of Bilgewater Consulting, it gives me great pleasure to announce the launch of our newest and potentially most lucrative advisory practice: Strategic Ethics. As you know, business ethics are all the rage now. With revelations of corporate wrongdoing filling pages of newsprint, investors and regulators are now insisting on higher standards of corporate behavior. Dozing boards of directors are waking up to realize that there's more to corporate governance than cashing a quarterly check. Even the President himself has been shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that secret, low-interest loans like the ones that helped create his own fortune may have led certain CEOs to fudge their financial statements for personal gain. Our clients -- the CEOs who have relied on Bilgewater for years to help them extract maximum compensation from shareholders for minimum risk and performance -- have a higher need for ethical help than most. Unfortunately for them, the off-balance sheet partnerships, sweetheart option plans and skyrocketing pay packages we created for them in the 1990s now look less like creative finance and more like one-way tickets to Leavenworth. Fortunately for us, with our knowledge of these clients -- and the threat that we might divulge what we know -- we are uniquely positioned to help. Because although CEOs and everyone else in this country knows that we need a good strong dose of ethics, nobody knows where to get them. Our answer is: Buy them here. We are committed to providing whatever ethics our client may need at a given moment. Our databases contain a variety of ethics -- including situational and relational ethics -- from which our clients can create a custom ethics policy that is right for their industries. Most important, though, is what Bilgewater won't provide: run-of-mill ethics that anyone -- even a CEO -- could have gotten around the kitchen table from his or her mother and father. Everyone knows enough to tell their children not to steal, cheat or lie, whether by commission or omission. Those ethics are fine for children and for small, uncomplicated businesses. But for big, important CEOs of complicated businesses, these everyday ethics often fit like a shrunken Speedo. Businesses of scale need ethics of scale. They need Strategic Ethics. What are Strategic Ethics? Many things:

  • Strategic Ethics include best-practice mission statements that demonstrate your sincerity with New Age phrases such as co-opetition, cradle-to-grave product cycles and community partnerships. The statements will look smart whether printed in your annual report, displayed on signs by the elevators or on the backs of business cards.
  • Strategic Ethics maximize public awareness of your commitment to the principles of open disclosure and corporate responsibility without actually tying the CEO's hands when it comes to creating a re-priced stock option program or closing a factory without notice.
  • Strategic Ethics offers a training program that teaches employees which behaviors they can be fired for, even if tacitly condoned by management, should they ever come to light. Best of all, the Strategic Ethics training program provides the CEO with an airtight alibi in case of corporate wrongdoing. As I'm sure you all can see, this concept has a great future in this country and especially within the boardrooms of our clients. It's so good, in fact, that I'm almost sorry we didn't think of it before Enron, Adelphia, and Worldcom made the news. But back then, nobody knew we needed an ethics program. And even an ethical product needs a willing buyer. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.
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