Giving Voice to Values: Essential Nutrition for the Fiscally Fit Organization


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Suppose you were at a large networking event and accidentally dropped a priceless piece of jewelry on the floor. Your favorite whatever, and now it’s lost. You need help finding it, and you want someone who would be unlikely to keep the item for themselves. Someone you can trust. You decide to start by discretely asking the guests what they do for a living. After a few minutes, you uncover four people – a banker, a clergy member, a nurse, and a telemarketer – who have offered to assist.

If you could choose just one, who would you pick?

According to a December, 2018 Gallup survey rating the honesty and ethical standards of people in different fields, your selection would be a no-brainer: you’d pick the nurse. 84% of respondents rated their trustworthiness very high or high. Clergy came in at 37%, bankers 27%, and telemarketers at 9%.

I didn’t find the low rating for telemarketers surprising. Outside of the call center, they are widely scorned. But what about other revenue-generation professionals? The top-ranking went to . . . real estate agents, at 25%.

Among all professions in the Gallup survey, that puts them in 12th place, behind nurses, medical doctors, pharmacists, high school teachers, police officers, accountants, funeral directors, clergy, journalists, building contractors, and bankers. In fact, out of twenty categories, sales and marketing professionals comprise four of the five least-trusted. At the bottom you will find stockbrokers (14%), advertising practitioners (13)%, telemarketers (9%), and car salespeople (8%). The only non-sales occupation in the lowest quartile? Members of Congress – tied for last with car salespeople. Oh, smack!

Something seems amiss. Has our nonstop rhetoric about the importance of trusted relationships and putting customers at the center of everything we do produced the intended benefits? Or, is it just prattle? Given our increasingly-expansive alphabetic proxies for customer obsession like VoC, CX, UX, CEM, CRM, SPIN, LAARC, LAIR, and CLTV, you’d think it would be nurses choking on our trustworthiness dust, and not the other way around.

For many decades – perhaps longer – the trust elephant has never left the sales appointment. You can identify it by its clear, distinct call: “Are you going to waste my time, or sell me a bad product just like the last rep who walked in here?” Despite our collective chest thumping about our high corporate integrity, our meticulously-crafted vision statements, and our ceaseless reminders to customers that they mean everything to us, really, really, really! – the elephant stubbornly remains.

Gallup’s 2018 findings suggest that customers find our overtures fatuous, amounting to little more than hype and self-praise. In typical marketing fashion, we respond by . . . shouting louder. “Amplify your brand’s voice on social media.” If unfavorable customer sentiment dissolved in the presence of noise, marketing and sales professionals would all be heroes.

Lithotomys were routinely performed in the 1600’s, and I suspect that back then, patients must have directed a few choice expletives toward nurses – or whoever performed that role – during the procedure. Patients who didn’t die on the table, anyway. Had I been living then, I wouldn’t have trusted anyone who got near me with what passed for a scalpel. But in the course of 400 years, things have gotten better. Practitioner competencies improved, the result of scientific and technological advances, and parallel improvements in hygiene, practitioner education, training, competency, ethics awareness, and regulatory oversight. “If you will it, it is no dream.” Amen to that. No wonder nurses and medical doctors now sit atop Gallup’s list.

Marketers and medical practitioners share a common purpose: serve the customer (or patient). That’s where the similarity ends. Today, the cultural differences between healthcare and marketing organizations could not be starker. The difference is that in healthcare, good patient outcomes is a central mission, while in marketing that objective is shared along with a bevy of others requiring compromise and tradeoffs, like increased market share, profit generation, cost containment, and more.

What would your reaction be if you witnessed a keynote speech at the annual conference of gastroenterologists that began with the speaker shouting into the microphone, “How many of you are going to make a high six-figure income this year?” followed by a rowdy chorus of cheering and whooping? . . . Me? I’d cancel my upcoming colonoscopy. While the question might seem ludicrous at a medical meeting, the WIFM (What’s in it For Me?) mentality is de rigueur in sales and marketing, as inseparable as gravy and biscuits.

At one sales kickoff I attended, the presenter, a “motivational speaker” hired for the occasion, ascended the podium prominently waving a crisp large-denomination bill. “I have money here. Who’s going to get it?” he announced to the audience of 300. A sales rep sitting near the front jumped up and unhesitatingly removed it from his hand. The whole thing took less than five seconds, capped off with raucous applause. The taut-faced speaker allowed himself a faint smile, while the sales managers in the back nodded approvingly. It’s easy to motivate your sales force. You just have to know how.

Except for the customers who painfully endure our hypocrisies, no one should mope over the low standing for revenue producers on Gallup’s trust list. Intentions notwithstanding, we created this problem. And we perpetuate it through our short-term, revenue focused goal setting, our bonus incentives, and our revenue-based compensation plans. We ensure its future by seeking job candidates who, for various reasons, are seduced by our grandiose promises of high income. They will become our future managers and executive decision makers, solidifying the likelihood that the customer engagement cultures they create will mirror the ones they experienced.

While healthcare professionals have high trust rankings according to Gallup, they have warts of their own. Plenty of them. So, I am under no delusion that they are paragons of virtue. But I recognize that they have significantly bettered their once-lowly status. Improvements in patient care and practitioner competency have required constructing extraordinary infrastructure, including rigorous academic requirements, ongoing education and training, licensing and certification, recertification, legal and regulatory oversight, professional organizations, peer review, and lately, social media where patients can rate and describe their experiences and results. Importantly, physicians are expected to conform to a common ethical standard, the Hippocratic Oath. No similar common guideline for ethical conduct exists in marketing and sales.

I’m not advocating there should be. Healthcare delivery practices have standardized and coalesced under infrastructure that required incalculable investments and took centuries to develop. We don’t have that kind of time, and besides, revenue-generation activities defy standardization. It’s too big, too disparate, too much at the whim of other forces. Though notably, some industries – for example, real estate and financial securities – operate their sales organizations under rigorous legal and regulatory oversight. Some have developed extensions. Chartered Financial Analysts must adhere to a Code of Ethics, or they risk losing their certification. Within the section, Loyalty, Prudence, and Care, the code states, “Members and Candidates must act for the benefit of their clients and place their clients’ interests before their employer’s or their own interests.”

The first time I read that sentence, I was astonished. That idea is heresy in every “revenue-driven” sales organization I’ve worked with – which is why I like it. Sure, it’s mentioned occasionally, but . . . you know . . . “we have a number to make.” Wink.

We could use more of the CFA Institute’s high standards. We need more. But I’m a realist. Yes, it would be lovely if every industry segment were similarly moved to not only express high ethical standards, but to nurture them, sustain them, and enforce them. I understand the reasons for pushback: “It’s hard enough to get good salespeople. I’m not going to invent even more reasons to get rid of them.” It took medical providers 400 years to pull themselves out of the basement. For us – first, baby steps.

My recommendations for action right now:

1. Encourage and empower not just your business development staff, but all your employees to voice their values – a solid first-line defense for corporate misconduct. While we regularly hear about companies where fraud and deceit spread like an infection, we don’t learn about the many situations where problems were prevented because one or more people chose to take a principled stand, and nipped a nascent problem in the bud. Often, we attach courage to their motives, but in some instances people act on their principles and values because it’s the only thing they feel comfortable doing. Think of it as risk mitigation for harmful greed, with cascading benefits. Enabling employees to voice their values demands more from managers than simply saying, “speak up when you feel something’s wrong.” Voicing values is a skill, and like any skill, it requires continual practice and repetition before it becomes habit, and beyond that, a competency. It might seem counterintuitive, but voicing values responsibly means avoiding the temptation to moralize. “Clearly, I’m right, and she’s wrong. Therefore I should prevail.” Instead, it requires asking, “How do I (or we) get the right thing done?”

2. Eliminate, or significantly reduce, variable pay for revenue production. In any industry, variable pay for specific activities or outcomes addresses some problems while elevating risks. When you learn about a befouled vendor-customer relationship, it’s not unusual to find the salesperson, manager, or CXO doing exactly what he or she got paid to do as a root cause. Make no mistake: regardless of organization or measured target, chicanery, misbehavior, and gaming the system always accompanies variable pay. Innocent people get hurt, some die. Bad anytime, but worse, in my view, when it’s directly linked to the pay plan. Theranos, Purdue Pharma, GM, Takada. The list grows day by day. Any organization that has a high percentage of overall compensation tied to revenue carries especially large risks for employee misconduct. When internal audit controls are weak, or when ethical guidelines are either not established or not enforced, those risks magnify substantially.

3. Implement an internal whistleblower system that provides employees the opportunity to safely report potential misconduct. This must include mechanisms to capture incidents and events, monitor and maintain them to spot trends and ancillary issues, evaluate whether action is necessary, enact mitigation, and ensure that those who report problems are safe and don’t encounter retribution.

4. Make sure revenue-generation activities are an ongoing board level concern. A top responsibility of any corporate board is protecting the company from major risks. If we learned anything from the Wells Fargo ethics meltdown, it’s what occurs when a willfully-ignorant board sticks it head in the sand smugly believes “what happens in Sales should stay in Sales.”

5. Develop and share an ethical code of conduct to raise employee awareness, and to underscore the company’s intentions and commitment to uphold high values. You can find examples online. I like Lockheed Martin’s, which, at 43 pages, is a tad lengthy, but it hits the right points.

Lockheed doesn’t just talk the talk. They make sure ethical conduct is thoroughly embedded throughout the company by offering their own Giving Voice to Values program, which includes steps and instructional case videos for discussion. Take a look. They’re short and well-produced. And I’ll wager that one or more will hit home.

I learned about Lockheed’s initiative at a two-day Giving Voice to Values educator’s practicum I attended this month, delivered by the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.

David Gebler, Lockheed Martin’s Senior Manager for Ethics Engagement and Integrated Education, presented to our class, and explained that the ethics program at Lockheed exists because Lockheed’s CEO, Marillyn Hewson, believes it is of paramount importance to the company.

In her introductory comments, she writes, “Our Code not only sets clear ethical standards in critical areas, it also explains how we should conduct ourselves when acting on behalf of the company. For instance, our Code makes it clear that Lockheed Martin has zero tolerance for corruption, and we encourage employees to step forward and speak up whenever they suspect actions or behavior inconsistent with our values and expectations.”

But Gebler shared another benefit with us – one that I hadn’t previously considered. “In particular, we compete for engineering talent with other major defense contractors, and our commitment to ethics is equally valuable for hiring because it appeals to today’s job seekers.”

Sound corporate ethical behavior begins with the ability of employees – every employee – to voice his or her values effectively, whenever, or wherever, they are challenged. Call it a habit. Call it a skill. Voicing values doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes awareness, practice, and resolve. Not only is there a clear business case for Giving Voice to Values, it’s an essential way to attract the next generation of employee talent.


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