Home Leadership Setting the Tone: Ethical Leadership Lessons

Setting the Tone: Ethical Leadership Lessons

by Guest Writter
Gary E. McCullough

In theory, many people think ethical issues are simple, cut and dried questions to answer or situations to be resolved. However, the reality is that most ethical dilemmas, particularly those faced in the workplace, are much more subtle. In real life, no one tells you that you’re about to find yourself in an ethical dilemma, or necessarily the clear-cut way to address it.

I’ve faced many challenges in my 25-year professional career – which started as a U.S. Army Infantry officer, and extended through executive roles with leading companies such as Procter & Gamble, Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company and Abbott Laboratories.

However, my most challenging role was also my most recent, where I served as CEO of Career Education Company (“CEC”), a publicly traded I took on the challenge of leading this company in the troubled and highly scrutinized for-profit education industry because, although it had issues, I believed it could address real education needs not being addressed by traditional two- and four-year institutions.

CEC’s issues emerged in 2004 amid allegations of document tampering, enrolling unqualified students, overly aggressive sales and marketing tactics, among other claims. When I joined in 2007, the company was reeling, the culture was unraveling – and I knew I was in for a big challenge.

My job was to set the right ethical tone at the top, create a cohesive company and culture, and institute rules where sometimes there were none. The company made steady progress during my tenure – we reduced annual employee turnover, increased employee confidence in the company’s integrity and ethical values, achieved positive growth, and more.

However, the reality is that while a number of major issues were corrected, it wasn’t enough. I’m proud of the changes I made during my leadership of CEC, but I’m also able to reflect on what else could have been done, or could have been done differently. As a result of this, I’ve taken away quite a few ethical lessons that can be applied to any company, regardless of industry.

Set the Tone from the Top Down

A strong ethical company starts with the president or CEO, as well as the Board of Directors.

Ignoring Infractions is not an Option

Leaders do not have the option to ignore even minor infractions of organization rules – otherwise, why have them? Where leaders do have a choice is in how they respond to these infractions, and the message their response sends internally & externally.

Don’t Blindly Accept the Phrase “This is Just the Way We Do Things Here”

Instead of simply accepting this phrase, prompt a discussion about how “it” will now be a thing of the past.

Continually Ask Yourself the Simple Question “What’s the Right Thing To Do?”

The best way to deal with tough decisions is to get the right people in a room, clearly articulate the facts, align on “the right thing to do” for the company and then make a decision.

Businesses, Like People, Have Their Own “DNA” — To Change DNA, You Often Have To Change People

It starts and ends with people – a company must source only those people with high ethical standards. It’s much easier to bring straight arrows into a company than to mold and retrain crooked ones.

Make Ruthless Decisions, but Execute Them with Compassion

Make the necessary decisions, no matter how difficult, but do so with compassion. Depending on the situation, this could mean delivering the news in person or making resources available to employees following a particularly difficult decision.

Focus On the Work

If you work in a company with many issues, directly address them, but don’t dwell on mistakes of the past.

Instill a Culture of Respectful Leadership

Small gestures sometimes become more important than the grand ones, such as saying “please” and “thank you” to communicate basic respect that every person is due, or sending personal notes.

There is no magic or “cookie cutter” approach to creating a culture of ethics, compliance and integrity, but at the end of the day, it’s about the people, and ethics starts with each individual person.

Make change where change is needed. And don’t be afraid to make tough decisions. While it may not always be easy, by doing so, you will serve your company – and yourself – much better in the long run.


About the Author

Gary E. McCullough’s more than 25-year business career has included roles as a Corporate Board Member, Chief Executive Officer, President and Senior Executive in market-leading consumer and commercial companies including The Procter & Gamble Company, Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, Abbott Laboratories, The Sherwin-Williams Company and Career Education Corporation.

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