If you are junior in an organisation, it is hard to speak up if you discover something unhealthy, immoral or illegal going on around you. Lack of power and the risk of losing your job might cause you to prefer to remain silent. But what if you are at the top of an organisation, with a lot of power and authority – is it any easier to do the right thing? If you are a senior leader and you find wrongdoing, there are many reasons to stay quiet. The board, investors, peers and the wider community of business leaders who might hire you in future, don’t always look favourably on a whistle blower. So despite having positional authority – even that of the CEO - it is not so easy to do the right thing.
Last night I went to an IoD event to see a speaker who faced just such a dilemma. Michael Woodford, the former CEO of Olympus, spent an hour telling us what happened when a news magazine wrote an article revealing a massive hole in the company finances. Instead of starting accounting investigations, his chairman and the board went silent on the matter and refused to talk to him about it. They tried to keep covering up hidden losses that had been growing for years before his appointment. He either had to reveal to the world what they were doing, or go silent in the hope of preserving his job. He made the brave choice.
Michael’s storytelling was a masterclass in presentation technique. For an hour, without slides or notes, he told the story of how he woke up to the problem that turned out be one of the biggest financial scandals of modern corporate history and what he did about it. He was spellbinding. To be sure, it’s a great story to tell and perhaps inherently more exciting than the average budget presentation: “.. so I went to Belgravia police station late that evening where there was just one officer behind a scratched plexiglass screen. I said I’m Michael Woodford, I am concerned there may be an attempt to assassinate me by the Yakuza”. But Michael also made everyday office issues a compelling part of his story.
For example he explained the problem of trying to issue formal, binding communications to key players in the board of directors in a timely way. Signed paper letters went from his desk to Japan by DHL slower than he was able to travel by air himself – so he arrived before the message. He also explained how he had his laptops and a phone professionally wiped before handing them back to the company – to ensure the anonymity and safety of others he liaised with to help expose the wrongdoing.
Michael has a written a book about his short time as the CEO of Olympus. It is an incredible story and one that we should all be glad he shared. All leaders, at whatever level, can learn from his example. As he said – the situation found him, he didn’t’ choose to be faced with a massive corporate scandal and it was not of his making. He likened it to being unlucky enough to witness a violent assault in the street. The real choice, for the leader with integrity, is whether to bear public witness for the greater good or whether to quietly walk on by and hope nobody noticed that you saw.
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