Vet This.

Loss Leader Issue #2

Return on Integrity

With the announcement last week that Kamala Harris will fill Joe Biden’s VP slot, a lot of ink has been spilled about the process of her selection.

The Democratic candidate’s political vetting apparently focused on “who [Biden] could work with; two, who could help him win; three, who could help him govern.” 

When it comes to the appointment of high profile roles, from CEOs to board members, we seem to have likewise shifted much of the vetting conversation to fit, optics and perceived ability. 

But what if we prioritized a new measure of executive performance: Return on Integrity.

In politics, the idea that the individual would prioritize the collective over their own interests used to be not just an expectation but a necessary protection, as those with a record of integrity were also seen as less susceptible to, I don’t know, things like blackmail, corruption, cronyism, and abuse of power.

Figuring out whether someone will act with integrity won’t just stop scandal, waste and harm, it would also bring to the forefront a discussion of what can be achieved when people do the right thing.

One example of leadership with high ROI that was brought to my attention recently is Paul H. O’Neill, who died earlier this year. As the former CEO of aluminum giant Alcoa, he increased its market capitalization by $27 billion during his tenure by prioritizing employee safety. He was also fired as Treasury Secretary by George W. Bush, whose invasion of Iraq he opposed.

A summary of his approach and accomplishments, A Playbook for Habitual Excellence, was released by the principles-based advisory firm he founded, Value Capture, and includes the questions of safety, respect and opportunity around which he framed his leadership.

We’re currently living through a perfect test scenario in which people can establish their record (or lack) of integrity. Any journalist or hiring committee interviewing leaders these days should ask: What did you do to ensure the safety and wellbeing of your customers, employees or those you laid off? When shit got real: what and who did you prioritize and how did that pan out? How did you make things better?

Better yet, ask their employees.

Success Metrics

  • In a study of more than 100 CEOs and 8,000 employees, Dr. Fred Keil found that those with high-integrity CEOs (as determined by their employees), saw an overall greater return on assets and higher employee engagement, compared to companies with low-integrity CEOs.

“Your safety, your conscience and your obligation to society.”

I didn’t know a lot about Jimmy Lai, the owner of the pro-Democracy Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, before his arrest last week. Like most epically high net worth individuals (including O’Neill, above), I'm sure he’s done some questionable shit.

But at a time when most leaders seem content to warm their hands on the growing tire fire of democracy, let’s take a look at what this guy has done to stand up for freedom.

At age 12, he stowed away on a boat from China to Hong Kong and started working in a garment factory. At age 28, he used his year-end bonus to raise the cash to buy a bankrupt garment factory, which he transformed into a massive international company. After Tiananmen Square, he became an outspoken defender of democracy and critic of the Chinese government and when, in 1995, Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control, he used $100-million of his own money to finance the creation of the Apple Daily in an effort to maintain free speech. For his efforts, he has been the target of machete attacks, firebombings and has been rammed by a car. He has been arrested for illegal assembly, suspicion of organizing and now, collusion with foreign forces.

In an interview following his arrest, Lai said he’s not asking journalists standing up to the Chinese government to be martyrs, but his advice to his own staff is sound for any of us, regardless of profession:

“When you do your job consider your own safety, your conscience, and your obligation to society.”

Success Metrics

  • In the days after Lai’s arrest, Apple Daily sold half a million copies (up from an average of 70,000), advertising skyrocketed and traders surged the price of the company’s “junk” stock.

They just use your mind and they never give you credit. It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it…

In an interview I participated in recently, a board member stated that their organization needed to remain “neutral,” despite their public mandate.  I asked him if the concept of neutrality changes with the stakes: if it’s possible (or advisable) to be neutral while the world burns. Clearly, country legend Dolly Parton doesn’t think so.

Despite the fact that there’s an entire podcast exploring the premise that she transcends boundaries by refusing to be easily defined, or overtly political,  Dolly recently told Billboard magazine, in no uncertain terms that she supports Black Lives Matter and explained her rationale for removing the word “Dixie” from her work:

“As soon as you realize that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass.” 

Billboard also revealed that Parton continues to pay her band and personal staff through the pandemic, brought the majority of her Dollywood employees back from furlough as soon as adequate safety measures were in place, and donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s COVID-19 research fund.

The best line:

“Just because she wants to be for everyone doesn’t mean she doesn’t stand for anything.”

Success Metrics

  • 25 No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

  • More than 11 million albums sold, since tracking began in 1991, and more than a billion on-demand streams.

  • A catalog that generates between $6- and $8-million a year.

  • More than 1.3 million books sent to children each month through her Imagination Library.

Dereliction of Duty

It is increasingly clear that without strong and consistent leadership, the institutions on which we rely are fragile and can be intentionally undone. Despite this, some large media organizations continue to downplay or both-side their coverage of the rising threat to American democracy through attacks on its institutions.

Thankfully, there are plenty who are raising the alarm, including Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NewYork University, who wrote recently that the media needs to shift to “active threat” reporting on the President, in light of his attacks on fundamental freedoms.

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