Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Getting the Point Across

Business Week's article on the changes at Boeing contained a particularly chilling tale. At its first retreat with senior management, new CEO James McNerney (from 3M) introduced General Counsel Douglas G. Bain who criticized the company for its "culture of silence." For those of you who have not been following the Boeing saga, the ethics charges against the leading aerospace company have been quite numerous over the past several years (stolen proprietary Lockheed Martin documents, recruiting a Pentagon officer who had committed the Air Force to buy Boeing tankers at an inflated price, removal of CEO Harry Stonecipher for having an affair with a subordinate). Business Week writes that to get everyone's attention, General Counsel Bain rattled off the federal prison numbers of two jailed former employees. "These are not Zip Codes," railed Bain. Loud and clear.

Ironically, this week I found myself teaching graduate students about corporate reputation and the case study was Boeing board's decision to oust the amorous CEO. Most students understood that CEO Stonecipher had to be ousted because of poor judgement and unethical behavior in having an affair with another Boeing employee and sending racy email messages. Yet, one student remarked that affairs happen all the time in corporate America and this incident was not reason enough to oust the CEO. Another suggested that Boeing's board should have told Stonecipher to quit seeing this woman or else lose his job. It took some convincing from the class's professor to persuade these students that integrity is a company's most valued asset in the reputation wars and without it, reputation is worthless.

When I was writing my book, I had investigated the Boeing web site to examine how it managed its reputation. I recall finding an online ethics test that employees and site visitors could take to rate themselves. Not sure that the test is still there but I can assure you that Bain's remarks had a greater impact on the organization than any electronic quiz on moral values ever could.


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