Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, and John Zimmer, CEO of Lyft, have much in common. They are the same age – born less than two months apart in 1984. Both were accepted into prestigious universities. Holmes attended Stanford, and Zimmer went to Cornell. As undergraduate students, they were recognized with high academic honors. Holmes was a Stanford President’s Scholar, and Zimmer graduated first in his class at Cornell. (Holmes did not graduate.) Both hatched promising startups in Silicon Valley. Both became well known for their entrepreneurial talents, and for a time, both were well regarded by their peers.
But the difference in their results couldn’t be starker. Fortune named Holmes one of the World’s Most Disappointing Leaders. In 2016, US regulators banned her from owning, operating, or directing a diagnostic lab for two years. And in June, 2018, a federal grand jury indicted her on nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. You can find her bio under Leadership for Theranos, minus the stink. After all, there are only so many words you can fit onto a web page.
Zimmer, on the other hand, received the Cornell Hospitality Innovator Award in 2017, and his company’s market valuation reached $15.1 billion in June, 2018. Not bad for a company that began operating in 2012.
You can say that scruples in the C-Suite isn’t a prerequisite for generating profit and solid financial returns in a given year. And you can tell me that to be revered in business, a person doesn’t have to be a good human being. I’m inclined to agree. My argument is that the cataclysmic event that foreshadows business failure is the moment the CEO embeds deceit into corporate strategy. And when complicity becomes a condition for employment, the company’s fate is sealed. In this regard, you cannot find two more contrasting leaders than Holmes and Zimmer.
There’s a lot of digital ink devoted to “killer startup strategies,” and “must have’s” for revenue success. But too many articles concentrate on right now tactics. It’s fluffy marketing cotton candy engineered to induce a revenue sugar high, or simply to provide an adrenaline rush for the reader. A rarer find online is insight intended to benefit those with a planning horizon longer than Bryce Harper’s remaining time as a Washington National.
CXO’s can’t credibly plan beyond next quarter if moral and ethical conduct isn’t woven into their company’s cultural fabric. Yet, there’s a dearth of recognition regarding the business value of good ethics. I don’t understand why, given the hard landings we’ve seen. Wells Fargo, HealthSouth, Enron, Premier Cru, Pilot Flying J, Takata. Since I authored my first Sales Ethics Hall of Shame in 2013, over forty different companies have been inducted. Among those, many are defunct.
I see no end to the wreckage. Absent moral integrity, the revenue-now mania that infects the blogosphere, B-School curricula, leadership development courses, and popular culture compares to the Titanic crew getting finicky about how to position their deck chairs, and worrying about whether red wine will be available past April 15th. If business leaders intentionally incubate – or don’t avoid – ethical catastrophes, their strategic cleverness will plummet from on high, forming a deep crater on the revenue chart. Except unlike the Titanic, there’s no value in its recovery.
For long-term revenue success, integrate sound ethical conduct into the business. Here are eight characteristics of an ethical organization:
- An ongoing ethical premise for the enterprise. For what not to do, see Swanluv, or the Fyre Festival.
- Leadership that models ethical behavior.
- Audit controls that are rigorous, consistent, visible, and independent.
- Risk identification and mitigation, inside and outside the organization. A red flag: an executive who cops immunity by saying, “that type of thing could never happen here . . .” or, “we don’t hire those types of people . . .”
- Communications with staff about ethics that are clear, credible, bilateral, and ongoing.
- Safety for employees to report fraud, abuse, and ethical concerns.
- Processes for resolving problems exposed through evidence of ethical violations.
- Timely and effective action.
Holmes and Zimmer are both bright, ambitious business leaders, who hew to different moral interpretations. Holmes drove her company into the ground. Zimmer continues to create value for his employees, customers, and investors. The outcomes speak for themselves. A culture of sound ethical conduct is crucial for long-term success.