There has been a steady stream of press about bad behaviors of corporate leaders, from the lack of oversight at Wells Fargo and Volkswagen, bribery charges at Samsung, to Uber’s CEO treatment of a driver and handling of sexual harassment allegations to the recent “envelope gate” involving PWC partners at the Oscars. Don’t leaders realize that we live in a transparent world and that their actions are likely to become public at some point?
These situations highlight the link between leader behavior and brand reputation – the tarnish that can happen to the brand when leaders don’t uphold the promise that the company is making to its customers. In the latest case of PwC, a blatant disregard for a client request for no social media backstage led to chaos at the end of the Oscars ceremony – one wrong envelope immediately put 83 years of dedicated service in question. The company invests heavily in communicating the importance of integrity and client service. Yet, this partner did not uphold the integrity the customer requested and deserved.
The CEO of PWC did the right thing for the company owning up to the failure both publicly and internally. Now the company must decide how to deal with the actions of the individuals involved in the incident. There was a single task to perform that night, just one thing to focus on. And they did not deliver. The PWC partner could have chosen to uphold the brand promise of the company, a challenge while surrounded with all these great photo opportunities. Instead he disregarded the client’s wishes, and then did not take immediate accountability and action when the wrong name was announced.
It was a costly lesson on accountability and brand reputation. It is also a reminder that actions matter. Leaders are supposed to be role models for the rest of the organization. They set the tone for the culture. They define what is acceptable and what is not. And, it is their actions that speak louder than any words they say. So, when leaders do not uphold the brand promise themselves, it also creates a disconnect for employees who are thinking about the behaviors they are told are expected of them, versus what behaviors are tolerated of its leaders. Long before the news of these behaviors hits the press, employees may see what is really rewarded in the company. And what is tolerated or rewarded is what truly sets the culture of the company.
Yes, errors happen, but when employees show blatant disregard for their customers, and take no accountability or show a sense of urgency to rectify the situation, there generally are consequences. Front line employees everywhere are imagining what the consequences would be if this were to happen to them.
Expectations for accountability should be set and reinforced during every stage of the employee lifecycle from recruitment to onboarding to performance management and exit. It should be codified in an employee handbook. It should be communicated, nurtured, and lived. And, it must be reinforced consistently at all levels of the organization.
These are very public transgressions, but these companies are not alone. How any company handles the transgressions of its leaders sends a powerful message to employees about accountability and consequences for their actions really means.
Leadership actions define your culture. What message are you, and your leaders sending about your culture?
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