Where Did the Honesty Go?

CM2016_10_honesty.pngOn Thursday afternoon last week I went to take some money out of an ATM. I had to wait in a queue, but when it came to my turn I saw that the person ahead of me had forgotten to take the cash with him.

I took it, and turned looking for the guy, who had by then crossed the road. I shouted, but my voice was lost in the traffic. I made my transaction and raced after him on my bike. I couldn’t find him and after about 15 minutes I gave up and went home.

It wasn’t a small amount, so I contacted the bank via a twitter DM. Based on that discussion I went into a bank branch on Friday to hand in the money. I had to wait. No big deal, I simply read a book, until a very grumpy man began shouting at me (not kidding), I didn’t understand what his problem was but offered to move “Yes move” he shouted. I moved, other customers were as astonished as I was.

It was pretty busy, and the bank staff came to check on what everyone needed as a sort of triage to help people faster. I explained; “Please wait” I was told

I waited.

My turn at the desk came, and it took a phone call and a bit of searching to figure out what to do, apparently this is not a usual situation. I gave them all the info I could, including my own transaction information so that they might be able to track down the poor guy who missed out on his cash.

The bank gave me a small thank you gift in appreciation – super kind of them and certainly not expected.

Now here’s the bit that really struck me. Everyone I encountered was surprised at what I was trying to do. The initial messages on twitter begin with “Wauw” (Dutch for “wow”), the clerk I spoke to reported that the previous customer had heard my statement and commented that “she’s still here having been yelled at trying to do the right thing – we need more people like her”, the clerk herself thanked me and when I said it was what my mother taught me added “we need more mothers like yours”.

Here’s the thing; the money wasn’t mine.

A million years ago I found a watch on a public path, my parents took me to the local police station to hand it in. Some months later the watch hadn’t been claimed and it was returned to the finder – ie; me. I don’t remember what happened to the watch after that, it was a large, man’s watch and not really my style. But the lesson was learnt, if it’s not yours you don’t just take it, you try to get it back to the owner.

So I tried to return the money, and apparently this is so unusual that people are surprised. It’s the honest thing to do. Indeed to me it was the only thing to do.

Does this mean that any of those other people would just have taken the money? Would you have taken it?

Do we really need my mother out there teaching people about being honest and not taking things that aren’t theirs? She’s up for the job I promise you.

When did honesty become so surprising?

Image: Untitled  |  Jane Cockman  |   CC BY-NC 2.0

Goal Setting

I’ve recently started swimming again, and I took my usual approach – think of the end goal and break up the goal and the time to create a plan to work up to it. In no time at all I was falling behind, feeling a failure and somewhat guilty. So I flipped it. I’ve now set myself a lower “must do” limit, and I challenge myself to see how far into “bonus” I can get. The result is interesting; I find I’m focusing more on technique, I feel successful, I’m enjoying the swim. (And I’ll still reach my goal).

This made me think about goal setting in other situations.

The common wisdom says you should set tough goals for your organisation, your team, yourself. In their 1996 article “Building Your Company’s Vision” James Collins and Jerry Porras invented the term “BHAG” standing for “Big Hairy Audacious Goal

A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.

Examples of BHAGs used to motivate successful companies;

  • Google: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
  • Ford: “Democratize the automobile.”
  • Microsoft: “A computer on every desk and in every home.”

They’re all big and hairy, they’re all audacious. None of them are time bound, all of them are far in the future. They would all fail if strategies and tactics weren’t put in place to build the results to support the goal.

Done well they’re a source of inspiration, but all the talk of big goals and stretch assignments can be a little tiring, daunting even, at times. And if you’re on the receiving end of unsupported talk of the big goals it would be easy to become cynical.

I think some managers remember the big hairy audacious bit, and forget to build a strategy and plan the actions needed to get there.


There’s also some evidence that setting goals can lead to failure. In much the same way as I sensed I was failing when I stuck too rigidly to my swimming goals companies can fail when they stick too rigidly to their goals. One examply cited in recent research was GM’s dedication to “29” the market share percentage it aspired to for the early part of this decade. Dedication to this goal was a factor contributing to their failure, and ultimately its current near-bankruptcy status.

In clawing toward its number, GM offered deep discounts and no-interest car loans. The energy and time that might have been applied to the longer-term problem of designing better cars went instead toward selling more of its generally unloved vehicles.

It must be a serious issue because the guys of Harvard have been working on it and wrote a paper “Goals Gone Wild“, they list issues including goals that are too specific, goals with unrealistic timelines, goals with conflicting quality and quantity dimensions. They also point to specific ethical problems that arise when goals are set incorrectly giving examples such as Sears – where sales stretch-goals lead to overcharging, and the fraud at Enron. I’m sure they could now add plenty of examples from the current financial crisis.

Blame the Business Schools

As governments search for solutions to the current financial crisis others are looking for who to blame and business schools are getting their share of the blame.

A colleague – who also holds and MBA – sent me the article “Harvard’s Masters of the apocalypse” in early May. Which discusses the accolades given and the business cases written by business schools at the heart of this and earlier crises and says;

Business schools have shown a remarkable ability to miss the economic catastrophes unfolding before their eyes.

The debate is being played out on the Harvard site, where Harvard defends itself saying that those responsible for the companies and organisations involved in the current crisis graduated some years ago and the courses have changed since then. Yet the Harvard graduate writing in the Times article above points out that both Enron and RBS were studied as best practice up to the time of their respective falls. Granted RBS was studied from the perspective its successful acquistion and integration of NatWest, but still the company has fallen a long way in a year, and the CEO is now labelled as the “world’s worst banker“. So the defence offered by Harvard doesn’t really hold.

Some commentators predict that the age of the MBA is over, I don’t think so – and not just because I happen to have one. But there need to be some changes.

Conflict of Interest

The first thing that needs to be addressed is that there is a fundamental conflict of interest; students pay a lot of money to join courses – making it difficult for school’s to kick students out for either bad performance or unethical behaviour. At my school, in my year, there was one student who cheated and one who did not perform, taking a second attempt at every exam. The exam retakes were legal but both guys have the same degree as me, effectively undercutting the value of my degree. But they paid the same as me.

Silo Thinking

During the degree subjects are studied separately; finance, accounting, organisational development, HR, marketing are all kept separate. Business ethics and shareholder management come far down the list. But the subjects affect each other and need to be integrated. A friend who went to IMD told me of one case study they did where each group recommended strategy changes to grow the business. At the end the professor of organisational development criticised them all saying “this is a family business – why did you all assume that the right thing to do was to grow big? why did none of you think of the current culture of the company?”

By getting out of the silo thinking students would be required to integrate finance, marketing, growth, organisational culture and ethics in developing their strategy.

Subjects studied

Beyond the risk and return ration and the discussion of WACC I don’t remember much about risk management. Judging by the current fall out it’s been missing from some other school curricula.

Underlying assumptions

The underlying premise of almost all of MBA teaching is that the company should grow. That you measure the success of the company by market capitalisation, or by market share, or by any other simple numeric measure relating to size – one company director boasted of headcount.

But companies can define other measures of success particularly if they’re private companies and not driven by the shareholders’ expectations.

There are other changes suggested, doctors and lawyers have to register each year, ship’s captains and pilots have to update their training regularly. Perhaps it’s time for this level or professionalisation to occur in the business world. Afterall the accounting is regulated and audited, internal processes are now guided by SOX. Certifying business leaders might be the only thing left.

POST SCRIPT: Bob Sutton is even more specific, he doesn’t just blame MBA training – but suggest that economics and the economists are too blame. Well, there’s enough blame to go around I’m sure the economists can take their share.

image graduation via pixabay