Ever since I was a little boy, at least, as far back as I could remember, my parents got me in the habit of doing the right thing. They always said how we comport ourselves in the service to others is a reflection of the persons we truly are and the truest representation of our character and leadership capabilities.
Along the way, I must admit, I failed quite a few times. But my parents also reminded me, at every misstep, that it was ok to miss the mark. What matters most is what I would do to correct where I went wrong.
Granted, life was much simpler back when I was growing up – right and wrong seemed a lot clearer then – but I honestly believe that there are some timeless truths whose worth and value only become more relevant, necessary, and influential over time.
Demonstrating integrity in our professional and personal lives is one of them.
Fast forward years later and my parents’ words have never left me. So when I started writing blogs aimed at empowering entrepreneurs and developing leadership skills, I knew that my bias (or, my upbringing, rather) would come into play – early and often. I knew this because those lessons, in addition to never leaving me, have helped shaped the kind of leader I strive to be daily.
That is my leadership story. You are on the path to telling yours. But there are intersecting points; junctures where we can enrich and learn from each other.
Regardless of our different backgrounds and upbringings, there is no denying that there are some tenets that form the rudiments of ethical and moral behaviour in both business and life. On a significant level, every leader and business owner understands this. Why some choose to go against these truths is not for us to say. It’s too easy to look on at what’s not happening and look for flaws, when as leaders, we would be better served by taking account of when and where we miss the mark and putting the right measures to correct, minimise, and possibly prevent them from happening in the future.
These are just a few ways that business leaders can demonstrate integrity in their businesses for us to think about and discuss.
Financial Integrity – Make every dollar make sense
It’s no secret that businesses are created to satisfy a particular market or societal need. Inherent in this, of course, is the fact that businesses exist to generate profits and benefits – not just for the owners and employees, but also the stakeholders, which also includes the greater public at large.
Financial honesty and transparency, therefore, are the most rudimentary and rightful expectations placed on business leaders by the people they serve. Although there may be some immediate gain, it is definitely short-term and even shorter lived when organisations cook the books – whether intentionally or incidentally.
While many bigger businesses seek to prevent this by making use of accounting and auditing firms to examine their records, and many of those same businesses have their own internal audit departments to do the same, smaller ones may not be able to afford such services. This doesn’t mean that accounting integrity should go out the door, however.
It’s always good to be aware of the impact that thoughtless accounting practices ultimately have on limiting your business’ ability to operate with good financial management, undermines consumer confidence, fast tracking your business to ruin.
Bottom Line: Complete accounting transparency is critical to building your business’s success, reputation, and in ensuring that our stakeholders understand exactly what it is we are doing. Then they will come to view you as part of the community and not as a threat.
Product Integrity – Sell what you mean. Mean what you sell.
When your business markets a product or service, you are obligated to deliver what you promised. Whether it is a television, online or print ad, the product or service you describe is exactly what should be delivered.
Ethical standards in business must be built on stakeholder (all stakeholders) focus and our expressed commitment as leaders to provide all our customers with our best efforts, services, and products.
How many times have we seen and responded to an ad only to, upon trying to purchase the item or procure the service, have the provider try to sell us a similar, but more expensive product or service? I’m willing to wager that 99% if not more would not even bother buying the item because we would have seen through the old “bait and switch.”
What’s more, we would be disgusted by such a flimsy attempt to part us from our money.
Now put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Your employees’. Your stakeholders’. Consider how they would feel if we did to them what we didn’t like done to us.
That unpleasant bait-and-switch is the very same experience we would inflict on them should we choose to act that way.
Many online businesses and leaders face a similar phenomenon when it comes to privacy and security. When they promise their users protection from privacy invasion or assure them of their security, only to have personal information leaked or compromised, feelings of deception quickly come about, seeding scandal, mistrust, and of course, leading to customers wanting nothing to do with that company.
Going a step further, in providing value to our stakeholders, we must also ensure that while we keep the promises we make, we follow up the sale by keeping in touch with our customers. It is easy to make promises before a sale but following up and ensuring a great customer experience is what makes the best organisations and leaders stand out.
Leaders forge relationships through their words but they build them up through their actions. It can’t just be “One sale and done” because service after the sale is what service integrity is all about. Furthermore, one of the best ways to grow your customer business is to generate the kind of goodwill that comes from maintaining the integrity of your products.
Bottom line: A leader understands how pivotal product integrity is to a business’ success, the responsibility to deliver to stakeholders exactly what they wanted, and the need to follow up on what you promised.
Management Practices Integrity – Do as You Say
Without exception, this is perhaps one of the most fundamental (and often missed) aspects of integrity in leadership as sound management principles and practices are the beginnings of organisational reliability.
Simply put, it is important for business leaders to live a lifestyle, both professionally and personally, of honesty, integrity and high ethical standards because what you do as a leader can enhance or harm your company’s reputation. Am I saying that leaders must be above reproach and sin? Of course not. We are human. We will make mistakes.
However, as leaders, we have a responsibility to all we serve to do right by them in providing whatever service it is we do.
Whether it is commitment to good customer service or fair employment practices, a businesses’ reputation hinges on how it serves its customers and stakeholders. This reputation will either make or break the company depending on how seriously the leadership takes operating with integrity.
And it’s not just our customers that we owe this to. Employees also take careful notes of how leadership resolves issues and follows up on promises made.
It’s worth pointing out here that recent Gallup research has shown that millennial-age employees are seeking careers to coincide with their personal values. They view their jobs as sources of meaning and purpose, rather than just ways to make a living.
In other words, the workforce of tomorrow, (even the leaders of tomorrow) is more interested in building relationships of value, meaning and trust: between employees and management, between employees and customers, between the business and society.
While we can influence integrity through company codes of conduct and ethics policies, there is still much worth in having leadership embody the very rules they expect employee to follow.
Bottom Line: Serve with integrity and make it just as much a part of your professional life as you would your personal lives.
Calling All Captains of Industry
In the words of former US Senator, Alan K. Simpson said, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”
The greatest benefit of integrity is the trust it generates. Leaders, in business and society, must make it a priority to build and maintain trust. This trust is a reliance relationship built on character, strength, and ability. It will take many years and even more actions to build but it only takes one misstep to squander.
Building company trust calls for leaders to understand that their businesses are extensions of their person and their character. So, even as leaders strive to personalise their companies through their inimitable styles, we always need to be cognizant of the fact that our businesses are defined by our actions and our actions are defined by our intentions.
This is invaluable in unlocking the greatest potential of our business leaders and the key to accelerating their ascension as the 21st Century proponents of sustainable development.