News

The Acid Test

May 30 2021

Who said this, about what and when?

All organizations have bad apples but what an organization ….. also has is well paid and exquisitely educated bosses, part of whose job is to spot these bad apples and, if they are spotted, deal with them.”

It could have been said about any number of organizations over the years.

In fact, it was said last week about the BBC. It was said by Andy Webb, the journalist who uncovered the facts about how Martin Bashir got that interview with Diana and the – even worse – scandal of how this was covered up over the years by the BBC.

There is much that is familiar in this story:

  • wrongdoing – in particular, immensely profitable (both financially and reputationally) wrongdoing;
  • a “star” who can seemingly do no wrong and is protected by his bosses;
  • whistleblowers who are ignored or punished;
  • a wholly inadequate initial investigation;
  • an eventual critical external report, continuing reputational and other damage and one hell of a mess to clean up.

As always, it is the response to and cover-up of the initial wrongdoing which causes most problems.

But it was what Andy Webb said next which goes to the heart of the issue of all wrongdoing and the culture change necessary to minimise it and its consequences –

It would have been a huge ask of the Head of a News Division, having recently seen the most famous, the most significant piece of news coverage in the Corporation’s history, having gone round the world, having won prizes and plaudits, how much moral courage do you need to pull the plug on the story …. by saying that it was gained through an egregious ethical breach? Who would have been brave enough to do that? It’s my feeling the bosses were not brave enough to do that and it prompted the cover up.”

This is the acid test. A two-part test, really.

  • When a high earner, a star, a prize winner misbehaves, will the bosses have the moral courage to pull the plug?
  • And are those lower down the pecking order confident that this is what the bosses will always do?

Moral courage is at the heart of professionalism, at the heart of any successful, worthwhile, sustainable culture. It is its absence which so often allows small problems to become big ones. Building, reinforcing and rewarding the courage necessary to take difficult steps, to be open about what you are doing and why are at the heart of any successful culture change programme.

This time the BBC has been found wanting. But how many other organisations can honestly answer yes to both questions?

Photo by Varvara Grabova on Unsplash

Lives Well Lived

September 30 2020

Earlier this year, Richard “Tigger” Hoare died, sadly one of this year’s many Covid fatalities. His Times obituary can be found here. A highly capable banker of the old school, coming from a long-standing banking family who still own the family bank established in 1672, he was proud to state: “I have never minded challenging things, if there is something that needs to be challenged.”  And he meant it too, as the last paragraph of his obituary makes clear –

“When the regulators interviewed the partners 20 years ago, they asked me what I thought was the greatest threat to the bank, and rather foolishly I said, ‘I think you are.’ They were very cross!

Well, even regulators, maybe especially them, need to be challenged now and again.

Sir Harry Evans, journalist and editor of the Sunday Times at a time when investigative journalism rather than clickbait articles was valued, who died last week, was another who understood very well the need to challenge those in authority. During his time as editor he won famous victories over those who tried to stop the publication of diaries by Cabinet Ministers (Richard Crossman) explaining what really goes on in government and those seeking to cover up what was known about the thalidomide drug which caused such misery to so many families.

There is a lovely line in his obituary – “Evans combined technical proficiency with moral passion to an unusual degree.

A combination of technical proficiency, challenge and moral passion: if only we had more people in positions of power and authority of whom this could be said.

 

 

Photo by author.

On juries and experts

June 29 2020

The right to a jury trial has been described, most recently this May, as “a fundamental right. It goes back centuries in our history, and it will never be removed at all.” (For the U.K. government’s latest proposals attacking this right and why they are not a good idea see here.)

Despite this, juries have not always been loved, especially by some in the legal establishment, including some judges, those who think that the law is far too important and complicated an issue for ordinary persons, who are simply not clever enough to understand. It uses the complexity beloved by lawyers to justify keeping the whole process within this charmed, closed circle, a legal elite. It is an argument often heard in relation to fraud trials, conveniently forgetting that sniffing out dishonesty does not need a degree, that it is often some of the apparently cleverest people – formally anyway – who fall for some of the biggest conmen around.

If you need convincing, look no further than the story of Wirecard, summarised by the Financial Times here.  It is a cautionary tale, one we have seen before, time and again. Remember Enron?Or Polly Peck? Or Theranos? It makes it all the more baffling why clever people fall for it over and over again.

The essential elements are usually the same:-

  • A new, often disruptive, entrant into the market or the repackaging of a boring staid company.
  • A charismatic CEO with ambitious expansion plans, an attractive story to tell and a talent for PR.
  • A novel way of providing a basic service, presented as a simplification, and which could be categorised into the “too good to be true” category. No-one is able to explain why, if it is so simple, others have not done this.
  • The use of some wonderful new technology. Everyone wants to be associated with this, even if the number of people keen on it is vastly greater than those who really understand it.
  • The use of complicated corporate structures and inter-company transactions, often in a variety of offshore jurisdictions, making scrutiny of the individual transactions and the company’s overall position much more difficult.
  • When critical or difficult questions are raised, responding aggressively with action from lawyers and PR specialists. Protection of reputation is apparently more important than responding to the substance of any criticism.
  • Rapid high growth, sustained year after year.
  • Becoming the latest “darling” of the stock market, investors and governments.

In all these cases, any number of highly expert advisors: analysts, accountants, auditors, bankers, lawyers and others seemed oblivious to what was going on. Did they choose to turn a blind eye? Or were their critical faculties simply dazzled by the fees to be earned?

What is perhaps different – and troubling – about the Wirecard story is the way regulators, in this case, the BaFin, seem to have abandoned its critical faculties, its willingness to probe behind the facade (surely an essential task for any regulator) and the need to listen to those voices who raised questions (from as far back as 2008) about the company.

Worse: not only did the BaFin not listen to those voices (investors, hedge funds, whistleblowers and journalists), it tried to take action against them, to shut them down, to prosecute them. The regulator abandoned its role as a disinterested supervisor and acted as if its interests were no different than that of the company.

How could so many apparently clever people be taken in? For the oldest reason of all: they believed what they wanted to be true, what they hoped was true. They formed an opinion then ignored any facts that did not fit. They ignored troubling messages or concerns because they came from the “wrong” sort of people: hedge funds and short sellers (boo! hiss!), foreign journalists doing down a national champion (double boo!) and so on. Shooting the messenger is so much easier than listening to an uncomfortable message.

Clever people are not immune from making these basic mistakes. Being clever does not necessarily make you clear-sighted. It does not necessarily make you courageous. Nor does it automatically make you curious.

There is an inestimable value in having an ordinary person’s view, in having people prepared to ask obvious, even stupid questions, in benefiting from the collective experiences, perspectives and opinions of a random group of 12 strangers, the wisdom of a small crowd, unencumbered by the sort of “groupthink” which can afflict those working closely together with the same types of people with largely similar perspectives.

Remember this when the lack of expertise of jurors is cited as a reason why they should not be involved in fraud trials. If expert and experienced people are so easily taken in, perhaps that expertise is not that valuable at assessing dishonesty and bluster and spin. If experts fail to ask obvious questions or fail to follow up on concerns raised, what value – really – does their expertise have?

 

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash