Consider making a 'Ulysses Pact' to save your company from siren songs

Years ago, a colleague told me a story from his childhood that I am reminded of every time I read about another corporate scandal. When he was a kid living in Arkansas in the 1950s, the Easter chicks that parents bought their children were real live chicks. Local hardware stores sold batches of the little chirping fuzz balls, many of which were dyed bright colors.

One year, his parents bought his brother and him a blue one. They both loved the little chick and named him "Pinky" for reasons that only a child would understand. Over the next several months the boys worked together to raise little Pinky to become a fine-looking rooster.

Pinky lived a charmed life. Free from the toil of being a working rooster on a farm, Pinky spent his days running wild around the yard as he pleased. But Pinky had a problem. The two young boys to whom he belonged fought constantly over everything including him.

One fateful day, the boys managed to drive their mother to the edge of insanity with their incessant bickering. She reached the boiling point during a screaming match about Pinky who was happily strutting about the back yard. Having hollered herself hoarse during the day in a futile attempt to get her boys to curb their selfish impulses and play nicely, she decided to kill two birds with one stone-or twist of the neck. She stormed out of the house, screen door slamming behind her, stomping furiously toward her feuding children. Before they knew what was happening, she grabbed poor little Pinky from their midst and, with a practiced motion, sent Pinky to rooster heaven.

They had Pinky for dinner that night.

When I examine the anatomy of corporate scandals, I often observe corporate executives indulging the same selfish impulses that animated the behavior of two young Arkansans in their back yard in the 1950s. Time and again, powerful corporate executives are caught engaging in shameless self-dealing and/or myriad fraudulent schemes and scams to line their own pockets at the expense of others.

Corporations and governments frequently respond to such instances of executive malfeasance by taking corrective actions aimed at detecting and preventing a reoccurrence. They pass statutes and implement regulations. They write codes of conduct, policies and procedures. They activate sophisticated compliance management systems and take other measures to tighten control over employee behavior.

I've spent the better part of my career designing and implementing such corporate control mechanisms. But, despite my best efforts, I've learned they are only moderately effective in reliably achieving their desired ends. Although improved internal controls can be a prudent response to employee misconduct, they are not now and never will be failsafe. The problem is that childish, selfish impulses don't just afflict "bad people" or young boys in Arkansas. They afflict us all. This fundamental attribute of human nature has been a widely recognized for millennia.

In Homer's Greek epic poem, "The Odyssey," Ulysses wanted to hear the sirens' song, but knew that if he heard it he would not have the strength to resist their call. So, he put wax in his men's ears and had them tie him to the mast so he could not jump into the sea or command them to sail toward the sirens and certain doom. He further ordered them to keep their swords and attack him if he should break free of his bonds. Upon hearing the sirens' song, it was only this arrangement of enforced restraint that saved both Ulysses and his crew from certain death.

Adulthood generally affords us a greater capacity for impulse control than we had as children. But, like Ulysses, our best intentions can be overcome by the siren song of short-term gain at the expense of our long-term wellbeing.

This tendency is not limited to the scoundrels we watch on TV doing perp-walks to the courthouse. We all know that exercising regularly, eating well and drinking less is good for our long-term health. But, we don't live in the long-term. We live in the here-and-now where the temptation to do otherwise often leads us in a different direction. A similar siren song beacons all of us in corporate life toward the "rocks." No one is immune to its effects. And, as history shows, many succumb to its lure.

To avoid being the next victim, instead of presuming you can hear the sirens' call and sail on unscathed, constrain yourself by making a "Ulysses Pact." This can take many forms. One approach you might consider is to publicly announce to your board of directors, your superiors, your colleagues and/or your team that you are committed to acting in accordance with high ethical standards and invite them to call you on it when you fail to make the grade. Or, if you're the CEO or another corporate officer, recruit top-notch board members who have the capacity and inclination to exert strong, independent oversight of corporate management.

You might begin to lose hope at my suggestion that corporate executives must ask others to "lash them to the mast" to prevent future corporate scandals. We all know that virtually every management team strongly prefers to roam about their ship freely and navigate with as few constraints as possible. However, that would be tantamount to losing hope in yourself.

There is very little you can do to motivate others to self-regulate. The only individual you have any real control over is yourself. Don't wait for others to constrain themselves or overestimate your powers of self-control when temptation arises. Instead, make your Ulysses Pact now lest you unexpectedly find your goose (or rooster) cooked.

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Jim Nortz is chief compliance officer for Carestream Health. He also is a former Board member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation (RABEF) and the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association (ECOA). The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and may not reflect those of the RABEF, the ECOA or Carestream Health. Nortz can be reached at jimnortz@gmail.com.

Published: Mon, Apr 16, 2018

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