Thursday, November 17, 2011

Three Signs That Your Organization May Be Too Insular (Lessons from Penn State)

While much of the nation is horrified by the recent scandals at Penn State University, they are not surprising in certain ways. Many of the characteristics that the university exhibited in the years leading up to these disclosures are not unique. We have seen them in other embarrassed  institutions, such as the Catholic Church, the military in the U.S. and around the world, many large urban police departments, and others. Do you recognize yourself, your company or your organization in the following practices? If not, you may be so far out of touch with reality that you are setting yourself up for a fall from grace similar to Penn State’s.

MISTAKING YOUR EXCELLENCE IN ONE SUBJECT AREA AS OMNIPOTENCE. Robert A. Mundell, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Economics, appeared on Late Night with David Letterman one night to read “Top Ten Ways My Life Has Changed Since Winning The Nobel Prize.” The first change (number 10) he cited was that he “can end almost any argument by asking, ‘And did you ever win a Nobel Prize?’” It’s funny, but also true. Once you are applauded as a subject expert, it is easy to think all your opinions and actions are beyond reproach. But
really, does being rich automatically make you an expert in all things economic? (Similar to Mundell, I have heard titans of industry give this retort to challenging questions:
“If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”) Similarly, Penn State’s success on the gridiron may have led the school’s officials to believe that either they were not accountable for their actions or that they could do no wrong.

A company that is highly successful making widgets may still have a poor accounting system, leaving their very existence in jeopardy. Similarly, making that one widget well does not mean that the manufacturer is guaranteed success in other areas. Witness the companies that ventured outside their core competencies and failed notably. There is a reason
that the King James Bible states that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Just because you’re good, stay humble and put a check on yourself.

. Evidence of this shortcoming can be found in the way that Penn State’s top officials did not know of the true nature of the violations against children on the campus. (By the time that word-of-mouth about an assault in the locker room meandered to the president’s office through “Whisper Down the Lane,” it had devolved from a “rape” to “horseplay.”) Do your top leaders understand how, for example, poor expense reporting may affect the bottom line? If not, it
might be good to open up at least a bit.

. It appears that Penn State officials, including school president Graham Spanier, did not venture outside the university when they
uncovered wrongdoing. Rather than go to the police, they tried investigated the perpetrator themselves. And as we have been saying since Watergate, the cover-up was worse than
the crime. How do you govern? Do you or your organization ever ask for outside opinions, or have you become your own frame of reference? Going further, is your company hiring
from outside its inner circle? There are reasons we have Affirmative Action in this country, and one is to promote diversity of thought rather than  monolithic mindsets.

Mark Wilson and Mark Doorley of Villanova University’s ethics program write in an editorial, “As we try to understand what happened and what failed to happen at Penn State, we must ask broader questions about all our institutions. Do they cultivate a capacity to act on behalf of others, no matter what their role or status? Or do they reward inaction and loyalty to procedure, and so unwittingly lay the groundwork for complacency and complicity with evil?” Indeed, such introspective questions will help keep us and our organizations honest, in more ways than one.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Magic Johnson: The 20th Anniversary of Positive Thinking

Magic Johnson,
Still Vital Today
One generation knew exactly where they were when they learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My peers know where we were when we learned of the death of President Kennedy. Likewise, I know exactly where I was on November 7, 1991. I was head of public relations and communications at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and one of my employees came into my office and said, "There will be a press conference in an hour. Magic Johnson has AIDS."

Of course, that was part of the misunderstanding at the time. Johnson did not have AIDS. Rather, he would announce that he was HIV-positive. But the feeling was the same, that this was the announcement of a death sentence.

Or was it? When the press conference took place, Johnson was... well he was Magic. He was as calm, composed and charismatic as ever. He announced he would be retiring from the game, and that he "would be a happy man." To the rest of us, it sounded like whistling past the graveyard. We all knew better. We knew the time would come when the HIV virus would overtake him and lay waste to that magnificent body and dominating spirit.

Except it didn't.
On this 20th anniversary of that announcement, Magic Johnson is still with us. He returned to basketball for a brief time, and now the ex-basketball star is a highly successful businessperson, having built coffee shops, movie houses and housing developments. He is also an analyst for the game that transformed him and which he helped transform in turn.  Mostly, he is the living embodiment of defiant success over adversity. He is a symbol of living with HIV, the first of many who have gone on to do so. (The magazine Entertainment Weekly used to have an annual feature in which they paid tribute to the performers lost to AIDS in the previous year. Amazingly and gratefully, that has long been discontinued.)

Yes, his money gave Magic Johnson extraordinary access to more medication and treatment than others would normally have. But Johnson has other extraordinary capabilities that mere money cannot bestow: a spirit and can-do attitude that made him believe the unbelievable. That he could beat the scourge of his era and make us believe that others could beat it, too. So on this anniversary, let's think beyond Magic Johnson and consider those seemingly impossible things we can accomplish if we believe we can, just as Magic declared that he "would be a happy man."