How to be a successful ethical organisation and thrive

Ethics are a CEO-level concern at most companies. Top leaders want an ethical organisation, and not just because it’s the right thing to do. Research pulled together by the Blueprint for Better Business[1] shows that workforces with these qualities are 31% more productive[2], outperform their peers by 2-3% annually[3], reduce risk and attract the best and brightest talent.

Companies often start by creating Ethical initiatives, typically headed by Legal or HR. While these initiatives are a good place to start, they are by no means the ultimate answer. Companies can make broad policy changes or statistically ‘check the box’ by focusing on Ethical Principles of an organisation, but these actions do not necessarily lead to a more ethical culture.

Over ten years ago I was involved in a large number of mergers and acquisition activity and typically in the period between us signing the deal and completing it, I would go to the organisation we were acquiring and have lots of dialogue with key people in the organisation to get a sense of the culture and the key things that we would need to work on together.

In one of these organisations, I was having a discussion with one of the leaders of the company we were acquiring and I noticed that on his desk he had a picture of him and his family at the recent Olympic games. I asked him about this experience and he told me how wonderful it was and what a great time he had, had. I complimented on showing his daughters this experience and asked how this trip of a lifetime came about, he explained to me that one of his suppliers had provided the all expenses paid trip for him and his family and how grateful he was to them. As we started to talk through his business, I asked what were some of his major concerns and how might we be helpful?

He started to share with me, how he was concerned that we would stop a huge deal he had been working on with a supplier for the last 18 months. I asked him about the deal and the relationship and he then revealed it was the same supplier that had paid for the Olympic trip. I was interested in whether any of the other suppliers they were working with had provided such similar treats to him and he explained they had not. We then started to explore his thinking behind the deal and some of the facets behind it. It was obvious to me that he felt duty bound to appoint this supplier because of the trip, even though there were other potential options that might be better for the organisation. I got curious about this with him and he said that the trip was all part of their sales pitch and there was nothing wrong in him accepting it in his culture, he felt that they were good for the job. In our culture we had a legal framework preventing this behaviour with severe consequences for this practice.

As we started to get to know the organisation more deeply, it became clear that accepting gifts from suppliers for favourable terms was part of the company culture and an accepted practice within the organisation, which didn’t align with our own principles of doing business. We put sanctions in place once we owned the company but the people in the organisation didn’t seem to see the implications of a lack of transparent ways of working with suppliers and we never fully explored this with them and the associated consequences. I could tell that they never fully accepted why we felt this was an unethical way to do business, even when the legal framework changed in their country.

I share this story because companies and organization often mandate ethical behaviour as we did, but following these experiences, I have seen that real change is a matter of hearts and minds. We can’t change behaviour until we have awareness that how we act, behave and react is directly linked to what’s happening in our mind in the moment. Behaviour is the last car on the train. Thinking is the engine.

Are there things leaders can do to spread ethics in the work setting? Yes. But an understanding of how the human mind operates, will aid you in doing these things genuinely (and not as a behavioural checklist).

In my work now, I work with Leaders of organisations to enable their understanding of the human mind and how it is designed for success, in doing so this enables transformative and ethical results.

To illuminate this design for success – we have worked with hundreds of leaders from all over the world and usually the first thing we ask them, is to remember a time when they were at peace on the inside, you may also describe this as stillness or being in flow. I ask them what qualities showed up in those moments. No matter where the group is from, the qualities are usually the same as the one in the picture below.

Having now invited people to express those qualities, I ask so were you ‘doing’ those qualities or did they just show up? Reflexively people answer they just showed up, they didn’t have to do ‘presence’ or ‘certainty’ or any others on the list, they just showed up, so if they just showed up, where did they come from? The answer again reflexively is from inside or within me – they are innate and always there.

The examples of these qualities showing up are evident in business and in life and they show up unexpectedly in difficult situations and seem to enable people to do amazing things with grace and ease. They are not our biology and also not passive, they create a proactive energy within us. The leaders we work with, see that if they and their people had access to these qualities more frequently they would be able to achieve incredible results. So the question then becomes, how do we access these innate qualities more of the time and what gets in the way?

A key variable in our ability to access these qualities, are the thoughts that are constantly flowing through our minds. Like a conveyor belt, whatever is coming through it, is what your experience. Let’s try this for a moment, I am going to ask you to try not to think for a minute. Go ahead try it!

What did you notice? When we ask people to do this in groups, we find that people tell us, ‘I was thinking about not thinking’, or ‘I remembered I forgot to take the trash out’! Its evitable we are thinking beings, it’s what we do all the time!

The human design for success, kicks in when you see these mechanics at work.

This is our most natural state and when we are in this state, we are open to remember we are only limited by conditioned beliefs created from society and prior experiences, only because your habitual thinking (that you are largely unaware of) prevents you from including what doesn’t fit the mould of your usual picture of the world.

A moment of insight or new thought opens you up to see beyond habitual thinking. The human mind is designed to have insights – change is always possible. When leaders or employees have insights about goals, decisions, risk, dilemmas, processes or relationships you can really move the needle.

Ethics won’t be items to add to your leadership to-do list when you understand how design for success works – you will be ethical naturally and have access to more productivity, innovation, high performance, reduced risk and talent.




About the Author: Julia Rebholz believes people in workplaces have the potential to transform society for all. Julia delivered large scale transformation at Centrica, a FTSE 100 energy company. There she led high profile M&A, transformation and strategy activities such as the £2.2bn purchase of British Energy and a series of transactions and integrations in North America. Julia also created the first energy corporate impact fund Ignite, investing £10m over 10 years in social energy entrepreneurs that has now been scaled to £100m.

Following this Julia co-founded the Performance Purpose Group, is an associate of Insight Principles, acts as a Senior Advisor to the Blueprint for Better Business, has advised the UK government on Mission Led Business and was part of the Cambridge Capitalism on the Edge lecture series. Julia combines her sound business background with an understanding of the science behind the human mind, to enable her clients results.

You can contact her at J[email protected]


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