Peter Firestein on Trust, Character and Reputation (Trust Quotes #4)

Peter Firestein’s extraordinary career began in Indiana. He soon left for California, taught himself Spanish in a park in Mexico, learned commodities in Latin America, and has a unique resume, having worked for Michael Milken and advised the Brazilian Government on privatization of its national phone company.

Peter ended up counseling mega-global companies on corporate reputation and Investor Relations. His book ranges both wide and deep; you can’t summarize Peter’s insight and wisdom briefly. But I do try to pick out a few themes in this interview.

CHG: Peter, Let me put the onus on you: what strikes me most about the book is perhaps the role of personal character and of relationships in dealing with mega-corporate institutional relationships. It’s tough to summarize such a broad book, but how do you see it?

PF: You’ve actually done a pretty good job with your question, Charlie. I try to suggest in the book that the job of leading a significant company these days requires involvement of the whole person, not just the part of the person trained to analyze, fix, and build businesses.

People who’ve reached the point of development where they’re considered capable of leading companies are attuned to making decisions on the basis of metrics. You don’t get there unless you understand return on investment, for example. That’s always been true, and it’s never been more important than today.

But the world requires something more of you now. Modern information technology makes enormous amounts of intelligence on businesses available to anyone who can use a search engine. For companies, there’s no longer any place to hide. In addition, having information conveys to any citizen a sense of entitlement to register opinions and organize opposition to companies whose actions seem out of line with common values.

The good news: any manager with sufficient maturity to run a company also has enough life experience to understand how people outside the company feel themselves affected by its actions. But too many otherwise competent corporate leaders don’t understand that these two sides of life are not only connected—they’re inseparable.

That’s what I mean when I say that, in the end, it’s all personal. In a post-modern world where everyone seems not only to have an opinion, but the eloquence to express it, being the boss doesn’t make you immune; it makes you vulnerable. The moment you take that to heart, you’ve made your first step toward resolving conflicts with your antagonists. Leading is, first of all, listening.

CHG: One thing that struck me was the insistence on reputation as being built inside out: the only sensible strategy is to be the company you want your stakeholders to see.

PF: One of the book’s early titles was “The Glass House,” meaning, of course, that you can’t fake things for very long any more. Just thinking about the failed obfuscations attempted by some big corporations in recent years can bring actual, physical pain.

When I say you have to “build reputation from the inside out,” I mean that managers have to create reporting and communications structures that not only disseminate values throughout the organization, but absorb the workforce’s on-the-ground experience all the way to the top. Every action the company takes, therefore, represents its core value system. And the workforce’s day-to-day reality informs senior decision-making.

I call this “vertical communication,” and I think it reduces the likelihood that a CEO will wake up some day to find that a regional manager has been found to have bribed a government official, or a sub-contracted factory is discriminating against female employees, or an accidental dump of toxic waste has disappeared from company records somewhere down the line.

There are few small failures in big business. In fact, the depth of failure often presents a mirror image of success that preceded it. True vertical communication that extends throughout the organization helps you spend your life thinking about other things.

The legal disclaimer on any financial offering warns that past performance does not indicate future results. With human beings, it generally does.

CHG: Since this blog focuses on trust, please tell TrustMatters readers how you see the relationship between trust and reputation?

PF: If there’s a difference between high trust and strong reputation, I’m blind to it. Both trust and reputation—whether high or low—are expectations of future experience based on what is known about the past. That’s how people differ from markets. The legal disclaimer on any financial offering warns that past performance does not indicate future results. With human beings, it generally does.

CHG: You provide a very real-world example of exactly how a big company should go about recovering from a reputational slip, and what impressed me about it was your recommendation of aggressive, pro-active engagement. Say more about that?

PF: Here’s how pro-active you ought to be. You start preparing for the next crisis five years before it happens. And you don’t need a crystal ball for this. If you’re a multi-national company of scale, it’s impossible to avoid reputational mishaps. Some day, somewhere, someone will—intentionally or by neglect—commit a reputation-compromising act in your name. The inevitability must be an integral part of your thinking. So, you have to have a culture in place well in advance that enables you to respond appropriately to events that never crossed your mind before they happened.

People call it crisis communications, but it’s much more than that. Communications, by itself, never fixed anything. People also call it crisis management. But the crisis has already occurred, so the opportunity to manage it is past. You could call it management of the aftermath, and the only way to manage the aftermath effectively is to participate in it.

Which means, to some degree, participating in the emotions of those you have harmed. Referring to a person in the CEO position, the corporation becomes the person, and vice versa. If, as an individual, you have empathy toward a family who’s lost a father or a mother, you have to show that same empathy as a corporation.

Beyond this, the best piece of advice available on the subject is to resist the temptation to let your lawyers protect you. They can’t. There’s a short list of companies that have come out of disasters with stronger reputations than they’d had before. In all cases, they did so because they were able to identify with those who were angry with them. Enlightened leadership means understanding there’s no Plan B.

CHG: Let me challenge you on one small item: you assert that the most important constituency is investors, though you also advocate systematically managing a wide variety of stakeholders. Isn’t investor turnover increasing radically these days? Does that diminish your point?

PF: The building of reputation can’t be about anything but what motivates management – and that has to do with investors’ willingness to value the shares at higher levels. Turnover? If someone’s selling, someone else is buying.

There’s no altruism in business, nor should there be. But the cold fact these days is that sustainable behavior means supporting legitimate social interests. You don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to take a “nice” pill to do it. It’s just business, but business has changed. Here’s where investors’ interests enter the social sphere: A company facing a social and regulatory headwind is likely to have higher capital costs and less-than-certain chances of strategy execution.

Investors don’t like that. It’s not the job of a corporation to address social interests—except where doing so is the only avenue to making business successful. And that’s already become the normal condition in most industries. I just read a wonderful quote by a Canadian union official named Stephen Hunt who, in a speech about social responsibility in mining, could have been referring to any industry when he said: “A mining company is only as good as its opposition.”

CHG: You’ve dealt with dozens, maybe hundreds, of CEOs. What has been the most common blind spot or weakness you have seen regarding good reputation management?

PF: It may be my sunny disposition, but I can’t remember at the moment meeting a business leader who wasn’t driven by earnest good intentions. Sure, I’ve known my share of indicted folks; but I liked them, too. There’s something about giving yourself over to a goal that’s not that different from love of family. It’s personally attractive.

I had the great good fortune to grow up in the Sovereign State of Indiana, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties and working in a New York trading company that I came to realize that high intelligence in a person does not necessarily equate to noble intentions.

Because you are using the world to build wealth, the way you treat that world will follow you.

The most common blind spot (since you asked) is a lack of balance, which I guess can be closely associated with laser focus on a goal. Perhaps a better way to describe it is to call it a lack of context. Because you are using the world to build wealth, the way you treat that world will follow you. It wouldn’t hurt us to remember once in a while that American native populations held profound respect for the game they had to kill in order to live.

I once sat down to a dinner meeting between a CEO and equity analysts in an elegant New York hotel. The CEO was among the most prominent European industrial titans of the last half century (a client). His dozen or so guests were invited there to eat and ask him questions. He opened the conversation this way: “My father taught me,” he said, “that to make a living, you have to rub other people.”

He was assuring them of his accessibility. There was no imaginable reason for him to endure their earnest self-importance had he not wished to. He didn’t need them. But hosting them reflected his idea of how the world worked. There was no amount of esteem or money that could free you from the need to engage.

CHG: You have a fine sense of the historical about you. We’ve been through this kind of business reputation downturn before, certainly in the US. What’s different this time? What should we learn from the past?

PF: The past can be a deeply misleading subject because there isn’t much that hasn’t happened in it. If we’re talking about the past experienced by those of us who have come of age since World War II, in which America emerged triumphant in an otherwise devastated world, there’s a strong argument suggesting that’s the most unrepresentative of all the pasts available for our consideration.

One thing we’ve learned from the past is that the notion that things are different this time provides an assured road to ruin—as does a sense of invincibility and the belief that we’re smarter than those who have come before.

The reputation of business—as cyclical as anything else—will continue its descent until a new ideal appears to propel it upward again. Perhaps the last ideal that floated the reputation of business involved the building of the industrial world and the opening of the West. Dust from the explosion of that ideal is still settling around us. Perhaps the next upswing will come from the ideal of restoring the environment—in other words, from respect for the same earth the last ideal wrecked.

It is certain that we don’t get to decide these things for ourselves. In trying to come to terms with the cycles of sentiment, I have taken comfort in a phrase coined by New York Times Columnist David Brooks. The term is “epistemological modesty” and refers to the inescapable fact that, no matter how hard we try, we really don’t know very much. Everyone’s familiar George Santayana’s saying: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Not being much of a comedian, Santayana forgot his punch line: “So are those who can remember it.”

CHG: Let’s imagine this blogpost got forwarded to 50 CEOs. On the whole, on the average, what are the top 2-3 things CEOs need to hear?

PF: Sir or Madam CEO: I have nothing but good news for you. It is this: You have more control over the fate of your company, your reputation, and your career than you imagine.

Do you look at your critics—the trigger-happy media, activists with a bone to pick, investors and analysts who just don’t get it—and tell yourself that not one of these people has ever run a company for a day? So, how could any of them understand what you’re trying to accomplish?

In their lack of fairness lies your advantage. During the latter part of the 20th Century, when anti-tobacco activists tried everything they could think of to put cigarette makers out of business, their nearly constant companion was a Philip Morris public affairs executive named Steve Parrish. He spoke at their conferences and kept in close touch with the principals of organizations that opposed him.

While absorbing all their slings and arrows, he offered them a continuous flow of new information about the manufacture of smoking products, including the companies’ efforts to reduce their deadliness. He discussed regulation of the industry, which eventually came to pass. The result was that—whether we like it or not—tobacco companies survive as a highly-profitable business.

Parrish’s strategy was to increase his adversaries’ knowledge of the tobacco industry—a counterintuitive approach if there ever was one. The byproduct of this flow of information was that he continually moved the goal posts on them, preventing closure of the argument despite an extraordinarily hostile environment and an enormous consensus against him.

CEOs have at their disposal one of the modern world’s most powerful weapons: Information. Gifted corporate leaders will use it to engage adversaries, induce them to invest in dialogue to the point that it cannot reasonably be abandoned, and, by that route, achieve a workable consensus. If companies whose products kill you can do this, why can’t anyone?

CHG: How much difference can individuals make?

PF: Excluding natural disasters, change comes from nowhere but individuals. Historical forces, wars, financial trends, market bubbles and collapses, the discovery of penicillin, and the invention of cheap global digital communication as well as post-modernist art can all be summed up in single word: Behavior. Even mass behavior has to start with an individual—a notion that may lead us to one definition of leadership.

CHG: In your book, you carry on an extended discussion about how very good companies, at least for a period of time, seem to lose direction. Merck during its Vioxx episode is one example you explore. You also suggest a concept called “Structural Corruption.” What’s this about, and what insight can you offer about the mechanism by which some companies seem inexplicably to turn south?

PF: I use Merck as an example because it was a fantastic company for over a century and is a truly admirable one today. But Merck’s Vioxx interlude, during which it seemed to want to overturn the last 400 years of the scientific method by subordinating disclosure of pharmacological research to the desires of its marketing department, shows how even great companies can become confused when they allow commercial factors to cloud their judgment.

The scientific method says you base conclusions on observed fact. Merck hid harmful side effects of its drug in order to sell more of it. I maintain that the people inside the company would never have behaved this way in their private lives. Their judgment suffered from an insularity within the company that distorted their frame of reference. There was a kind of “echo effect” at work in which people gradually talked each other into highly inadvisable actions—and many inside and outside the company suffered.

I came up with the term “structural corruption” to describe an impossible situation in which managers sometimes find themselves when their industry’s fundamental business model goes illegal. This describes parts of the insurance industry a few years ago when Marsh & McLennan enrolled its competitors in a scheme to rig bids for big institutional contracts and pay out illegal commissions. You couldn’t compete unless you played the game.

So, imagine a manager who’s invested his or her life in building a career in that sector, and has done so by behaving ethically, and then has to contemplate giving it all up in order to maintain a hard-won reputation. Imagine a similar manager trying to win a contract in a foreign country in which he or she is competing against a company domiciled in a place where the government winks that the payment of bribes to win business.

The concept of “structural corruption” is useful in distinguishing the dynamic in which even managers with the highest standards of conduct can become victimized by secular ethical trends. The questions people face in such circumstances can be life-changing. One secular ethical trend lies behind the Great Recession that began in 2008 and whose end is not yet convincingly in sight. But that’s another story.

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CHG: It’s been a real pleasure meeting and talking with you; anyone interested in buying Peter’s book, which I recommend can find it here: Crisis of Character: Building Corporate Reputation in the Age of Skepticism

This is number 4 in the Trust Quotes series.

The entire series can be found at: http://trustedadvisor.com/trustmatters.trustQuotes

Recent posts in this series include:
Trust Quotes #3: Dr. Eric Uslaner on the Nature of Trust
Trust Quotes #2: Robert Porter Lynch on Trust, Innovation and Performance
Trust Quotes #1: Ross Smith of Microsoft

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