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Tough Talk With Senior Management

Corporate misconduct is nothing new...

Corporate misconduct is nothing new to the American public. Headlines announcing business transgressions crop up with depressing regularity.  According to one survey, only 15 percent of Americans trust business leaders to be truthful.

Could there be good reason for this pessimism? The last three years have witnessed the GM ignition scandal of 2014, the VW emissions fraud in 2015 and the Wells Fargo fake account debacle in 2016. Does this indicate that our corporations are facing a crisis of ethics and compliance?

A need for “coaching up”

One possible cause of issues facing big business today could simply be the result of skewed perceptions.

Research has revealed there can be a gulf between perception and actuality where senior management has an overly optimistic view of their organization. Certainly, middle management is better attuned to the company’s culture of ethics by being involved in the daily workings and compliance of the business.

According to Michael Useem, author of Leading Up: How To Lead Your Boss So You Both Win, “if managers wish to be effective, they must learn how to lead the people they report to as well as the employees they oversee.”

Most middle managers don’t have a problem coaching down. Identifying trouble spots and fixing them is a normal occurrence.  But when the situation changes and the issues begin with the CEO, the process is reversed.

The easy way isn’t always the best way. In this position, managers face some tough choices, one of which is their right and responsibility to coach up. Ignoring a problem that originates from a senior level is a recipe for disaster.

Planning your approach

A successful outcome hinges on tact and discretion. The term “coaching” can carry undesirable connotations. Reframe the process as a straightforward dialogue, an open conversation emphasizing feedback.

Some executives welcome input, knowing they don’t have every answer. Other leaders may not be so open to apparent negative feedback. Diplomacy here is crucial.

The process of coaching up necessitates forward planning. As with any similar situation, outline the salient points of discussion and take a considered approach. And, unlike coaching down, there is one other thing you will need.

John Baldoni, author of Lead Your Boss says, “With the boss you need to do something else – have permission to speak frankly. Some bosses make it easy, others need to be persuaded.”

Leading from below

Discussing difficult issues with a senior manager is essential when the problem could result in expensive penalties or a damaged reputation. It is realistic to assume that both the manager and the boss are working toward the same goals. With this in mind, speaking up becomes an ethical duty.

As leadership mentor Michael Hyatt tells us, “The best bosses welcome criticism, knowing that the shortest distance between where they are and where they want to go is the truth.”

Some of the crucial points a manager should reflect on before coaching up are:

Don’t ignore the problem and become complicit. Ethical business practices are a must and trust is vital. Help your boss gain an understanding of the situation by sharing your knowledge and insights from the playing field.

Final thoughts

With the passage of The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX), business wrongdoing became the burden of senior management. Middle managers and compliance professionals have a corporate responsibility to assist the CEO to see the compliance plan achieved.

An organization has to align its commercial results with its own ethical standards to satisfy staff, customers and regulators. It is easier for employees to have more trust when senior management is a paragon of fair and ethical conduct.

Don’t neglect an opportunity to coach up. It helps your company succeed, supports your boss and allows you to do your job more effectively.

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