Ethics, Culture, Rules and Governance

RulesFar too many governing bodies spend far too much time focused on rules, conformance and assurance.  While these factors are important they should be an outcome of good governance not the primary focus of the governors.

When an organisation sets high ethical standards and invests in building an executive management culture that supports those standards the need for ‘rules’ is minimised and the organisation as a whole focuses on doing ‘good business’ (see: Corporate Governance).

The order of the functions outlined in The Functions of Governance, places: ‘Determining the objectives of the organisation’, ‘Determining the ethics of the organisation’, and ‘Creating the culture of the organisation’ ahead of both assurance and conformance.  The rational being creating a culture of ‘doing the right thing’ that extends from the very top of the organisation to the very bottom, means most people most of the time will be doing the ‘right thing’ making assurance and conformance a relatively simple adjunct, there to catch the few errors and malpractices that will inevitably occur.

A very strong endorsement of this approach to governance has recently come from one of the world’s most successful business people, Warren Buffet.  His recent memo to the top management of his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiaries (his ‘All Stars’) emphasised that their top priority must be to ‘zealously guard Berkshire’s reputation’ (read act ethically). He also reminded his leadership team that ‘we can afford to lose money–even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation–even a shred of reputation’.

His advice to managers also included this good advice ‘There’s plenty of money to be made in the centre of the court. If it’s questionable whether some action is close to the line, just assume its outside and forget it’. This is a simple ethical guideline that avoids the need for pages of precise ‘rules’ designed to map the edge of legality drafted by lawyers and argued over endlessly.  See more on Ethics. (http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1001_Ethics.pdf)

Rule#1Reading the memo, its clear Buffet has built a massive organisation based on an ethical culture, employs executives that reinforce the culture, and still makes a very good profit. It’s a long term investment but infinitely preferable to the sort of issues that confronted Salomon Bros., 20 years ago (see: Warren Buffett’s Wild Ride at Salomon), the banks associated with the GFC, and the on-going damage continuing to be suffered by the Australian banks as more ethical failures come to light. I’m sure they all had hundreds of ‘rules’ some of which may even have been sensible.

A copy of Warren Buffet’s memo can be downloaded from:  http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/pdf/Ethics_Culture_Rules-Buffet_Memo.pdf

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