GAA Accounting

The Journal of the Global Accounting Alliance

Leading from the front

By Ros O’Shea

Following a decade or more of high-profile cases of corporate corruption, society’s trust in business leaders to ‘do the right thing’ has reached an all-time low. Stakeholders are now demanding that companies and their leaders restore that trust by putting integrity at the heart of the enterprise.

As part of the research for my book, ‘Leading with Integrity’, I met some of Ireland’s most admired business people, including Tony Smurfit, CEO of Smurfit Kappa Group plc; Siobhán Talbot, Group Managing Director of Glanbia; and Feargal O’Rourke, Managing Partner at PwC to discuss their views on how they set the tone from the top and forge an enterprise-wide ethical culture. Below, I share some of the key insights from my discussions with these leaders on their values, ethical perspectives and desired legacies.

Respect, integrity and loyalty

For Tony Smurfit, respect is a core value alongside integrity and loyalty. Combined, he says, they create a level of trust that is best expressed in the answer to the questions: “Would I follow that person over the top of the trenches?” or “When the chips are down, would I trust that person to lead me to safe harbour?” Key to this, he maintains, is to remove money as a potential issue (i.e. to pay people well for good performance) and, more importantly, to take the time to understand your team. This means getting to know your senior executives as well as their partners and families, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, their ideas and perspectives and, when required, working through their problems with them.

So, there is work and the day job, but there are also a series of casual and formal management get-togethers to facilitate these all-important connections. This almost familial approach, Tony says, has been an enduring strength of the executive team and a key factor in the success of the Smurfit Group.

Trust and openness

A strong sense of family has clearly influenced Feargal O’Rourke’s approach to building an inclusive culture at PwC. He speaks fondly of his late father’s “business prudence” and his mother’s political nous and people skills (Mary O’Rourke had a distinguished career as a politician and government minister). Both parents instilled in him a strong work ethic and values of trust and openness – values he seeks to cultivate among colleagues at the firm. This, he says, requires him to “get out there”, to actively network, meet clients in person and build enduring relationships.

A large part of his day is spent “managing by walking around”, engaging with the associates and asking them about their current projects. He also enquires after their families, discusses the match at the weekend and canvasses their views on the new office fit-out, for example.

Inclusivity is crucial, he says, citing the story of the janitor at NASA’s Cape Canaveral in 1969 who, when asked what his job was, responded: “I am helping to put a man on the moon”.

Honesty, integrity, fairness and respect

Lofty ambition, grounded by a straightforward approach to business also underpins the way things are done at Glanbia. Authenticity is a characteristic innate to both its people and its products. “You can tell a Glanbia person a mile away,” Siobhán Talbot says with a smile. “They don’t take themselves too seriously, yet are hugely ambitious and capable.” She reflects that, over the years, the group has been able to preserve a unique management heritage and core values, and yet attract fresh talent and new thinking. She appreciates and relishes the opportunity to breathe new life into specific focus areas that will define the next chapter of progress for the company. For Siobhán, these priorities are talent development, strategic growth and – while acknowledging that Glanbia is still very much an ambitious, performance-driven organisation – to ensure that the ‘how’ of performance is fully aligned with the company’s core values. These values mirror Siobhán’s own guiding principles of honesty, integrity, fairness and respect.

Siobhán traces her strong work ethic back to when she graduated from college into the rigours of professional training as a Chartered Accountant and her first job in 1980s, recessional Ireland. Like most of her generation, she was grateful to be employed at all. She is struck by the contrast with the confidence of the ‘millennial’ workforce and is encouraged by their much healthier approach to work-life balance, particularly their approach to shared parenting. Siobhán doesn’t think that women are wired differently to men when it comes to the work environment, but with regard to ethical decision-making and attitudes to risk, she agrees that, in general, women tend to be a little more measured and perhaps naturally take a longer-term, more balanced perspective than their male counterparts. Diversity, she says, is the key to celebrating these differences – in all its forms.

Driving diversity

Diversity in its broadest sense is also on Tony Smurfit’s agenda. With operations in 34 jurisdictions including South America, where the Group enjoys market-leading positions in Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, ensuring that the same values and guiding principles are consistently applied is a daily challenge. (In 2009, the Venezuelan authorities seized over 1,500 hectares of Smurfit Kappa Group-owned forest land as part of a nationalisation drive. This is just one example of how unpredictable the political landscape can be in that part of the world.)

In terms of bribery and corruption, the team in South America are clear that they must follow the rules that apply across the Group. Of course, he recounts, there have been occasions on which they have been offered easy routes to business or opportunities to ‘facilitate’ new contracts, but it is simply not permitted – not as long as his name is over the door.

While diversity may command a significant amount of Tony’s time and attention, the wholly opposite concept of ‘groupthink’ is a real concern for Feargal at PwC. The partners at the accounting firm have completed the same training and worked together for many years to the same standards and with common challenges. To counteract the potential for unquestioned consensus, in leadership team meetings he will often ask a colleague to take a deliberately contrarian view in order to challenge any possible groupthink and ensure the final decision is fully thought through. This openness to constructive challenge is reflected in his choice of appointees to the firm’s management team, half of whom did not vote for him in the election process for managing partner. Transparency, trust and empowerment are among the most important aspects of Feargal’s desired legacy at the firm.

Personal legacy

The issue of personal legacy was an interesting aspect of the conversation with each leader. All clearly articulated their strategic goals for their businesses, including expanding the corporate footprint, developing the best talent, innovating to delight the customer and delivering superior returns to shareholders. Yet, without exception, when asked what they really wanted to be remembered for, it was much less about external, extrinsic success and much more about intrinsic achievement or the quiet, inherent satisfaction of a life well-lived. In short, it got really personal, including aspirations such as: “the extent to which I have lived my core values”; “my ability to build relationships based on trust and respect”; “understanding everyone’s story and developing their potential”; “to have taken the time to understand and appreciate different people and perspectives” and “to have been brave”.

A work in progress

Common to all was a frank willingness to share experiences and an unexpected degree of humility that reflected a collective acknowledgement that they were not yet the finished article.

While seemingly at the top of their game, they each believed that they were still on the journey and still fully committed to learning and growing. Insightful and candid, their stories are truly a masterclass in leading with integrity.

Ros is an independent director, an ethics and governance expert and author of Leading with Integrity: A Practical Guide to Business Ethics.

This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Accountancy Ireland.

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