I spoke in Memphis last week. When I read the agenda I was intrigued to find that also on the schedule to speak was Cindy Olson, the top human resources executive from Enron. I was so surprised, I had to check twice and yes, it’s that Enron. The failed behemoth energy company.
She was speaking on leading with integrity and I was speaking on lie detection and fraud prevention. How was I going to be able to leave the obvious elephant in the room out of my talk? Executives at Enron were known for shady accounting practices, internal fraud and she was even named a co-conspirator in the downfall that cost thousands of people their jobs and retirement savings… Just the mention of Enron brings to mind thoughts of corporate villans driven by greed.
As I listened to her talk about the culture of Enron, I was intrigued by the culture of innovation that she helped create. People were excited to come to work, knowing that they were empowered to do what it took to create the best company they could. According to Cindy, the problem is that the people we so empowered that there wasn’t a formal process for approving and funding new projects and that caused some of their downfall. She also said that company values of Integrity, Respect, Communication and Excellence were painted over the walls but not enforced or modeled by the CEOs in place through the fall. The shady energy they embodied trickled down.
And her part in it, according to her, was not saying anything. And silence is agreement. She got sucked into the beliefs of the culture and it became hard to separate lies from truth and right from wrong. I don’t know how much she really knew, but she didn’t speak up and do enough about what she did know, letting people at all levels with bad behavior slide because they were making money for the company. She let money cloud her thoughts and actions.
I’d sure like to see some video of those board meetings. I’m betting the body language indicated all that was going on, even though nobody was saying anything about it. Do you know the signs to look for? Remember when the words and body language don’t match, someone’s pants may be on fire.
Being able to detect lies is one thing but are you committed enough to your own values to say something when the stakes are high? There weren’t enough of these people at Enron and they all lost in the long run. They lost money, they lost their future and they lost their reputations. Remember, you could be the person who averts your own personal Enron with just a few words.
But what happened in my lie detection talk that day? Did I turn the screws on her? Did I make a bunch of Enron jokes? Nope. Sometimes just having a former Enron Executive speaking on integrity based leadership is funny enough!