Procter & Gamble Company, under its current CEO, A.G. Lafley, is famous for this. When Lafley became CEO, he removed the oak-paneled executive offices on the 11th floor of P&G’s Cincinnati headquarters and loaned the paintings that hung there to a local museum, according to the magazine of his alma mater, Hamilton College. He moved the divisional presidents’ offices nearer those of their staffs and converted the former executive space to an employee learning center. He did it, Lafley said, “So people understand we’re in the business of leading change.” He then instituted a policy of regular and frequent communication with staff, customers, suppliers, innovators around the world, and even competitors. In this environment, the fear of speaking out for the organization’s good diminishes; people feel not just invited, but compelled, to raise opportunities to improve.
Although these three factors are often linked to high performance, they are all too rare. They still feel counterintuitive in many corporate cultures. But now, in the face of extraordinary challenges, they’re more critical than ever. At heart, the distinctive edge of an “ethical” company, its means of survival when facing the challenges of a more transparent world, may come down to this: having enough consciousness, discipline, and empathy to instill a set of behaviors that make it easier for everyone to do the right thing. Some companies have already grasped the idea that ethical practice and high-quality business practice are one and the same. Let’s hope that idea, in time, will expand to more companies, and ultimately to the culture at large.
Art Kleiner is editor-in-chief of strategy+business magazine and the author of The Age of Heretics, 2nd ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2008).