Monthly Archives: October 2015 Top Harvard Professors Weigh In On VW Dieselgate: What It Means For Leadership, Culture And The Future Of Work.

The VW scandal, like every good scandal before it, has left business leaders wondering where exactly it all went wrong, who at VW is behind it and whether the brand can recover.gettyimages-128051745

It even spawned a hashtag, #dieselgate, which has become the world’s unofficial forum for discussing causes of the crisis and its possible fixes – all while aiming a healthy amount of frustration and resentment at the company’s top executives.

We spoke to respected leadership influencers Bill George and Amy Edmondson, both Harvard Business School professors and prominent authors, to get their take on what business leaders can learn from the scandal.

These are, as Bill puts it, devastating times for VW.

For the traditionally well respected brand, the emissions scandal is a major breach of trust – and it’s the pre-meditated, calculated aspect of the violation that makes it so hard to swallow.

There’s no doubt that, in Amy’s words, “it’s actively deceptive, an act of fraud”, but the real question we’ve all been asking is this: how far up the corporate chain does it go?

If we were to believe the CEO of VW USA Michael Horn, not very far at all.

Horn, facing a grilling before US Congress last week, was to be seen accepting little of the blame: “This was not a corporate decision. No board meeting […] has authorised this. This was a couple of rogue software engineers who put this [deception device] in for whatever reason”.

This is, at best, a flimsy excuse.

As Bill wryly observes of the hearing, “Mr. Horn did not distinguish himself in the eyes of the public”.

Leadership Lesson #1: Take Full Responsibility.

It’s in the VW response we find clues to our first leadership lesson: to err is to be human, but to cover up is to sin.

“The cover-up can be worse than the crime”, Amy points out.

When the issue is that of broken trust, deflecting questions, acting slippery and distancing themselves from “the real villains” is one of the worst things VW executives can be seen doing.

It’s unlikely that anyone other than those involved know the truth of the matter, but it’s exactly this kernel of truth that needs to come out.

“The new CEO needs to be very hard-nosed in getting out publicly exactly who is responsible”, argues Bill – “the longer they withhold that information for, the harder it’s going to be”.

VW’s management of the crisis up to this point, then, has been less than ideal.

Although their senior leaders seem to be contrite – “We’ve totally screwed up”, admits Horn – this contrition runs barely skin deep.

Scapegoating and proclamations of C-Level innocence aren’t likely techniques to win any CEO of The Year awards, regardless of whether such proclamations are true.

Horn and his colleagues are equating innocence with ignorance, but ignorance is no excuse, says Amy:

“If the top officer of the corporation doesn’t know what’s happening that’s problematic – a serious leadership failure. Whether you know or not, you’re still responsible. You’re responsible for creating the culture that tells people what to do in the absence of prescriptive rules. This is a situation exactly like that”.

The real issue here is that of company culture. It’s what Bill calls the “executive responsibility” – whether your people feel that they can get away with breaching practices.

Which brings us to our second major leadership lesson.

Leadership Lesson #2: Culture Is The CEO’s Job.

Top executives might not know everything that’s going on in their company, but setting standards at the macro-level means guiding decisions at the micro-level.

To put it bluntly, if the leadership team had done its job and built the company culture on the right foundations, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

Without doubt, the ever-increasing globalisation of business plays a role here – but it also can’t be used as an excuse.

As former Chairman and CEO of Medtronic, a medical device company which operates in 140 companies, Bill certainly understands firsthand the difficulties of operating across continents:

“These events should bring home to every company in the world that when you’re operating in another country you have obligations in terms of their law and compliance. You have to go along with whichever laws they have in place, whether or not you agree with them, and that’s the Chief Executive’s job – to go out and speak to different people on the front-line in every country and ensure people are compliant.”

There’s no point crying over spilt milk, though. The real question is, what next?

For Amy, “what must come out of this is a top to bottom soul-searching. An evaluation of the culture, of the technical processes, of everything”.

The VW leadership team has remarkable challenge ahead of it. Broadly, they have a choice to view the crisis as either:

  • a crappy problem they must survive through, or
  • a remarkable opportunity to shake up and rebuild the company – for the better

Their choice will determine the direction of all their subsequent strategies and will determine the future of VW.

Leadership Lesson #3: Leverage The Silver Lining.

Experienced businesspeople know that every crisis tends to be an opportunity in disguise.

As leaders we learn and grow the most not when business is sailing smoothly, but when times are tough.

Which points to our next leadership lesson: VW can leverage this scandal to radically change how its people (as well as its customers, business partners and the society at large) think about work, performance and the environment.

Just like reformed ex-murderers become champions of human rights, in a bold move VW could use the story of its own turnaround to position itself as a champion of conscious, high-performance work culture and environmental protection.

Far fetched? Definitely. Difficult? Yes. Worth trying? Also yes. Will it be considered at the board level? Maybe. Will it be attempted? If current VW response is anything to go by, probably not.

Leadership Lesson #4: ROI of Authentic Leadership.

The crisis extends beyond VW.

One of the major implications of such scandals is the narrative they construct and play into: the narrative, as Bill notes, “of all business people being dishonest until you catch them. It’s a horrible narrative, but it’s damaging to business as a whole”.

This means businesses worldwide have work to do in the wake of the VW scandal.

“Other companies need to be very clear about differentiating themselves”, says Bill, “introducing testing of their own and assessing their own processes. Businesses can differentiate themselves here, because this was a moral failure. It was not an inadvertent mistake.”

For Amy, “the object lesson here is that there’s very powerful vicarious learning to be done. If other leaders aren’t taking this lesson to heart, they’re wasting the opportunity.

Executives need to take the opportunity to assess – where could we be falling short on our promise to customers and society? How can we resolve that?”

Which brings us to perhaps the most powerful leadership lesson of all: the truth will always out.

It’s a lesson, Amy notes, that it’s surprising we still have to teach: that “nowadays all secrets have expiration dates; there’s no such thing as a permanent secret”.

It’s this point that proves most salient, as the scandal rolls on: ability to lead with authenticity and integrity is a skill that’s in demand more than ever.

This article was originally posted on


30 Questions to Discover Your True North

If you follow my blog, Twitter feed, or Facebook page, you’ll notice a constant theme: Discover Your True North. Both leaders and corporations have to 30-questionsdevelop a True North that follows their unique principles. If you try to ‘fake it until you make it,’ you won’t just be unsuccessful; you’ll also be miserable.

How can you discover your True North so you can take steps to get where you want to go in life? You have to know what your values are and what’s important to you. To that end, I’ve come up with this list of 30 questions to help you find your True North. Don’t answer them all at once. Take a day to carefully think each one through. Remember, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

  1. What do you want your legacy to be? 10, 20, 50 years from now, what will your name mean
  2. What one word do you want people to use to describe you? What do you think they’d currently use?
  3. If money was no object, how would you spend your time? What would your day look like?
  4. Fill in the blank: My life is a quest for _______. What motivates you? Money? Love? Acceptance?
  5. If you were to donate everything you have to a cause or charity, which would it be?
  6. What is your biggest regret? If you could go back and have a ‘redo,’ what would you change?
  7. When was the last time you told a lie? Why? What would have happened if you had told the truth?
  8. If you accomplish one thing by the end of the year, what would make the biggest impact on your happiness?
  9. What do you think is the meaning of life? Do you live your life accordingly?
  10. What would others say is your biggest asset? What would they say is your biggest flaw? Be honest.
  11. What did you like to do when you were 10 years old? When was the last time you did that activity?
  12. What do you love most about your current job? What do you wish you could do more of
  13. What do you think you were put on this earth to learn? What were you put here to teach
  14. What keeps you awake at night when you should be sleeping? What gets you out of bed in the mornings?
  15. List your core values. Use your company’s mission statement to list its core values. Do they match up?
  16. What skills do people frequently compliment you on? These may not be what you think you’re best at.
  17. If you had the opportunity to get a message across to a large group of people, what would you say?
  18. What do you not want others to know about you? Use your answer to find and conquer insecurities.
  19. List the five people you interact with most frequently (not necessarily friends). How is each helping you to reach your goals (or not)?
  20. If yourself from ten years ago met you today, would he/she be impressed with where you’ve gotten? Why or why not?
  21. What bugs you? If it makes you mad, you’re passionate about it! Can you make your anger productive?
  22. Fast-forward ten or twenty years. What is the one thing that, if you never pursued, you’d always regret?
  23. When was the last time you embarrassed yourself? You have to be vulnerable to find your purpose.
  24. Who or what energizes you? What makes you feel depleted? Do you thrive on chaos, or prefer order?
  25. Who do you look up to? Who are your mentors, both those you know personally and those who inspire you from afar?
  26. Think about your talents, passions, and values. How can you use them to serve and contribute to society?
  27. Why do you want to find your purpose? Write the answer down and put it somewhere you can see it. The journey isn’t always easy.
  28. What in your life is ‘on hold’? Until you lose weight, until you retire, etc. What are you waiting for?
  29. What price would you take to give up on your dreams? What price would you be willing to pay to achieve them?
  30. Now that you’ve answered these questions, what is your action plan? What steps will you take today?

For more insight and exercises to help you find your True North, read Finding Your True North. It offers a full, comprehensive approach to identify and develop your own unique direction in life.

Monster Hiring Podcast: Authentic Leadership

Today’s leaders face greater challenges than ever before.

Yet some of the most accomplished leaders are succeeding in their roles by following what Bill George calls their True North.

In this Monster podcast with the best-selling author Bill George, we hear the stories of authentic leaders, including PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi and Starbuck’s Howard Schultz, as highlighted in George’s latest book, Discover your True North (Wiley, 2015.)

Learn what it takes to become an authentic leader, and how it can transform your life and career at any level in the organization.

Triangle Business Journal: Medtronic’s George, Red Hat’s Whitehurst, Citrix’s Lipson talk leadership in the C-Suite

BG-RaleighOn October 14, 2015, I visited Raleigh, NC, to address a gathering of local business
leaders. I discussed authentic leadership, shared lessons learned during my career, and gave advice related to the future of businesses in America. I then led a panel discussion with Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, ShareFile founder Jes Lipson, and Three Ships CEO Zach Clayton, the latter two featured in Discover Your True North.

Read an article about the event at the Triangle Business Journal website.