Sunday, April 22, 2012

Learning from Greg Smith and Goldman Sachs

On March 14, 2012, Greg Smith former Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm's United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, decided to publish his reasons for resigning from Goldman Sachs in the New York Times. Click here to see his comments. The stinging comments set off a firestorm in the media and among pundits.

As a career coach to college students and consultant to business leaders, this stirred questions in my mind about how to act upon your convictions. Not long ago we were discussing the Jet Blue flight attendant who had a melt down on a flight and decided to quit with great flourish. I blogged about it in my August 2010 post: Quitting your Job: First class or coach? And now we have Greg Smith.

Mr. Smith points out, "It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are." I agree with this statement. Personal ethics and values matter more than anything in today's world of work. It begins with trust.

Many successful organizations become legends in their own minds. As a consultant, I have observed some of the most astute leaders make ego driven-driven decisions. From CEOs to high-performing sales managers, there can be a general unwillingness and fear of change. Greed, fear and insecurity become the order of the day, rather than concern for the customer.

An example from higher education involves the tension between changing traditional teaching methods (lecture) and embracing technology (beyond Powerpoint) in the classroom. Few are making the strategic connection of educational importance of actually preparing students for the real world. Parents and, students themselves, have publicly expressed concerns about students amassing a large amount of debt for a degree that does not result in employment. Employers often say recent grads do not have the critical thinking or interpersonal communication abilities needed to survive the world of work. Whose agenda is at play here? Perhaps the focus should be on the customer, uh, I mean, the student. A new generation needing to learn in technology savvy ways.

Sometimes we are called into chaos because we are the ones who are supposed to influence positive change. I believe it is important to express concerns and convictions honestly to those in leadership or authority. If that does not result in positive change, then it's time to go. I take away three main things from Mr. Smith's very public resignation:

1) Be willing to act upon your convictions and ethics. Take whatever comes with that. Good or bad.
2) Communicate clearly and honestly with those around you. 
Don't always expect to be liked for it. 
3) If you are in an organization or work for a boss who's unethical--leave, even if you need the money.

While I do not have any issues with Mr. Smith's questioning the ethics at Goldman Sachs, I do hope his motives for quitting so publicly are pure. In today's world of instant news and so-called "reality" celebrities, I wonder if we will see Mr. Smith somewhere else soon. If we do, I hope it's because he has started his own company where trust and morals are modeled and practiced.