When Greg Smith, a 33-year-old London-based Goldman Sachs executive director published reasons for his resignation in the New York Times on March 14, he was scathing in his criticism. In a knife-to-the-heart Op-Ed piece heavy on praise for himself, he wrote:
“…I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.”
“…culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief”…
“It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as ‘muppets,’ sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s Work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding.
“I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.”
Andy Rosenthal, the Times editorial page editor, told The Huffington Post that Smith had approached them about writing the article. “We checked him out,” he said. “…the whole idea of Op-Ed is to generate debate and discussion, so the more, the better.” The article has certainly generated plenty of both. Its all over the internet and according to BloombergBusinessWeek, book agents and publishers are keen to sign a deal with him.
THE FIRST RESPONSE
According to the NYT, Smith’s “wake up call to the directors” exploded “like a bomb” within Goldman. “He just took a howitzer and blew the entire firm away,” said one observer. Within a day, investors stripped $2.15bn from the bank’s value.
As happens in this age of instant opinions, citizen journalism, and social media, the story “went viral.” The public and the media quickly added fuel to the fire with a mixture of praise and condemnation. Smith was variously described as “brave,” “reckless,” “foolish,” “disgruntled,” and “disloyal.” The fact that he’d held back his resignation until he’d been paid his $500,000 bonus for 2011 drew snide jabs. But journalists who dug into his background and talked to people who knew him when he was growing up in South Africa reported that he had a reputation for integrity.
A Bloomberg News item in the San Franscisco Chronicle tackled Smith for his naiveté, implicitly supporting Goldman and saying what many business leaders no doubt thought:
“It must have been a terrible shock when Smith concluded that Goldman actually was primarily about making money. He spares us the sordid details, but apparently it took more than a decade for the scales to finally fall from his eyes…
“We have some advice for Smith, as well as the thousands of college students who apply to work at Goldman Sachs each year: If you want to dedicate your life to serving humanity, do not go to work for Goldman Sachs. That’s not its function, and it never will be. Go to work for Goldman Sachs if you wish to work hard and get paid more than you deserve even so. (Or if you want to make your living selling derivatives but don’t know what a derivative is, as Smith concedes in passing that he didn’t at first.)”
A Forbes columnist argues that this event is a mere a storm in a teacup, and says the excitement over it will soon blow away:
“So what should our reaction to this be? No, not as clients of the firm, that’s obvious. Similarly for the management, what they need to change is obvious. But what should we, the people out here in the public and political square be trying to do about the company?
“Nothing of course, we should be doing nothing at all. For one of the great joys of this mixed capitalism and free markets system is that mistakes like those allegedly being made by Goldman Sachs are self-limiting, indeed, self-correcting.”
Of course, Goldman—the target of much criticism in the past few years—quickly denied Smith’s accusations:
“We were disappointed to read the assertions by this individual that do not reflect our values, our culture and how the vast majority of people at Goldman think about the firm and the work it does on behalf of our clients.”
So where do things go from here? How will Goldman deal with Smith and the continuing fallout? What does this drama mean for other banks—and, indeed, for other companies of any kind? (And let’s not forget to ask, how will Smith’s career be affected?)
Unfortunately for banks, they’ve made themselves a juicy target for outrage. When Smith’s article appeared, a lot of people probably thought to themselves—or said to others: “I knew it. Here we go again. Scumbag bankers. Can’t trust them an inch. Bastards got bailed out, but keep stealing our money!” So what’s likely out in the “public and political square” is that this story will get so much airtime it will be impossible to ignore. The media will continue to make a feast of it. Politicians and regulators will seize the chance to sound off, and maybe try to force change. The anti-capitalist, anti-business crowd will jam the infosphere and the profit motive will take another beating. Smith’s act will become a popular dinner table topic, the stuff of business school class debates, and a trigger for massive introspection at both Goldman and other firms.
Business leaders need to tread carefully through this minefield. The CEO of Morgan Stanley told his staff not to circulate the Smith piece. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co., sent word to his people that they should continue to act in the above-board way they always had. In a widely-publicized e-mail, he warned:
“I want to be clear that I don’t want anyone here to seek advantage from a competitor’s alleged issues or hearsay—ever. It’s not the way we do business.”
You can bet the bosses of other financial institutions have sent similar messages to their staff and clients, and will spend a lot of time and money trying to distance themselves from the blast and confirm that they’re above reproach. And you can bet that a lot of people, from spin doctors to corporate governance gurus, from HR executives to career coaches, from management consultants to IT security experts, will hop onto the bandwagon and make new work for themselves.
Make no mistake, this event has huge implications. It affects not just financial institutions, but all of business.
THE DIFFICULTY OF PROTECTING A REPUTATION WHEN YOU CAN’T PROTECT SECRETS
One of the most important social trends of the past half century has been the move towards openness and transparency. That’s a very good thing. But it doesn’t make life easy for business.
Windows to the internal workings of organizations are being forced wide open. Largely as a result of scandals at Enron, Anderson, and many other firms, corporate governance has become a growth industry. Firms are required to provide more and more information about themselves. They face a growing number of regulators and a growing tide of regulation, vigilant law enforcement agencies, and courts that are under pressure to impose severe sanctions for shenanigans.
News-hungry media are quick to spot wrongdoing. Consumer hotlines not only give disgruntled customers a voice, but also make it likely that one complaint will trigger a shitstorm of others. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, e-mail, instant messaging, and other social media make it increasingly hard to keep anything under wraps, and easy to be a critic or spread dirt. And reasonableness, objectivity, balance, and truth do not always prevail.
Wikileaks, has created awful problems for governments, the military, corporates, and individuals by splashing confidential material all over the internet. A growing community of criminal hackers break into government and business databases, and don’t hesitate to fraudulently use credit card details or post personal information on the web.
Whistleblowers like Greg Smith have long been a concern to employers. But if once they were vilified, they’re now encouraged, protected, applauded, and rewarded—true social heroes. Their motives don’t matter; the fact that they’re insiders, and therefore must know what’s going on, gives their views credibility and clout. And in a verbal war between a whistleblower and a company’s leaders, the underdog invariably wins most sympathy and support.
Dealing with anonymous attackers is no easy task. Fighting back when your attacker is a valued member of your team, apparently with nothing to gain by opening up—and apparently of unquestionable integrity, too—may be worse. The reputational damage that follows leaks is hard to contain or fix. A carefully-crafted image that has taken years to establish can be shredded in an instant.
VALUES DON’T GUARANTEE “GOOD” BEHAVIOUR
Surveys show that public trust in companies and their executives is at an all-time low. The trust level in many teams is also nowhere near where it should be. So what now? Do you demand that your new hires all sign confidentiality agreements? (And how enforceable are those, and do you really want to explain yourself in court?) Do you require the same of the people you already employ? How do you deal with those who refuse? How do you deal with violators?
According to Smith, Goldman has a culture problem. He has just provided the culture-change crowd with new inspiration—and a new promotional drum to beat.
One of their favorite tools is values. “Values-based management” (not the same thing as value management) or “managing by values” is a hot fad, and thanks to Smith, just got hotter. The theory is that if you spell out how you expect your people to behave, they’ll stay on the straight and narrow, be nice to each other, bust a gut for customers, and produce innovations galore. But that’s a very big “if.” And anxious executives should beware: changing culture is never easy and always slow, and values are no silver bullet. So while we’re in for a noisy debate about all this, and opportunists will make pots of money peddling “new” ways to make things better, don’t expect miracles.
Most values statements include the same handful of terms—”integrity,” “respect,” “innovation,” “service,” “responsibility,” “teamwork,” “accountability.” Yet precisely what these mean is often open to interpretation. And you have to ask: if this guff features so strongly in business books and leadership courses, if so much prominence is given to it in company documents and presentations and on office walls, and if it’s discussed so often and so seriously in team-building sessions and strategy workshops, why is “walking the talk” so uncommon?
The first reason is that it’s damned difficult. (The 10 Commandments haven’t done too well, have they?) It’s one thing to say that companies would solve many of their problems if they “just did the right thing,” but it’s quite another to actually do it. Values that sound so right when you adopt them are almost certain to clash with future circumstances, and what then? How much “flexibility” should you tolerate? When and how should you bend the rules? After all, values can’t be cast in stone … or can they? Should everyone be allowed to bend them, or just a special few?
The second reason is that all too often the very people who espouse a set of values are the ones who violate them. And are seen to violate them. They set a bad example—”Do what I say, not what I do.” Perhaps they never really believed in those values in the first place, but needed something to improve their company’s performance and thought a values statement might do the trick. Or maybe they were just humouring the HR department. Or they just wanted to be seen to be standing for the right things and to be in tune with the latest management thinking.
Individual and groups all have values of one sort or another. These may be either implicit or explicit. But it’s sheer delusion to think that merely drafting an explicit set of values will keep a company out of trouble. Take another look at Goldman’s response to Greg Smith:
“We were disappointed to read the assertions by this individual that DO NOT REFLECT OUR VALUES…”
This begs several questions: What exactly are those values? How were they defined and how are they communicated? Who champions them? How rigorously does the firm test itself against them? What sanctions exist for violating them?
It also illustrates the high probability of mixed messages about this very central, very potent subject. Leaders do not always send consistent signals. People interpret things differently. And they misinterpret things very easily.
For all the value in values, there’s also a risk in making a big deal of them. When you tell your team that you expect them to adhere to a certain code, every word immediately becomes a potential rod for your own back. From the minute you utter them, the people around you listen, watch, and wait: “Oh yes … let’s see if she really means this.” And if you’re not 100% resolute and consistent in your own behaviour, their response will be, “If she was so serious about those values, but then didn’t stick to them, what else is she not being honest about? How can I trust her about anything?”
DID SMITH DO THE RIGHT THING?
It’s easy to be critical of corporate behaviour—and much of it deserves major criticism. Whistleblowers do have an important role to play in exposing corporate misdemeanors and ensuring that executives are held to account. But while Smith complains that “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” he also admits, “I don’t know of any illegal behaviour…” No doubt, we’ll hear more about that. Meanwhile, several clients have commented on the internet that they use Goldman because it gets results for them.
Smith spent 12 years at Goldman, in New York and London, so had plenty of time to choose to leave. For at least a decade he “recruited and mentored candidates through our grueling interview process”—most likely in the last 10 years of his career there, not the first. So how was he able to suppress his growing disgust at Goldman’s ethos and its leaders, and what did he tell those young people? Why did he agree to keep selling something he abhorred?
In his essay, he makes a strong effort to establish his own bona fides, but doesn’t say whether he ever spoke up before he savaged the hand that fed him. We’re left to guess whether the practices that caused his disappointment in Goldman in any way helped him earn his bonuses.
Smith isn’t the first person to leave a firm in a public huff. He won’t be the last. But his use of the New York Times to strike at his employer was a particularly spiteful move.
The Greg Smith/Goldman Sachs case is a special one in many ways, and the story is a work in progress. It has a long, long way to run.
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