I Have Wells Fargo-Induced Nausea

There are several levels of severity to Wells Fargo-Induced Nausea (WFIN). 

Any company that creates 2 million, fee-generating sham accounts unbeknownst to customers is a company that should make one feel a bit ill.  Apparently, the pressure to cross-sell (i.e., to sell multiple bank products and services to customers) was tremendous within the “community” banking division of Wells Fargo.  I put “community” in quotes to denote sarcasm because the 5,300+ account managers who violated their customers’ trust and privacy probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about the community or the people who comprise it.  Or, at the very least, they valued their bonuses and jobs more than obeying the law and protecting their customers.

WFIN Level: 3 (I feel a bit queasy)

This morning, the Wells Fargo fraud was being discussed on NPR.  An attorney called in and claimed to be representing a former Wells Fargo employee who was terminated after attempting to blow the whistle on the wrongdoers. 

A few rogue account executives?  That would be understandable, though not acceptable.  Fifty-three hundred account executives violating customer trust (and likely the law)?  That’s symptomatic of a poorly designed compensation system that incents unethical behavior.  (Allegedly) firing someone for shining a light on such deplorable behavior?  That’s more than a structural issue – that's a cultural one, and it’s downright sickening.  That’s an organization that isn’t just willing to accept fraud but seeks to protect it.

WFIN Level: 7 (I feel clammy and I need to sit down)

But don’t worry.  Wells Fargo takes ethical standards seriously (ha!).  Wells Fargo is going to fix the problem (ha-ha!).  Wells Fargo has terminated 5,300 account managers (ok, that’s a start – holding people responsible) and is reimbursing the affected parties more than $5 million (ok, that’s good too).  Wells Fargo is also going to pay a $185 million fine (ouch, that’s gotta hurt – or not, since Wells Fargo had more than $20 billion in revenues last year). 

Finally, Carrie Tolstedt, the senior executive in charge of the division, will retire next year and earn $125 million on the way out the door (I’m sorry, I must’ve misheard that last part -- I could've sworn you just said the executive in charge is going to make a cool $125,000,000).

Fire the thousands of front-line employees but send the “leader” out with a nine-figure golden parachute???

WFIN Level: 10 (I just threw up in my mouth)

Simon Sinek, in his book Leaders Eat Last, describes leadership and followership as a social contract – one in which we don’t mind that our leaders make more money than we do because we get something in return.  Our leaders are supposed to protect us.  Executives are supposed to protect employees.  Employees are supposed to protect customers.  It seems that at Wells Fargo, there are no leaders -- except perhaps the whistle blower who was shown the door for blowing the whistle (allegedly). 

I’m a staunch supporter of free enterprise.  It’s done more good for the most vulnerable people in the world than all other forms of aid combined.  It has lifted billions of people out of starvation-level poverty and allowed millions of people to align their passions with their talents – and thereby pursue their dreams.

However, a free enterprise system requires more than a few regulatory contraints in order to work.  It requires leaders who behave honorably and ethically – who earn trust by protecting the people they're obligated to protect.

There is a dearth of trust-based leadership in our world.  My professional mission is to develop leaders who dignify work, engage people, and inspire excellence.  My mission is to help leaders lead in a manner worthy of followership.  Here’s what, I believe, we need:

1.       Leaders who approach everyday as an opportunity to earn the trust of others – not through clever rhetoric or sleight of hand but rather through authenticity, courage, and a properly ordered set of priorities.

2.       Specifically, leaders who are focused on earning three kinds of trust from the people they lead and the customers they serve: performance-based trust, integrity-based trust, and benevolence-based trust.  In other words, we need leaders who are dedicated to being competent, consistent, and caring.

Trust-based leadership is one part finding people with the right make-up and one part helping leaders develop the skills and habits necessary to be effective – even in environments of tremendous pressure.

We need leaders who embody the 3 C’s.

Competence: We need leaders who think objectively, lead humbly,  demonstrate insight, inquire curiously, look ahead, and who demonstrate self-awareness, self-discipline, and poise.  We need leaders who never think they've arrived, and who look in the mirror and ask "how can I be better tomorrow than I was today -- for the people I lead?"  

Consistency: We need leaders who not only know what the right thing to do is but who will actually do it.  We need leaders who are courageous – who will speak truth to power, take risks, stand up for their people, walk the talk, and challenge those who transgress core values.  We need leaders who integrate their values and the mission into everything they say and do in a way that is authentic and that resonates with others.

Care: We need leaders who value fairness and justice – leaders who seek to reward not only excellent performance but also excellent behavior (i.e., achieving results the right way).  We need leaders who have empathy and compassion – leaders who are thoughtful of the needs of customers, employees, managers, board members, and shareholders.  People who make decisions based upon organizational mission and values – not upon some psychopathic self-interest.

Improved leadership is not the entire answer, of course.  Wells Fargo, to return to our earlier example, suffers from tremendous structural flaws as well -- flaws that reinforce disgustingly self-serving choices by employees.  However, ultimately, it’s people who make decisions.  It's people who choose to practice the values they espouse (or not).  It's people who determine organization culture.  It's people who make the difference.  Every great success story begins with people and relationships -- and it's within the domains of intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning that the primary solutions must arise.

If you believe our world can be made a better place -- one leader and one organization at a time -- I hope you’ll share the More Than Foosball blog with others and continue to tune in to learn more about how we can cultivate more trust-based leadership, build more virtuous organizations, and create a more fulfilling and dignifying experience for employees and customers.