Perspectives on Ethics

Ethics is very important in every field, particularly in procurement. I want to first acknowledge the high ethical standards that my colleagues live by in the performance of their duties as public procurement officials. Many states and municipal level governments have adopted their own ethics laws. These laws generally prescribe principles that all public officials must abide by.  

Ethics has been talked about since ancient times. In Ancient Greece, Socrates was and still is considered the Father of Ethics. The ancient Greek term for ethics is êthos, which refers to character. Socrates’ teachings focused mostly on good and bad character traits; on virtues and vices. Plato also spoke about ethics from a virtue-based perspective. He argued that happiness and well-being are the highest goals of moral thought and conduct. Well-being is the result of a virtue-based pursuit of higher knowledge and fulfilling man’s social obligation to the common good.

Ethics shows up in your decision-making.  Twenty-five-hundred years after the eloquent work of the great thinkers, Larry Chonko, PhD, Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Texas, Arlington, defines four categories of ethical theory associated with decision making. Not everyone has the same ethics filters when making decisions.  

  • Deontology: People should adhere to their obligations and duties when making decisions.  
  • Utilitarianism: It is based on one’s ability to predict the consequences of an action. 
  • Rights: The highest priority is to protect the rights established by society or community.
  • Virtues: Focuses on a person’s character rather than any action that may deviate from normal behavior.

Three of these categories deal with the external aspect of ethics and what it looks like to be ethical. One of them focuses on the person and his/her core values.  Our interpretation of ethics is important because there are two different perspectives: policies and people. 

The first perspective deals with acceptable behavior based on external parameters, whether law or policy. These laws or policies help define how an action would be interpreted by others and what the potential consequences might be. Organizations have institutionalized ethics to establish principles that govern the behavior expected of its members.  This is often referred to as the code of ethics. In some jurisdictions, ethics is handled by the attorneys. I have nothing against that, someone needs to oversee that function. The point that I want to make is that ethics is not just about what’s legal or not. It is about what’s right and what’s wrong, which the law attempts to codify from the perspective of legality. 

A second perspective deals with a person’s character and the values that they live by. Integrity plays a big role in the result of an established ethics code.  Integrity is the person’s moral compass that guide their every action. It guides them in their decisions between what’s right and what’s wrong, even when no one is watching. Without minimizing the value of a code of ethics as guidance based on principles of good conduct and the behavior expected from each individual, people ultimately dictate the level of effectiveness of such ethics policies and laws.

A solid character makes trust possible. Character communicates consistency, potential, and respect. This is true for everyone, especially leaders.  It is hard, if not impossible, to trust a leader who does not consistently show inner strength. A person who is talented but has a weak character is like a time bomb that can cause significant damage. Having talent is not enough because people with weak character are not trustworthy. A person who does not have a strong inner compass cannot earn the respect of others. To achieve ethical behavior in an organization, personal inner values must align with ethics principles.  

In some instances, fraud, abuse, misconduct and overall unethical behavior still occur despite the ethics codes adopted by the organization. We have seen cases come up in the business world, government, media, entertainment, and even in the religious area. Most of the organizations where high profile scandals occurred had a code of ethics of some sort. Yet, those policies did not stop the wrongdoing that cost many their careers, reputation, and even freedom. Sure, anyone can make a mistake.  But these cases are not the result of a one-time mistake. They were the result of a series of  repeated actions… the wrong actions. The State of  Illinois took on an ethics reform initiative after corruption at the highest level planted doubt and distrust in government in general. Like Illinois, there have been other states and municipalities that have fallen victim of a scandal and tightened their ethics rules as a result.

These were actions by individuals who perhaps lost their way at some point in time and were overcome with the dark thoughts that they held deep inside.  What may lead a person to lose their way? Perhaps it is greed, the desire to get ahead at all cost, the thought that they will not get caught, or simply a weak moral compass. One can only speculate what the reasons might be.  I’m not here to judge their actions. I am sure there is more to the story than what’s been shared in each case. Why did they consider deceit as the best choice? Did they think they were choosing between right or wrong or did it not cross their mind? How did they justify the actions in their conscience? Were they not aware that the choice could harm others? These are questions that linger in my mind.  In each case, the fraudulent and deceitful actions were kept from public knowledge. I think that the reason why these actions were hidden is because those involved knew they were wrong. Perhaps their motives were stronger than their values, or maybe it is simply a character weakness.

Every profession has a code of ethics. As we have likely all observed first-hand or read about cases of unethical behavior, we know that a code of ethics may not prevent an individual from wrongdoing. But a formalized code provides guidance and a reminder of the type of behavior expected.

Ultimately, ethics is a personal matter. A person’s moral compass must point in the right direction for ethics policies to be truly effective. Having integrity, character, and being trustworthy is about the small things. Trust has a compounding effect. If a person can’t be trusted with small things, they definitely can’t be trusted with bigger things. A strong foundation can withstand the challenges of temptation. A reason why some people may struggle with issues of integrity is because they look outside themselves to explain character deficiencies. Integrity commits to character over personal gain. A person of high integrity will adhere to moral and ethical principles whether written or implicit.  

Most people want to do the right thing or at least, I choose to believe that. They want to live in peace and harmony with others. Then, what is the solution to minimize ethics breaches?  I don’t think that anyone has found the solution yet, but the reactionary approach is to enact more laws and implement tighter policies. These are all external solutions.  I don’t think that the problem is that people chose to conduct themselves unethical due to the lack of policies and laws.  No, I think it is a values issue. As such, it is an inside job.  

It starts with all of us and the behavior that we model for our children, particularly in their formative years. Perhaps we don’t think much of small infractions like cutting a line, forgetting to pay for an item and not rectifying the situation, watching a second movie while at the movie theater without paying for the second one, or telling the little white lies to get by or avoid an undesired task. It is about the little things. If the little things compound to build trust, they can also compound to build distrust. I believe that we should raise our awareness and take inventory of these small infractions. Even though these small infractions from a consequential perspective did not significantly harm anyone, we need to be intentional about taking action to keep these little wrongs from potentially having a negative effect in society.  I think that we are all responsible. Do I think there will no longer be a breach? No, I think that there will always be someone whose unchecked ambition will drive him/her to deceive others.  But any effort that we make will move our community in the direction for a better future and a make this a better place for future generations.

To conclude, people have different filters when it comes to ethics. There is an external perspective that focuses on the actions that we see and judge; and there is the internal factor that relates to our core values. Both perspectives are valid, and they complement each other. I don’t believe that you can have an effective ethics policy without people’s good moral compass. Ideally, external, prescribed behaviors and internal, personal values align to create a self-perpetuating ethical culture. Individual decisions and actions that consistently reflect institutionalized norms and personal value are the basis of integrity. Integrity fosters trust. And trust is the foundation of our relationships, society and government. 

I think a better way to look at ethics is by simply following the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Ethics is really about the golden rule!

The 3 Things We Should Know about Effective Communication …and Practice

It’s been said that communication is the single most important skill to the success of individuals in all aspects of life. I often listen to the advice that great communicators have to offer, such as Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robins, John Maxwell, Les Brown and others. I also listen to experts dissect the different communication styles of these great speakers with the goal of learning about patterns, techniques, and their take on “the secret sauce” to effective communication. I have found that the advice provided by these experts is somewhat similar, even if they don’t use the same terms to express it.

Communication is the transfer of information between two or more parties. There are three parts to communication: the message, the sender or message generator, and the recipient of the message. The education system does a decent job of instilling in us the technical aspects when it comes to the message. We begin learning at an early age the rules of grammar, syntax, and even literature.  We learn how to craft a message by writing essays, reports, letters, and even poetry. Yet, we don’t graduate being skilled communicators. There is more to communication than words, grammar, or correct syntax. The skill of communicating effectively is not in the core curriculum of the education system. But I think it should be, because even with all the years of language education, many do not grasp the concept of how to craft a clear message that has a high chance of being understood by the recipient in the way intended.  

To get some perspective on this subject, I want to share one of the interesting things that I learned later in life. Words account for only 7% of the communication. The other 93% is comprised of body language, face expression, and tonality. So, we spent all those years trying to learn how to write and understand the meaning of words, but their effect is really less than 90%.  I will not dive into details on this today, but many of the great speakers talk about this in their talks or their books.

I don’t think that anyone will argue against the need to continue to grow in the skill and art of effective communication. In fact, we should all be required to take a course to set us off on the communication growth journey and to help us avoid some rookie mistakes when we start a job!  If you consider your job duties, regardless of where you are in the organization, you will at some point be required to communicate with someone, whether an end user, supplier, a member of an interest group, a member of the governing body, your supervisor, or a colleague.  

Communication comes into play as we promote and live procurement values with every project that we handle. Let’s take transparency, for example. It requires clarity. Transparency is manifested in part in the solicitation documents. Requirements need to be clearly articulated. But before the requirements can be clearly articulated in a document, good listening should take place. Procurement professionals provide process leadership and service, but for anyone to follow, there has to be some level of connection that positively influences the stakeholders to follow his/her advice and adhere to the process, policies and legal requirements. Let me then highlight the three essential aspects of effective communication.

  1. Listen to Understand

Listening is a skill that we don’t practice enough. Many of us think we listen, but we are truly not. Listening to understand requires that you abandon the need to jump to conclusions, finish the persons thought, judge the message or the person communicating the message. Some great listeners place their index finger on their lips as a reminder to listen and keep them from interrupting the other person. Listening to understand requires empathic focus on the person’s message. Listening is one of the greatest gifts that you can give another person, particularly if as a result they feel heard, validated, and understood. Everyone wants to be heard. When a person feels heard, they can be more receptive to your response. 

2. Clear and Concise Message

A clear and concise message will help avoid confusion. Avoid using too many words.  Sometimes we want to show our expansive vocabulary and end up confusing the other person. If you tend to ramble or get sidetracked, write down the main point in simple, everyday words. Many people stop paying attention if the point is lost in the abundance of words. Also, make an effort to know your audience or learn about them so that you can communicate in a way that they understand. Even when you are using the storytelling technique, it is important to make the point with the least number of words in order to make it effective. So, the advice is to keep it simple.

3. Connection

Connecting with people encompasses good listening skills and a clear message. This skill goes beyond verbal communication. It requires you to be authentic but also to meet the person where they are. This may require blending your style or mirroring the style of the person with whom you want to communicate. To connect requires some extra effort.  Don’t expect people to adapt to you; instead, help people relate to you by meeting them where they are emotionally. From a broader perspective the goal of communicating is to connect with the other person.  When you have a connection, a common ground, or are in rapport, the communication becomes a vehicle for trust.  If you want to positively influence others, communicate to connect. 

When we think about these three aspects of effective communication, it is easy to think that we implement them – occasionally. The key is to be consistent in the application of these techniques. Sometimes we lack the awareness that our communication is not optimized, perhaps because of the mountain of work at the desk that robs us of the opportunity to intentionally improve our communication. I know many procurement professionals committed to their work and to the service that they provide to their community. Like me, they want to make a positive impact.  Over time, they masterfully juggle an insane number of projects particularly if they find themselves in a “solo procurement” scenario. Unfortunately, all the hard work may be overshadowed by their inability to practice tactics that can help them achieve effective communication on a consistent basis.  

The ability to communicate effectively and more importantly to connect, is key to a successful career. Any successful person may agree that communication is or has been an essential contributor of their success. Perhaps this is why despite all the good and hard work that some professionals do on a daily basis, they may feel that their level of success may not be commensurate with their efforts. There could be many factors why success in the form of promotions may have skipped them, but one that is sure to have an impact is “communication”. In his book, “Everyone Communicates, Few Connect”, Dr. John C. Maxwell talks about this. He states that hard work, even when the result is a great job, is insufficient to achieve success. In order to be successful, one must really be able to communicate effectively with others. 

Communication is important in all areas of our lives. This is particularly true if you want to lead, especially when leading a transformation process. Since people naturally reject change or being changed, effective communication is one of the key enabling factors. So, if you are leading change, there is no option but to be intentional about practicing techniques that help you communicate effectively.

In conclusion, to be successful in the different aspects of life, we need to continue to improve our communication. It’s not enough to work hard or have degrees or certifications. Effective communication requires practice and intentionality. Getting good at consistently communicating effectively is not the result of a one-time seminar or a finite time period for practice. When we consider our limitations, the complexities of human behavior, and the environmental challenges that restrict the way we communicate, it is easy to reason that getting good at communicating is a life-long journey.  

The Five Qualities of a Highly Impactful Team

It takes a team…! Whenever you see a successful leader, there is certainly a capable team beside that leader. As Dr. John C. Maxwell stated:  “One is too small of a number to achieve greatness”. A leader can accomplish some goals but to reach significance a leader needs a team.  Phil Jackson, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls back in the 1990s, stated: “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” Team members contribute their talents, and the entire benefit from the collective contributions of each member.

Coming together is a beginning

Staying together is progress

And working together is success

–Henry Ford

Creating a cohesive team requires thoughtful consideration to bring together the talent needed to achieve specific goal(s). A team is as strong as its weakest link.  Strong, successful teams have certain qualities in common.

Members of great teams are committed to high performance.

Each team member shares the responsibility for the entire team’s success and each of its individual members. Each team member’s performance determines the team’s success. I read a story that exemplifies the commitment to high performance for the benefit of another team member. The story is about the veteran Charles Plumb, a US jet fighter pilot in Vietnam.  

Plumb was ejected from his jet and parachuted into enemy territory.  He spent six years in a Vietnamese prison.  After released and back in the US, he was sitting at a café one day, a man came up to him and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!” Plumb was confused and asked how the man knew about that. “I packed your parachute,” the man replied. The man then shook his hand and said, “I guess it worked!” Plumb assured him it had and said, “If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.”

The story reveals the importance of skills and the ability to perform at your best when it matters most. In a good team, members are committed to the cause and its members. This story also unveils the element of trust.  

In great teams, members develop trusting relationships.

In his book “The Infinite Game”, Simon Sinek makes an interesting observation about the difference between a trusting team and a team. He states that in a team where a group of people come together to achieve a specific result, the relationship amongst the team members tend to be transactional. In contrast, in a trusting team environment, the team members develop a trusting relationship. Trust is a feeling that develops in the layering of situations where team members feel safe to be vulnerable. Trust cannot be imposed, required or demanded. Trust and vulnerability go hand in hand. A violation of trust essentially eliminates vulnerability, which then shatters the possibility of trust. 

In great teams, members are committed to working collaboratively towards a common goal.

The 1992 Olympic Men’s Basketball Team aka “The Dream Team” is an example of collaboration towards a common goal – to bring home gold. The Dream Team was comprised of the best players in basketball history. To win gold, they had to put aside their egos and unite on a common objective. They had to trust each other on the basketball court to attain greatness as an Olympic team. “The whole is better than the sum of its parts.” –Aristotle

Another example is a team that over time has seen the participation of the brightest minds in the world, The Royal Society of London. The Society is committed to a common goal: the advancement of science. Under his leadership in the 1700s, Sir Isaac Newton asserted the Society’s dominant role in science.  With the help of Edmond Halley, the Society published Newton’s Principia Mathematica. It is one of the most influential books of all time describing the action of gravity. Through the Society’s photographic expeditions of the solar eclipse in 1919, astronomers confirm Albert Einstein’s relativity theory. Today, the Society fosters international scientific cooperation, innovative research, and better communication between scientists and the public.    

Members of great teams listen, communicate, and connect. 

Google led a research initiative on the qualities of the best teams, Project Aristotle, and concluded that the best teams are those whose members listen to one another and show sensitivity.  

In NASA 1969 Apollo 11, for example, the team had over 400,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians.  The astronauts of that mission were Whilst Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. These men made it a point of visiting the laboratories where these scientists, engineers, and technician worked in order to establish the human connection with the people on whose hands they were entrusting their lives.  

The Manhattan Project, despite the controversial team’s purpose and extreme secrecy (developing an atomic bomb during WWII), is considered another of the most impactful teams in history.  It is said that communication and collaboration made it one of the most effective teams.  

Leadership and clarity are necessary to achieve greatness in a team.

The leader has a role in helping the team achieve greatness. Without effective leadership and clarity, it is very difficult for a team to achieve anything, much less greatness. Even when its members are highly talented and accomplished individuals who have enjoyed “solo recognition”, it is essential for the leader to create the right environment for high performance. Talent can be powerful in a team, but only if there is commitment to a common goal and collaboration. Where talent is abundant in the team, but self-interest guides team members actions, it is impossible to establish trust.

What undermines team success?

Research by The Ken Blanchard Companies concluded that teams fail due to a variety of reasons. Three of those conditions caught my attention:

  • lack of effective leadership and support
  • lack of clarity of purpose
  • lack of talent or training.

There are many examples of failed teams even when their members were very talented. Enron, for example, was a highly regarded company.  They violated the trust of many due to greed. They deceived over 20,000 employees who were left to face significant personal financial losses.  

Another example is the changes to the LA Lakers Basketball Team after the 2002 championship that the leadership of that organization made. Two very talented team members who enjoyed individual recognition were unable to work collaboratively. There were a number of player trades made by the organization, which essentially created a new team. The new team did not possess the qualities necessary to maintain its champion status in the season that followed. The inability to collaborate was detrimental to creating a cohesive team environment. The organization may have overestimated the value of individual talent and did not put enough attention to the other qualities required to assemble a strong team.

In conclusion, some of the most impactful teams in history attribute their success to a strong foundation of trust, respect, communication, collaboration, and a commitment to a common goal. The qualities that make a team successful are interconnected. The leader must orchestrate well the resources, talent, and the environment in order for the team’s efforts to achieve high impact. The leader has an important role in creating an environment that brings out the best of the team collectively and individually. When there is clarity of purpose and effective leadership, the team can move the organization in the right direction. 

About the Author: Lourdes Coss is a retired Chief Procurement Officer with 27 years of government procurement and transformation experience; the author of “Procurement Methods: Effective Techniques”; and an executive coach, speaker, leadership & procurement trainer, and procurement consultant

Procurement and Pandemic: Adjust, Learn, Grow

Many of us entered the public procurement profession by accident. Perhaps the variety was enough to keep you interested or you may have stayed because you were too busy to think about anything else.  Either way, it must have brought enough satisfaction that maybe five years into it you saw possibilities for growth or to positively impact the community.  

After so many years “making an impact” behind the scenes, it is was your turn to shine in one of the most difficult times in history.  At a time where the coronavirus has plagued the world, you have been present supporting those frontline workers in an effort to minimize the devastating effects that this pandemic has had in many nations.

You’ve left no stone unturned.  My compliments to you for jumping on social media, private networking sites, and getting in touch with colleagues and friends in the old fashion way in order to respond to the needs of your organization and your community. It’s good to see that front lines workers have taken notice of the role of procurement. I was talking with my daughter, who for most of her childhood didn’t quite understand what I did for a living and was pleasantly surprised when she told me about the preparedness of her institution because of the timely actions taken by procurement. I am sure that many colleagues can relate to this. So, walk proudly, procurement professional, you’ve done an amazing job.

As the world cautiously opens up and we move to what we may consider a new normal, remember to build on this public recognition to keep the coveted seat at the table past this crisis. There is value in what you do and now others recognize it.  Here is an opportunity to create a new normal with you at the table. Operating under the shadow of a different role in the organization should not be a path forward. We’ve clearly seen that extreme penny pinching resulted in the lack of preparedness. Sure, I don’t believe that anyone could have anticipated the magnitude of this crisis, but organizations that had the foresight to keep up with technology were clearly better able to pivot and respond to the situation almost seamlessly. Seize the opportunity to remove the procurement function from the shadows. You’ve shown your value and now you can build up from there. 

While you think and, most importantly, act on the opportunities that lie ahead, take time to reflect on the path forward.  Here are some thoughts  that can help you show your leadership and growth as an organization.

  • Reflect on this Experience: The experience is only valuable if you learn from it. Take time to reflect on the lessons learned. Reflect on the problems that you faced and how you were able to overcome obstacles under the circumstances to find a solution. Write down the situation and the strategy used to solve the problem. Determine why it worked so that you are able to apply the strategy to other situations in the future. Document and involve your team in putting together a crisis action plan. Include checklists, scenarios, draft procedures, and needed changes to current policy or regulations. Also, make this a growth opportunity for your team.
  • Action: Take the action necessary to prepare for the next time there is a crisis. What are the things that you wished you had in place during this pandemic that could have made it easier for you to handle the situation and solve the problems with which you were presented? If appropriate, implement any policies or strategies that will make your organization more flexible, stronger and better prepared for the next crisis.
  • Technology – Systems & Equipment: Perhaps one of the action items for certain entities is related to innovation, technology and computer equipment.  
    • Technology: Many organizations were not prepared from the technology perspective to conduct business online. This made it difficult to maintain the operation remotely, which increased the level of difficulty during the crisis. If your current work environment is not prepared to operate virtually in an emergency, consider what steps and resources are necessary to begin making progress towards that goal. When investing in new technology, it is prudent to consider the mobility aspect so that business can continue without the need to be in a specific location. A word of caution here is to void the shiny object syndrome, stay focused on the functionality that is needed.Computer Equipment: Some agencies had antiquated computer equipment that did not offer the flexibility for mobility. This made it very difficult to maintain the connectivity amongst teams and/or the rest of the organization. In some cases, employees had to use their own computer equipment, which presents other problems such as greater risk of cybersecurity attacks.
    • Systems: Systems for capturing the costs associated with the emergency is another area that some agencies will need to address. Depending on the situation, the organization may choose to rely on a series of spreadsheets, minor tweaks to existing technology, or the exploration of adequate technology that will enable agencies to capture costs real time. Having a protocol for expenditures related to a crisis is important especially when it’s time to seek reimbursement.  Developing a strategy after the crisis or perfecting the one that worked during the crisis may proof advantageous for all involved. When developing the system take into consideration risk management, but don’t overcompensate by doubling up on approvals. Think strategically and keep it simple.
  • Relationships: Evaluate how your interaction with certain individuals helped you during the crisis. Think about the things that you can do to strengthen those relationships without jeopardizing your position. Perhaps it is as simple as having their contact information handy or creating a directory of key individuals that were helpful during the crisis. It wouldn’t hurt to check in once in a while. It may be also advantageous to evaluate the networks that proved most fruitful and form a task force to evaluate how it can be improved.

This crisis situation has opened the door to opportunities for the procurement professional. The need for technology, systems and mobility is now very obvious to all. If in the past you couldn’t sell the advantages of technology capabilities, this is a chance to initiate that conversation. The need is very obvious and failure to upgrade may put the organization at a huge disadvantage. Everyone has been faced with the technology challenges at a personal and professional level. Individuals and organizations that were able to pivot to a virtual environment quickly fared better than those that were not equipped to do so.

To conclude, procurement professionals managed to stand out in what has been one of the worst crisis situations of our time. The actions taken to prepare for the new normal and for future crisis situations is up to each procurement professional and entity. Remember that this is not the last emergency or crisis situation.  Sometime in the future, you will find yourself in another, hopefully not as major as this one. The lessons that you learned during this time will help you increase your efficiency later. The extent to which action is taken to prepare and to mitigate the effect of a future crisis to the organization and the community that it serves, will depend on each person’s ability to take this experience and grow from it.