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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Twenty Questions to Move Business Forward

man wearing business suit holding a newspaper with world is changing headline

man wearing business suit holding a newspaper with world is changing headline

Ann Skeet

Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

The troops eat first.

Anyone exposed to military leadership practices, either personally or through the stories veterans tell, has heard this leadership principle. It has never been more relevant or necessary.

Civic and business leaders are wrestling now with the question of when to “re-open,” a phrase that’s not sitting well with many since they recognize we haven’t really closed. Rather, we’ve changed. Changed how we care for one another, how we work, how decisions are made, how we define teamwork, and how we think about fairness.

Here are considerations for leaders facing an unprecedented moment, to guide them in thinking about how best to move forward.

How we care for one another

We may never have another moment where there is such a shared awareness of what matters most: how we care for one another. As leaders plan for what needs to happen next, they have the opportunity to put human welfare first. They should not miss the moment.

Some long-discussed changes about how to care for each other now seem possible: basic healthcare, an end to homelessness, year-round school to close the achievement gap for children from low-income families; care for society’s most vulnerable—the sick, the children, the aged, and the marginalized. To care for them, we must see them first, a clarity global pandemic has offered.

Going forward—for we are never going back—leaders must first ask how the cares and concerns of their employees and the cares and concerns of the people those employees care for are met. How do we return to an acceptable level of productivity and personal freedom while danger—in the form of a deadly virus we cannot see, and may not even know we have—lingers? How do we raise people’s confidence and comfort in moving about safely?

What is top of mind right now is taking care of people. If school isn’t open for our children, how will we put in a full day’s work, even if we are fortunate enough to be doing so from home? If health care isn’t accessible and affordable, how will people take care of themselves? Right now, fearing Covid-19, there are fewer people seeking treatment of any kind, which works against disease prevention, early treatment, and healthy living. Shutting everyone inside is not good for health or productivity in any sector.

Business leaders have tremendous influence. They can use it now to get children back into a social learning environment safely. Year-round academic calendars can build in more regular breaks—better for students and their families, a more flexible and adaptable school calendar, able to shift when circumstances change. They can use it to facilitate a change in health care. Furloughed employees who have secured health insurance on the open exchange can be given the option to augment that coverage when they return to work, not replace it wholesale with the employer’s insurance, leaving them vulnerable to the next workforce shock we cannot anticipate.

Philanthropists must step up. There is too much money sitting on the sidelines right now. Now is the time to redistribute some wealth, creating a society that works better for everyone. We are finding the will, the solidarity, to address problems we could not tackle before the virus. If we don’t want to be Singapore, let’s anticipate how quickly Covid-19 might cripple our food supply by sickening migrant farm workers and improve their working conditions. Now that we have imagined a way to shelter the homeless in hotels in the midst of this crisis, can we imagine a way to sustain their support?

Another sound leadership principle is to never ask someone to do something you would not be willing to do yourself. People have been asked to work when they don’t feel safe, in all ways, physically and psychologically, for decades. In the way OSHA, Maslow, and #Metoo reporters would measure safety, in ways people sense instinctively. Now is the time to prioritize the care of people while they work, and the care they provide for people at home.

Questions about caring for people

  1. How will we keep people safe at work?
  2. How will we keep people healthy at home?
  3. Who will take care of the children and the aging well, so we can focus at work?

  4. Who will take care of our jobs, when we need to focus on our children or our aging?

  5. Who will take care of the people that have no one else to take care of them?

  6. What values will guide these decisions?


How decisions are made

Data and facts are back. People are being included in the decisions that affect them. Decisions are so big, many of us find comfort in making them by consensus. We are more aware of the downstream effects of our decisions than ever before. Leaders are taking time to share the thinking behind their decisions. Human beings instinctively, it seems, understand what constitutes ethical deliberation. This level of transparency, of acknowledging uncertainty, may be uncomfortable for some accustomed to more traditional closed leadership loops, but there is a reason inclusive, mindful decision-making produces better results.

Questions about decision making

7. Do we have the data and information we need? Where can we get it?

8. Have we involved the people affected by this decision? 

9. Can we reach consensus?

      10. Have we considered the downstream effects of our decisions, considered all the risks?

      11. Have we considered how those risks and benefits are distributed amongst various stakeholders?

      12. Have we communicated the rationale behind our decision?


Teamwork defined

The organizations that are able to bounce back fastest are those with a healthy respect for all functions it takes to succeed—the strategic and the tactical—and acknowledge that they must all be done well to achieve that success. Open communication, not just from the CEO, but from a network of leaders throughout companies, is helping organizations to be nimbler and more responsive during this troubling time. 

Colleagues are acknowledging personal burdens to one another more openly. We may not be in the office together all day, but we know each other better perhaps, for the patience and tolerance we have had to move meetings, wait for people to care for their kids, or fumble with a new technology. 

We are cheering each other on, pausing and grieving when that is called for, adjusting for each other’s vulnerabilities, grateful for each other’s strengths and capabilities. People are working from a place of abundance, appreciating what each other can do, knowing when a colleague needs time to regroup.

Questions about trust and teamwork

13. How can we identify strengths?

14. How can we call on those strengths when we need them, without regard to job title?

15. Do the people on the frontline have what they need? If not, how can we support them?


How we work

Overnight, leaders can see how a climate of trust and mutual respect helps organizations thrive, by helping people thrive. You can’t micromanage someone working from home, or not working at all. Old habits have been broken. Let’s not fix them.

It turns out people can be enormously productive at home, even if their senses have been overloaded on Zoom. They are figuring out when to turn off the camera. Mute. Follow-up with a quick call. Leaders are citing an uptick in efficiency and improved communications.

Leaders are letting employees choose a schedule that works for them and discovering a commute practice that works better for the planet. If people can’t work from home, adjust the health and wage benefits to acknowledge this reduced flexibility. Environmental impact? What if working from home one to two days a week became the norm? Set times for collaboration and expectations for in-person work and let people design the rest of their workweek on their own. Lower stress in families reduces health care costs, supports mental health in children and parents, and keeps cars off the road. It’s a win.

Questions about control over work environment

16. How much time do we need to identify for collaboration?

17. What are the key deliverables for our business? How does each employee contribute to them?

18. What must be done in person? How do we make sure our time together in person accomplishes those things?


A system that is equitable

We can never un-see what we are seeing now. We see workplace injustice as clearly as we ever will. The people in essential jobs do not make enough money to care for themselves and their loved ones. If we want them to come to work for the rest of us, it is only fair that we treat them better—equip them safely to do their work and pay them enough to secure their families while they secure us.

Moral math has never been easier to compute. It’s too simple to calculate executive bonuses and determine how many jobs could be saved if those are forgone. How many more jobs could be created if they did not exist in the first place? Boards have a moral obligation to the long term viability of the companies they serve. By now, they must appreciate all that has been lost in the huge gap between the haves and the have nots in companies—the elite executive ranks and everyone else—and the growing unethical behavior in companies. 

Questions of fairness?

19. Does compensation offered take account of employee risks?

20. Am I asking people to do something I am not willing to do myself (work without healthcare, proper protection, inadequate pay)?

The more equally people are treated, the more evenly they are committed. The best leaders have always understood that employees should be treated well if you want the customer to be treated well. Feed the troops first.

Apr 28, 2020