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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Doing What Works

a scale being balanced with weights

a scale being balanced with weights

Ann Skeet

Ann Skeet is the Senior Director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

“Keep doing what works. Stop doing what doesn’t work.”  Such simple wisdom, but it seemed remarkable to me because of who wrote it to me and when.  I reached out to a friend on his birthday, just a few weeks after his brother had died suddenly in his sleep at a relatively young age.  In a moment when I thought I was the one offering comfort and compassion, it came right back to me in his simple response.

I share my friend’s wisdom here because it is all I have to offer in the face of such uncomfortable times both nationally and here in Silicon Valley, where we are in the midst of much scrutiny and, hopefully, some self-reflection, about what works and what doesn’t and how we figure that out.  It is another way of capturing the essence of ethics; questions humans have asked themselves over the centuries to define a good life.

It’s easy to focus on what doesn’t work, a trap I find myself in often.  Here at the Markkula Center, we are fortunate to have advisors and benefactors who encourage us to look for what works.  I am grateful to them for we have received support to focus on this now in leadership ethics—to package some of the tools we offer to people and organizations who seek our counsel at the Markkula Center and share them so that more people are informed about what works.

Most of the time, I have no idea, so I read a lot to understand and write to process what I have come to understand.  My friend's words came to me at the end of an extended pause in my normal routine, a pause I was nudged into due to my own health challenges and those of my family members.  We need to find a way to allow for such pauses without crises.  The concept of sabbatical may be an academic best practice more people and institutions could put to good use.  The pause allowed me to be more open to the wisdom in my friend’s words.

My work is primarily in leadership, in both business and social sector ethics, where I spend my time trying to understand what works and what doesn’t and share with others what I have come to understand.  It’s harder than it looks because there are many different criteria for what works and what doesn’t, a challenge of the human condition.

The pause allowed me to reflect on the work I have done and leads me to double down on optimism and positivity.  When I read how I process, too much of it comes across as critique of people’s choices and actions.  I don’t know too many people who respond well to shaming.  My own choices and actions are not perfect.  I’ve been making mistakes in leadership roles since at least the sixth grade, when I would occasionally fudge the daily temperature outside in my role as captain of the patrols to declare it a “hot chocolate” morning for the guards.  Was it wrong if we were a degree or two from the cutoff to let my fellow patrols come in and warm themselves before class?  Depends on what you think works when in a formal leadership position.  What works when you are not the official leader, or an informal leader, or just trying to be a darned good follower?

Look forward to the notes from the field of other professionals and citizens that we plan to share by synthesizing what we learn here at the center.  For example, we have done an ethical culture assessment for a major, multinational corporation here in Silicon Valley but in a way I consider unique and the company found helpful.  The output was compelling and useful. We will share the process we used along with some recommendations for how you might use it in organizations you are connected to in your daily lives.  

Please come back to our site regularly, as we begin to bring more of what we do in an open source way.  Together, we can figure out what works and keep doing it.

Mar 13, 2019

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