What sleeping with a machete by my pillow taught me about people management

Encouraging good behaviour cannot be automated, says author José Hernandez.

by José Hernandez
Last Updated: 06 Mar 2019

This past February, I returned to El Salvador, the country where I was born. Each year, my wife, children, and I, who live in The Netherlands, and my parents, who live in Canada, make the journey back to reconnect with our roots and enjoy the beauty of the country and its people.

As we drive from San Salvador to my cousin’s restaurant on the flank of the volcano that towers over the city, there is always a tinge of uneasiness. I emmigrated to Canada more than 30 years ago, but the memories of El Salvador’s civil war are never far from my mind. Gangs, violence, and corruption still blight the country. On this trip home, the ride was slow but uneventful, with frequent stops to let stray dogs to cross the road.

Upon arrival, we met up with Heberto, a local fisherman who sold us his catch for a big family dinner. He greeted us shirtless, and I noticed large wound on his left arm. He told us that a stranger with a machete and a bone to pick had come to his house and a fight ensued, resulting in the large scar.

When I was a boy, I noticed my grandfather carried a machete for work and safety. During the civil war, I often kept one by my pillow at night.

Although we left El Salvador in the mid-1980s, the experiences of my boyhood have shaped my career in a significant way. Witnessing the effects of rampant corruption on my homeland fostered a life-long commitment to fighting it, and trying to reverse corruption’s ruinous effects on organisations, communities, and society at large.

For the last 20 years, I have worked as an advisor to leaders of global companies, helping them to address serious ethical issues such as corruption, fraud, and money laundering within their organisations. In the process, I have developed an approach that I call ‘Empowering Integrity’, which is about embedding ethical considerations deeply into the fabric of corporate decision-making.

Effectively managing people is a core pillar of this approach, because ultimately integrity is a human value. You can invest in the most sophisticated policies, procedures, systems, and controls to prevent and detect misconduct, but empowering integrity depends, above all, on things that cannot be automated, such as leadership, culture, and good judgment.

So, what have my life experiences taught me about cultivating these hard-to-define qualities in your organisation’s people?

Foster a Speak Up Culture

In countries where corruption and organised crime run rampant, people are often afraid of speaking up against the injustices they witness on a daily basis. In companies, whistle-blowers can play a major role in bringing ethical issues to light, but only if they feel empowered to speak up about questionable conduct that they have observed. Protect them from all forms of retaliation and discrimination, and ensure that they are made aware of the communication channels that are available to them. And make sure to independently investigate all allegations that they bring to your attention.

Keep a Watchful Eye on ‘Superstars’

‘Superstars’ are charismatic, ambitious, high-performing managers who are afforded the autonomy and operational latitude to circumvent established policies, systems, and controls. They are feted by their companies (and often by investors and the media too) for their successes. They can also be monstrous to the people they want to control. Individuals with this much power frequently end up being the focal point of fraud, corruption, and harassment issues in their companies. It is a key governance responsibility to rein them in and not allow the ethical blind spots they create to persist.

Be mindful of excessive pressure to perform and conform

This applies to companies just as it does in countries where citizens are kept in line using fear and propaganda. When employees are pushed to an unrealistic degree – or are left operating within silos ruled by powerful managers – they often find themselves forced to cut ethical corners or rationalise improper conduct.

Get accountability right

CEOs set the ethical bar for an organisation through the conduct that they demonstrate and tolerate, their transparency in decision-making, and the courage that comes from admitting mistakes (along with the resolve to take swift corrective action). Resist the temptation to excuse or rationalise bad behaviour. Avoid double standards in disciplinary measures. Ensure that integrity is a non-negotiable consideration in hiring, promotion, rewards, and sanctioning.

Managing and leading people is an art form. Whether in El Salvador or the UK, I believe that most people want to achieve a better tomorrow for themselves, their families, and their communities. They want the organisations that employ them to support their sense of identity and purpose, and to reflect their core ethical values. By following the people-focused guidance above, leaders can help deliver on this promise.

José Hernandez is the CEO of crisis response consultancy Ortus Strategies and the author of new book Broken Business: Seven Steps to Reform Good Companies Gone Bad (Wiley, £18.99).

Image credit: PhoThoughts/GettyImages


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