Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Where Companies Go Wrong

By Jim Owen

It feels like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra so famously put it. Here we have yet another corporate giant under fire for failing to heed its most important obligations.

I’m talking about the latest General Motors debacle - the slow-motion crash-and-burn we’ve witnessed since it came to light that troubling auto safety issues at GM went unrecognized for more than a decade. Sorry as we might feel for Mary T. Barra, the newly minted GM CEO who found herself on a congressional hot seat after just a few months on the job, her discomfort pales against the casualties suffered by the dozens of people hurt or killed in accidents tied to defective GM vehicles.  

To be clear, nobody is suggesting that GM management knowingly pushed safety issues under the rug; the company has voluntarily recalled millions of cars over the years. Investigators did find, however, that lower-level GM employees flagged problems with unexpected stalling of some models as early as 2005, but no one acted on their warnings.

That tells us the real problem at GM is a corporate culture that pushes off problems and avoids accountability, even when public safety is at stake. This kind of mindset may also have contributed to GM’s bankruptcy woes in 2009.  

Of course, it can be hard for employees to give bosses bad news that translates into millions of dollars in costs, especially if their managers want to look the other way. And there’s no doubt that a head-in-the-sand, cover-your-behind mentality too often rules in big corporate and government bureaucracies.

That’s all the more reason why every organization needs a culture of doing the right thing that starts at the top, is championed by management, and carries through every layer of the corporate or agency structure. If GM’s leadership had explicitly made it every employee’s job to put safety ahead of profits and “do what has to be done,” the company might not be on the ropes today. 

It’s one more reminder that “everyone needs a code…a creed to live by.” In our Standing Tall workshops we see many people from small and mid-sized companies—business owners and professionals who take time to articulate a clear set of values they can call upon to guide them in the face of difficult choices. Can big companies like GM afford to do anything less?  

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Case for Thinking Small

by Kent Noble

We’re Americans—and we love to think big! Big ideas, big goals, big ambitions. That relentless drive and motivation are close to the core of our identity. You could almost say those traits are  embedded in our national DNA. 

Talk to any immigrant who has struggled to reach our shores and, through ambition and hard work, carved out his or her own version of the American Dream. They’ll tell you the freedom to pursue big goals is one reason they struggled so hard to get here. 

So, perhaps you, too, are a big thinker. If so, let me ask you a question: do you ever take the time to think small? That may not sound very productive or rewarding. But when you think about it, little things can make your day, or ruin it. They can even alter the course of your life.         

Each day we live is punctuated by many small acts. Some we initiate; others, we experience. Think of the stranger who smiles and holds the door for you, or the co-worker who takes the time to give you a sincere compliment, or the neighbor who drops by to give you some home-grown tomatoes.  
Whether you’re on the giving or the receiving end of such behavior, it elevates your mood. Acts of kindness and helping can even improve your health; scientific studies have found that they tend to reduce stress responses and boost your immune system. On the other hand, witnessing or experiencing negative acts releases stress hormones, or cortisols, triggering a fight-or-flight response that accelerates heart rates and breathing.

One study covering 30 years found that those who did volunteer work were significantly less likely to suffer a major illness than those who didn’t. Altruistic deeds also have a documented ripple effect. Research shows that when we see someone doing a good deed, we ourselves are more likely to help others. With that in mind, we at the Center for Cowboy Ethics recently introduced a wallet card designed expressly to acknowledge and honor positive deeds you might witness (available on our website).

As for the life-changing potential of small, positive acts--I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned from experience that better things happen when I’m in a positive frame of mind. It makes sense to me that the more good feelings you project, the more interest and opportunities you will attract from others. 

Bottom line, if we take the time for positive small acts, and encourage others to do the same, it’s a win all around. So the next time you’re feeling unhappy or put upon, the best tonic might be to perform one or two small acts that bring a ray of sunlight into someone else’s day. As Booker T. Washington said, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Line Between Right and Wrong

By Jim Owen

Do you agree with the cowboy principle that “right is right, and wrong is wrong, and there’s nothing in between”?  Or perhaps you are more inclined to think like a young university student I met in a Penn State classroom not long ago. 

Kent Noble and I were honored to conduct one of our Standing Tall workshops for some faculty and staff members there. We had a great dialogue on the values the participants chose to embrace as their own, and several said they came away with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning.  

Afterward, our host introduced me to a class of students, asking me to give them a brief download on Cowboy Ethics and the Code of the West. You could tell this was a group of very bright young people who’d been taught to question and challenge conventional wisdom. When I mentioned that the cowboy code draws clear lines between right and wrong, a young woman I’ll call Allison raised her hand.

"That may be how older people think,” Allison said emphatically, “but not us. Young people realize that life is a lot more complicated than that.  Knowing right and wrong isn’t as simple as black and white; it depends a lot on the circumstances.”  As it happened, we were out of time and I didn’t get to respond to Allison.  But here’s what I wish I had said, because it’s what I truly believe:  

Dear Allison: 

I understand completely that young people don’t want someone else dictating their values. After all, learning how to think critically is one of the most important reasons to pursue an education.  

But saying you want to decide for yourself is not the same as saying there are no absolute truths. You may draw the line between right and wrong in a different place than I do. But if you don’t know what you stand for, and what you aren’t willing to compromise, you’ll have no place to stand when you’re trying to weigh all those complicated situations life presents to you.

I’m guessing there are some principles that you and I could agree upon.  Would you ever say, “Don’t live each day with courage?” or “There’s nothing that shouldn’t be for sale”?  Of course, it’s possible that you and I wouldn’t agree on much of anything, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you draw the line between right and wrong somewhere, based on values that you reflect and decide upon for yourself.     

Seeing right and wrong in shades of gray may feel more comfortable sometimes. But I’m convinced it makes things harder in the long run. So, Allison, in closing I hope that during your university career, you will take some time to reflect upon what matters most to you, and decide what you truly believe in. Even if you got nothing else from your education, being clear on that alone would be worth it.

All the best,

Jim Owen  

Monday, February 24, 2014

Discovering your life’s currency

By Kent Noble
It may not surprise you to learn that success and happiness seem to go hand in hand. According to a New York Times opinion piece written by Arthur Brooks, president of a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., research shows that people who feel they are successful are twice as likely to say they are very happy as people who don’t feel that way. 
But this happiness equation isn’t as simple as it seems. If you’re like me, more times than not you automatically associate “success” with money—and that’s where things get interesting. Brooks goes on to point out that you can measure your success in any “currency” you choose. Sure, you can count it in dollars or the kind of car you drive. But what if your currency were how many kids you taught to read or the amount of time you spent protecting irreplaceable habitats?
Don’t we each owe it to ourselves to figure out what currency matters most in our lives? Taking the time to look past old assumptions and reflect on what’s truly meaningful can bring a fresh perspective to everything you do.
Eight months ago I left behind a job I liked to do work that I’m truly passionate about. As I’ve discovered, pursuing your passion can be a remarkable gift to yourself. I believe it also increases the likelihood of experiencing the “success” that Brooks describes. So, while my days of a steady paycheck and benefits are now just memories, I can honestly say I’ve never felt more fulfilled and happy. Hey, there’s that word again—HAPPY. 
Interestingly, redefining your currency doesn’t always mean financial sacrifice. When you’re doing work that’s meaningful to you, the extra energy and enthusiasm you bring to each day can yield surprising results and open up new opportunities. Sometimes resources just seem to follow. If so, that’s not a bad side benefit.  

Either way, here’s to hoping you discover the currency that means genuine success to you.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Frigid Days, Warm Hearts

By Jim Owen

It’s already been one of the worst winters in years, and a new line of storms is slamming much of the country with heavy snow, punishing winds, and sheets of ice. The weather has been so severe that many areas have declared states of emergency.

But, dangerous and difficult as this extreme weather can be, it has had an upside, too. As history has shown us many times, there is nothing like adversity to bring us together. Billy Graham was absolutely right when he said, “Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity has.”

As exhibit A, I would point to recent news coverage from Atlanta, a city so unaccustomed to snow that a late January storm virtually paralyzed the city and left thousands stranded on the roadways. So what did people do? They trekked to the nearest interstate with sleds loaded with sandwiches and drinks. They set up hot chocolate stands at off-ramps. Aided by Facebook and Twitter, some with four-wheel-drive vehicles provided on-call taxi services. Others opened their homes, offering shelter to marooned commuters. It’s enough to make you believe in the goodness of humanity.

It does seem that in times of serious travail, it becomes easier for us to look past our differences. We can see others simply as people who are trying to get by, just like we are. We finally understand, on a gut level rather than as an abstract concept, that we really are all One.

This isn’t just a philosophical or spiritual belief. Scientists tell us that the atoms we breathe today could be the same ones breathed by Julius Caesar or Joan of Arc. That reminds us that we and all our forebears literally have been passengers on the same planet. What’s more, genealologists are now able to link 75 million people as members of the same extended family tree, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Couple that kind of ongoing research with our rapidly advancing capabilities for DNA analysis, and we may someday be able to show how every human on the planet is related.

The next time I come across a stranger in need, that’s what I’ll be thinking about. That, and the image of a hot chocolate stand next to a snow-covered freeway. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Real-Life Stories of Cowboy Ethics in Action

By Jim Owen

“What you give is what you get.”  Life really does seem to work like that, doesn’t it? My job title at the Center for Cowboy Ethics is “chief inspiration officer,” and it’s one I take seriously. So imagine my delight when, right on the heels of my last blog post, on “being a difference,” a big infusion of inspiration came back to me, thanks to the University of Wyoming.

As cowboys remind us, what matters is “actions, not words.” The current edition of the University’s UWyo Magazine illustrates this beautifully with a heartfelt series on people who are having a positive impact on campus.

Each story is a shining example of one of the Ten Principles of Cowboy Ethics in action. There’s the University’s director of research support, who keeps working as he battles an incurable degenerative disease (“live each day with courage”); the gardener who lovingly tended the campus flower gardens for more than three decades (“take pride in your work”); the UW graduate who spearheaded the University’s early leadership in online learning programs (“ride for the brand,”); and seven more. The headline on the series is “Can One University Make An Impact?” The answer is clearly ‘yes.’   
There’s another theme that runs through these stories—that is, relationships. When you think about it, the way we have an impact on the world is almost always by making other lives better in one way or another, even if they are the lives of people we don’t personally know.

When it comes to Cowboy Ethics, the relationship that I and my foundation have had with the University of Wyoming has been pivotal to our work. Not long after the state of Wyoming adopted Cowboy Ethics as its official state code, the University did the same, at the urging of the student body. Beyond that, the College of Business uses the Ten Principles of Cowboy Ethics in its business curriculum, and also worked with my foundation to launch our popular Standing Tall ethical leadership workshops. In the process we gained an executive director when Kent Noble left the College of Business to come work with us full time.  
My thanks to the people at the University of Wyoming for their continuing partnership and support, and for this latest inspiration. This edition of UWyo Magazine is one I will save, re-read, and treasure. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The New Year’s resolution I didn’t see coming

By Jim Owen

For years, “Make a difference” has been one of my guideposts for life. Through my books and speeches, as well as the activities of the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership, I‘ve hoped to inspire others in ways that meaningfully change their lives. 

Now I’ve got a new mantra. Last month I was honored to be presented with an ethical leadership award from the NASBA Center for the Public Trust, a group that promotes ethical behavior within the business and professional communities. It was immensely gratifying to be recognized for the work that has been my passion and my career for more than a decade. The award itself is a handsome piece I’ll display proudly.

But what struck me most of all was the power of the words emblazoned on the award: Being a Difference, which is the name NASBA has given its program. That phrase made me realize that “making a difference” sets the bar way too low. Striving to “make a difference” puts the accent on isolated acts that may or may not be characteristic. Even someone who is profoundly unethical can make a difference simply by writing a check, perhaps salving a guilty conscience in the process.

“Being a difference” is something else again. It speaks to who you are as a person. It’s about your life, what you stand for, and the kind of example you set each day. In short, it lines up perfectly with the core message of Cowboy Ethics: everyone needs a code…a creed to live by. What’s inspiring about cowboys isn’t just that they embrace the Code of the West; it’s the way they live their code each day. This is why striving to be a difference, rather than just make a difference, is my number one New Year’s resolution.

Thank you, NASBA. Beyond giving me an award I truly prize, you’ve given me a new way to think about how I live my life.