By Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
What would you do if a fire broke out at your desk? Reach for a fire extinguisher, right?
But what if the extinguisher didn’t work? What if none of the extinguishers in your office worked?
That’s the problem a fire safety director named Marvin risked his job to avoid.
It was Marvin’s first day, and he noticed that none of the fire extinguishers at his company had been inspected in years. He called the vendor, whom I’ll call Bill, to find out what was going on.
“You must be new here,” Bill said. “What you do is go to every unit, sign the card on the top, let me know, and I’ll send you a check.”
Marvin replied, “I don’t know what has been going on up until now, but immediately two things are going to happen. First, you’re going to come over here and inspect every unit the way you’re supposed to do, and then replace every extinguisher that doesn’t work. Second, if you ever try anything like this again, I’m going to drop you like a bad habit.”
Marvin is one of the "Good Ones"—employees whose high character consistently delivers positive results for their companies.
Too many companies hire for competence and fire for character. Wouldn’t it make more sense to hire for competence as well as character? Wouldn’t you want everyone who works for you to be as honest and courageous as Marvin?
Put another way, can you afford to hire a single dishonest employee?
I spent two years interviewing business leaders around the world and have identified ten crucial qualities of high-character employees. The book that emerged from this research, The Good Ones, explains how to evaluate these qualities, the financial benefits of doing so, and the dire consequences some companies have faced by failing to take character into account when bringing people on board.
What follows is a summary of these ten qualities.
Honesty is, above all else, a feeling, an emotion, a passionate commitment to the truth. Honest people like Marvin love the truth and cannot tolerate lies or liars. It doesn’t matter how knowledgeable or skilled an employee is if he or she is dishonest.
Leaders who are passionate about the truth themselves tend to attract honest people to work for them. My father was chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, and over the years I got to know his colleagues and residents well. It was no accident that they too were men and women of integrity and high character.
Accountable people do four things consistently: 1) keep their promises, 2) consider the consequences of their actions, 3) take responsibility for their mistakes, and 4) make amends for those mistakes.
In my keynotes on how high character drives success, I ask the audience in advance to choose three of the ten qualities for us to consider. Overwhelmingly, accountability is the most requested quality. “How can we inspire employees to take ownership of their job and all that it entails?,” a C-suite executive recently asked me.
If you hire people who are accountable to begin with, this question won’t arise.
Just as honest people are passionate about the truth, caring people are passionate about helping others. Caring people do no harm. They go further than that: They make things better.
For example, too many of us speak ill of people behind their backs. That’s bad-mouthing. Caring people practice the fine (and rare) art of good-mouthing. Denver-based management consultant Steve Werner is one leader I know who does this routinely. I’ve known Steve for over twenty years, and whenever he talks about people, it’s always in positive terms.
After I spend time with Steve, I say to myself, “I want to be more like him.” Steve Werner is highly successful at what he does, and the way he regards people is a major reason why.
When Marvin stood up to the corrupt vendor, he could have lost his job. It’s not hard to imagine Marvin’s boss saying, “Who wants a troublemaker like that around?”
But here’s what could have happened had Marvin not had the courage to speak up. During a birthday celebration at work, an employee lights a candle, tosses the match into a trash can, and unwittingly starts a fire. None of the extinguishers on hand work, and before long the entire building is engulfed in flames. People die, the company is slapped with costly lawsuits, and a preventable tragedy becomes a national story—all because one employee could have spoken up but chose not to.
Don’t you want troublemakers like Marvin on your team?
To be fair is to give to others their due. The way a leader hires, promotes, and makes job assignments reveals his or her commitment to fairness.
Music may be the universal language, but nepotism is a close second. Chris Webb, CEO of a construction company based in Burleson, Texas, told me about challenges he faced when he hired his son Matt to work for him. It was difficult for Matt to separate Chris the boss from Chris the dad, which led to tension on the job and Matt eventually leaving the company.
Leaders in Cairo, Egypt and Perth, Australia have told me similar stories. When employees have good reason to believe that a hiring decision is unfair, morale suffers.
6. Gratitude and 7. Humility
"In the film industry you deal with a lot of people on the crew who are geniuses the way they come up with special effects. I’ve been blessed to have those people help me. It’s a tremendous collaboration. It’s not a one-man show by any means."
That’s Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather, speaking to Terry Gross on the radio program Fresh Air, and his statement is the essence of both gratitude and humility.
Humble people like Mr. Coppola recognize that others play a significant role in their successes. This recognition takes the form of regularly saying things like “I’m blessed by,” “I’m grateful for,” and of course, “Thank you.” Humility and gratitude are close cousins.
Humility may be the most endearing of all of the high-character traits. The Godfather is my favorite movie, so I have great respect for its director, but hearing the man publicly acknowledge the debt he owes to other talented people makes me respect Mr. Coppola even more.
Several years ago, the employees of the New England grocery store chain Market Basket went on strike after the company’s board of director fired beloved CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. Usually employees strike when they believe the company is treating them unfairly, but in this case, the employees believed their boss had gotten the short end of the stick, so they walked out.
All 20,000 of them.
Even the store’s customers got into the act: they boycotted the store, resulting in a loss of $1 million per day. With such overpowering support for the ousted CEO, the board had no choice but to bring him back. According to the Great Place to Work Institute, businesses whose employees are deeply satisfied—a key indicator of loyalty—have lower turnover, better safety records, superior job applicants, and stronger marketplace performance than other businesses do.
Hiring loyal people and creating a culture that sustains this loyalty, as Arthur T. Demoulas did, provides a strong return on investment.
Seven years after she graduated from college, Jo felt like a failure. Her marriage had collapsed, she didn’t have a job, and she had a child who was dependent on her for survival. Her mother had died, and Jo was diagnosed with clinical depression. She was so despondent that she considered taking her own life.
But Jo had a dream: she wanted to write a novel. In fact, she had developed an extensive blueprint for a series of novels about a boy with magical skills, and she believed that her sprawling story, rich with imagined details, would be compelling. Jo wrote the first novel and found a literary agent to represent her. That agent loved the book, but it took him a year to find a publisher who wanted to run with it.
You know Jo better as J.K. Rowling, and the seven books she wrote about a boy wizard named Harry Potter book developed a worldwide following unmatched to this day. Rowling is richest author in the world; one source estimates her personal fortune to be close to a billion dollars.
As someone who never gave up on her dream, her persistence is inspiration to all of us. Leaders and the people they lead don’t give up. As Mid-South philanthropist Jeremy Park says, “Persistence is power.”
Presence (also known as mindfulness) is the ability to focus on a single task for a reasonable period of time. It is not, strictly speaking, a character trait, but it enables all of the other character traits to flourish.
It is also most misunderstood quality of the ten. I once took a class with a Zen martial arts master. “How are you able to be so centered all the time?” a fellow student asked him.
“I’m not,” he replied. “The difference is that I know when I’m off balance. And I know how to get back.”
I’m floored by how often a hiring manager will tell me, “I interviewed someone the other day who kept checking their smartphone.” Are we controlling our devices, or are they controlling us? How might we serve our clients better, and lead our organizations more effectively, if we reduced the distractions in our lives?
I’m embarrassed to tell you how often I checked my email as I wrote this blog post, so I won’t. What I will say is that an app called Freedom allows you to block access to the Internet for however long you choose. Focusing on one task for a reasonable period of time really is liberating.
When you consider the benefits of hiring for character as well as competence, and the financial and legal risks to your business of failing to do so, only one conclusion is possible: high character is cool…and profitable.
Through his interactive keynotes and training programs, Bruce Weinstein, The Ethics Guy®, works with organizations that want to do the right thing every time and that realize the key to their success is the high character of their employees. Contact Bruce via his website, TheEthicsGuy.com or 646.649.4501 (U.S.)