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Develop a culture of honesty, ethical behavior

The loss of someone or something meaningful in our lives and businesses often reminds us of what is important in life. The tragic and premature death of a colleague in the prime of his life moved me to deep reflection this past month.

Kevin was my CFO for a number of years as we both helped build a high-tech company. I trusted Kevin in all of his decisions. He was a man of honesty, integrity and dedication.

During the last year of our business relationship, we worked together on the sale of our company to a NYSE listed firm. The transaction was completed after six months of due diligence by the acquiring firm, followed by lengthy and exhausting negotiating sessions. Kevin played a key role in the final sale of the company.

How important are honesty and integrity in the entrepreneurial firm? Does "ethical behavior" count for anything in today's often ruthless business environment? I firmly believe that the answer to these questions is a resounding YES!

Seldom does a week pass that I am not asked to be a reference for an individual who is seeking a position in a firm or who is raising capital from an investor. The common threads in all of the inquiries revolve around two issues: capability and character.

I know investors who, after making an investment in an emerging company, would never invest in the company again — not because of disenchantment with the product, but due to the loss of trust with the entrepreneur. Conversely, those same investors will make every effort to reinvest in a firm led by a leader of integrity.

The axiom, "What goes around comes around" is as true today as ever. Employers, investors, employees and customers are better networked today than at any time in history. A potential employee can access detailed information on a firm and its executive team in minutes.

An individual interviewing for a senior position with a local firm contacted me this week to see what I knew about the company. I had no information and asked what they had discovered. A Google search had turned up several lawsuits filed by customers contesting what the company had sold. I suggested that this individual terminate employment discussions with the firm.

How does a firm develop a culture of honesty, integrity and ethical behavior? Consider the following steps as critical to the process:

The primary responsibility for the "character of the firm" begins with the founder (CEO). As the leader, you must be dedicated to never compromise yourself or your organization.

Recruit a board of directors that will demand moral leadership from the executive team and that will follow through with audits/oversight. A board that does not require accountability is not doing its job.

Hire only individuals who have the capability to perform and who have demonstrated character traits consistent with those of the firm.

Establish a written code of conduct.

Talk about what the firm stands for and the role of each employee. This discussion should be part of staff meetings, the hiring process and interaction with clients.

If an employee violates the code, enforce your company policies — no exceptions.

If I may paraphrase a thought given to me by an associate (source not known): "You will never have to worry about what you said (or did) in the past if you have always told the truth (been ethical in your actions)."

To further that thought, you will never have to worry about your past or current actions if you have maintained ethical leadership in all of your decisions.

A favorite quote from Yogi Berra speaks to this point: "I really didn't say everything I said." He explained further: "This was a comment I made when someone asked me about quotes that I didn't think I said. Then again, I might have said 'em, but you never know."

Yogi Berra (tongue in cheek) could get away with such ambiguity. You cannot!

Thanks to Kevin and to all of you who constantly remind us of the value and importance of honesty, integrity and ethical behavior.

Gary Williams is affiliated with the BYU Center for Entrepreneurship. He can be reached via e-mail at