So, What Does It Take to Operate with Integrity?

So, What Does It Take to Operate with Integrity?

Earlier in this chapter, I noted how it's no surprise that we are drawn to people with integrity, that we place our trust in them. Similarly, companies that operate with integrity are admired and trusted. They have the loyalty of their customers, employees, and other stakeholders. But how do these individuals and organizations get this way? What does operating with integrity entail?

My first lesson in this came soon after I started FWI. We had been in business for about six months and were struggling, really struggling, to keep our doors open. We had $3,000 in our bank account, with virtually no resources upon which to draw. Personally, I was almost three months late on my home mortgage, having thrown every bit of money I had at the business. I had already borrowed emergency funds from friends and family to tide me over. In short, I had sunk about as low as I could go. I envisioned my former colleagues laughing at me: We told you so. We knew you'd never make it on your own.

About that time my wife left the country to attend her grandfather's funeral. The bedrock of my life was inaccessible, even by phone. I was depressed and lonely. It was New Year's Eve, 1994, and I sat alone in my house, watching It's a Wonderful Life and largely missing the point of the movie.

Then, a miracle happened. A few days later, one of my old bosses—a close friend and mentor—called with a project. The awful feeling of despair, the weight I had felt on my back, was suddenly gone.

I was ecstatic that is, until my friend began to describe the project. As he spoke, I realized very quickly that I didn't have the resources or experience to deliver what he was asking. Not a chance. My stomach resumed its churning as I went ahead anyway and told him, "Sure, I'll have the project completed by the end of next week."

The following week was one of the worst I've ever experienced. I worked day and night, forgoing sleep and food, pursuing a lost cause. When the deadline came and I presented my work, I knew that I had failed. What was worse, I knew I should never have taken the project in the first place, that I had misrepresented what I could do. Now my friend was two weeks behind schedule and needed to find another vendor to do the job properly.

I didn't even bother asking for money, and he didn't bother to offer any. It would be two years before I could face my friend again and begin to repair the damage I'd done.

Yes, this was a lesson in honesty. I should have been honest with my friend and told him up front that I would have to take a pass. But more important, it was a lesson in integrity. I was down and out, and I made a decision based on what was expedient, not what was right. I compromised my values by taking a project I couldn't possibly handle—thus guaranteeing that the work I produced would disappoint my client. The price I paid was damage to my friend's trust in me, damage that would require much time and effort to repair.

After this experience, I never again accepted a job we couldn't handle, no matter how badly we needed the money. I learned that while maintaining my integrity in the face of financial adversity would be difficult, it would be much more difficult to repair the long-term damage done to my relationships, both business and personal.

This first lesson in integrity would be followed by countless others. Over time, through my experience with FWI, I've found that there are a few basic components to operating with integrity, both on an individual level and as an Accountable Organization. First of all, we must be clear about our values and beliefs and be honest about their rightness, that is, how they measure up morally. Similarly, a company must have the same clarity about its vision and mission. In short, we have to determine the kind of people we want to be and organizations we want to create. Without this understanding, there is no standard against which to evaluate our actions.

Integrity is achieved when we act in alignment with our values and beliefs, and when a company acts in accordance with its vision and mission. Otherwise, these intentions don't count for much—they remain untested and unproven. Acting in alignment doesn't happen by chance, however; it requires conscious decisions (and in organizations, the conscious decisions of many). In this way, accountability is how we express our integrity as individuals and as companies: we take full responsibility for the rightness of our choices, as well as for their consequences.

Finally, we must aim for continuity. Day in, day out we make choices both large and small in relation to ourselves and our families, friends, and colleagues—anyone and everyone with whom we come in contact. Every day, companies are also making myriad decisions that impact their stakeholders to varying degrees. As such, integrity is at issue from moment to moment, not just when we're faced with fork-in-the-road challenges. Living and operating with integrity are continuing commitments. We can gauge our success as a running total: the major tests we face obviously move the balance one way or the other, but it's those little decisions that quietly add up.