The Power of Story: A Case Study about Ethics

I first wrote about Ethics fairly early in my career. I thought it was a great speech, but the executive slated to give it disagreed. He demanded to know why they hadn’t asked him to talk about business “instead”—as if business and ethics weren’t inextricably bound. That attitude would come back to bite him, as well it should have. Karma works, even on Wall Street.

Of course ethics is essential to business: Just one person’s ethical transgressions can easily take down an entire company. I saw that almost happen at Salomon Brothers. The Salomon scandal got me out of serving on a jury (I showed the judge the front page of that morning’s Wall Street Journal and burst into tears). It also enabled me to meet and work with Warren Buffett. But on the whole I would not recommend the experience. I like my executives to be ethical, thank you very much.

People in highly regulated professions like financial services and accounting must study pages of rules and regulations and pass rigorous licensing tests. Sadly, having a license doesn’t guarantee that they also have a conscience. And we all know what happens when you cram for a test—as soon as it’s over, most of the information flies right out of your head.

Making ethical content memorable

How do you make ethics compelling enough that people remember what they’re supposed to do when they encounter a dicey—and often very appealing—situation?

You tell stories.

Everybody loves a good story. Stories don’t say “you must know this fact.” They say, “listen to what happened to this guy…” Stories get remembered, especially the ones that make the listener laugh or cry or take them someplace unexpected.

I had the privilege of writing for Mike Zychinski during his entire eight-year tenure as Deloitte LLP’s Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer. Mike understood the power of a great story. He often incorporated stories in his presentations, gamifying them to create an interactive experience.

But telling stories about ethical misdeeds can be challenging—especially for an organization like Deloitte, which doesn’t want to offend any current or potential clients. So I often reached back in time for Mike’s stories, the farther the better. And we never talked about business transgressions. We drew ethical lessons from the history of whatever town he spoke in. I loved the hunt for buried treasure, and Mike loved seeing what I would come up with next.

Read a sampling of stories I wrote for Mike Zychinski here.

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