Don’t Butt-Slide Into Second Base: Be A Better Company

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Most fortunately, the final week of the baseball season is here. This means that I no longer have to contend with living in the same city as the joke of an alleged major league team – the Houston Astros, at least when the regular season ends next week, the Astros stop playing and the play-offs begin. To say that the Astros season has been ridiculous for masquerading as a Major League Baseball (MLB) team would be a compliment but it moved to the absurd last week as one play summed it up better than anything that I could have made up – the butt-slide play. In this play, Astros shortstop, Jonathan Villar, slid face first into the butt-cheek of Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. (For a video clip of the play, click here.)

The butt-slide play sums up the Astros 2013 season of futility. From the start of the season, with a team made up of largely AAA players, to the end of a season made up mostly of A-AA players. In between we’ve been treated to the Astros ending a 23 year relationship with the Astros wives charity, via a terse one-line email (i.e. you’re fired); to the interview of owner Jim Crane who informed us that he had made $100MM in the trucking business so he must be the smartest guy in the room; to a current 105 losses while on their way to yet another record-loss season; let’s not forget their TV contract with Comcast and the fabulous viewing figures recorded on Sunday by the Nielsen rating service, which racked up a fantastic score of 0.00, with an average audience of zero households viewing the game and, finally, all of this while being the most profitable team in the history of MLB. But, still, the ‘butt-slide’ says it all. When your slide into second base becomes not only a metaphor for the team’s entire season but fodder for an entire nation’s laughingstock, it really is time to cash it in.

Yesterday in the FCPA Blog, in a post entitled “Who Speaks for the Compliance Officers?”, Michael Scher said “The [International] Chamber [of Commerce] apparently will not be satisfied until there is little or no enforcement.” Scher’s statement was based on the letter that the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) sent to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) complaining about the FCPA Guidance, issued last year, which as Scher stated, “The letter has been correctly criticized for off-target “belly-aching.”” Scher’s criticism follows that of Michael Volkov,  see his blog post “FCPA “Reform”: Another Shot in the Dark” in Corruption,  Crime and Compliance and Jessica Tillipman’s blog post “Let’s Just Be Honest for a Moment” also in the FCPA Blog.

Instead of whining and belly-aching there might be another way for corporate America, and indeed the ICC, to approach the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) compliance. That path was laid about by Leslie Dach, in an article in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), entitled “Don’t Spin a Better, Story. Be a Better Company”. The article was quite interesting for the following information which appeared with the author’s credentials, “Leslie Dach wrote this column shortly before stepping down as the executive vice president of corporate affairs at Walmart. He previously served as vice chairman of Edelman, a global communications firm.” While this statement certainly does not make clear why Dach left Wal-Mart, (i.e. did he ‘resign to pursue other opportunities’?) it does give one pause for some reflection.

Nevertheless, I found Dach’s thesis quite interesting. Dach’s bottom line is that he believes “it is a huge mistake to assume that once you’ve explained your perspective, the public will embrace you…I know what doesn’t work: thinking you can tell a better story without actually becoming a better company.” Ultimately Dach advises, “If a drumbeat of criticism starts up against your company, don’t rush to raise your voice above it. Stop to listen. And commit to getting better.” Dach detailed several areas inside the company where goals such as sustainability, women’s economic empowerment and more-healthful food were “compatible with building a stronger business.” He cited Wal-Mart’s increased efficiency of its trucking fleet and turning its waste stream into recycling income as examples of sustainability. He said that buying from local, women-owned businesses strengthened the company’s ties with local communities. He said that offering more healthful food meant more relevant products for the company’s consumers.

I thought about Dach’s ideas in the context of Wal-Mart and other companies which are going through very public FCPA-based or other corruption investigations. Publicly released information indicates that Wal-Mart may be spending over $1MM per day on their ongoing internal investigation and getting their compliance program up to speed. But what if the company took it a step further and applied Dach’s ideas to compliance. In his article he wrote about the company’s efforts to source $20bn of products from women-owned businesses. This took a concerted effort to identify which merchandising areas had the potential to produce such an amount of product, which the company could sell in its stores. This was coupled with incentives for the company’s buyers to show progress in purchasing goods from women-owned enterprises. But even more the company “took a 360-degree approach to the work, engaging our entire supply chain and our customers, communities, and employees.” Here is the part I liked best about Dach’s piece,  while the tone was set by Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Mike Duke “ultimately, the challenge isn’t the CEO’s job, or one person’s job; it is everyone’s job.”

Last December Matt Ellis wrote a great piece on his blog site, FCPAméricas, entitled “Wal-Mart, Go Big on FCPA Compliance”, where he challenged the company to innovate in compliance “by playing to its strengths.”  He cited examples of work in the company’s supply chain; its opportunities to “educate foreign audiences on [anti-corruption] compliance” through teaching persons in the communities where it has locations on “how to identify and avoid risks of petty corruption.” Ellis ended his piece with the following, “Wal-Mart has the spotlight. Time will tell if it chooses to use it.”

I think that Dach’s challenge to create a better company, coupled with Ellis’ specific challenge for Wal-Mart to go big for compliance, present an excellent juxtaposition to the whining and belly-aching of the ICC. Rather than claim that the FCPA is (1) too difficult to understand; (2) too hard to follow; and (3) unfair, they could advocate Dach’s approach to use the law as a basis to become better businesses. I cannot think of any non-criminal enterprises which aver that they want to do business unethically and corruptly. Companies faced with intense FCPA or other anti-corruption law scrutiny, such as GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK), might well take this opportunity to move outside the ordinary and become better companies by doing compliance right and better. Such actions would not only put them in better stead with the regulators but make them better companies. In other words, don’t simply whine like the ICC and butt-slide into second base.

Also, as it appears Leslie Dach is no longer working for Wal-Mart, they may want to give him a call to help them figure out how to do so.

Episode 6 of the FCPA Compliance and Ethics Report is up. In this episode, I talk about the role of senior management in a compliance program. To watch or listen, click here.