Do The Ends Justify The Means?

LA Premiere of Scary Movie V Arrivals (Charlie Sheen, a cast member in
Chris Pizzello/Invision/APCharlie Sheen
By Steve Tobak

"I'm on a quest to claim absolute victory on every front." – Charlie Sheen

Loony as he sounded at the time – and under the influence of what, we'll never know – Charlie Sheen had it right, at least on the work front. It is all about winning.

When he was getting booted from the hit comedy "Two and a Half Men," the award-winning actor's bizarre diatribe about "winning" was apparently the result of an inner conflict over having to act humble about his wildly successful career.

In a moment of clarity, he later explained his point more effectively: "As kids we're not taught how to deal with success; we're taught how to deal with failure," Sheen said. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. If at first you succeed, then what?"

It's a fair point. It's even worse in today's entitled culture where schools teach our kids that everybody's a winner and everyone gets an "A" or an award whether they deserve it or not. You've got to wonder if maybe, just maybe, we're not exactly preparing them for the real world. You know, the one where results and accountability actually matter.

Yes, I know there's all sorts of utopian wisdom floating around the blogosphere that says nobody should ever have to lose, that competitive markets aren't really zero-sum games, and there's something terribly wrong with business leaders who prize winning above all else.

Those who promote that sort of feel-good fluff might learn a thing or two about the nature of true competition from professional sports. Take the NFL, for example. A defensive player will often risk a penalty to take down a ball carrier that has him beat. If it takes an illegal tackle to stop a touchdown, so be it.

Corporate executives make those same kinds of make-or-break decisions all the time. And the trade-offs they make to win or better position their companies in the marketplace don't always fall neatly under the heading of fair play.

When it comes to decisions involving intellectual property, antitrust rules, tax laws, accounting practices and the like, just about every big company you can think of – from Samsung and Google (GOOG) to Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT) – has pushed the limits of the law at one time or another.

For example, companies routinely step on each other's patents knowing full well a legal reckoning will be years away and the battle for market share will have already been fought and won by then.

And, if it surprises you to know that executives take great liberties in spinning poor business and product performance in the most positive way – even if it is just a bit disingenuous or misleading – then I bet you've actually fallen for one or two of those Nigerian phishing scams.

Take H-P's (HPQ) analyst shindig last week, for example. Analysts were wowed by CEO Meg Whitman's upbeat presentation, sending the stock soaring over 9% that day. Which is surprising, since Whitman didn't provide much in the way of specifics. To me, what she didn't say said far more about the progress of the company's turnaround, or lack thereof.

Here's how I see it: Having been at the helm for two years, Whitman is already a year behind her original turnaround plan. Instead of a growth year, 2014 is now expected to be another year of declining revenue. And the hot growth markets the company is targeting – the cloud, big data, and mobility – are the same ones that big entrenched competitors like Cisco (CSCO), IBM (IBM), Oracle (ORCL), and Microsoft are all over.

I didn't see anything in Whitman's pitch that would magically turn H-P into a market leader in 2016, which is the current plan. And no, I don't think "Our strategy is to provide solutions for the New Style of IT" will cut it, even if you do capitalize the words "new" and "style" in the presentation.

And yet, her presentation was so meticulously spun that everyone and his brother rushed to upgrade and buy the stock.

Keep in mind that, when H-P's board ousted CEO Mark Hurd in 2010, the company was growing across all business segments and generating record profits. Then it hired Leo Apotheker. Less than a year later it fired Apotheker and hired one of its own directors, Whitman. Now H-P is heading into year three of what it calls a five-year "turnaround journey." That's quite a turn of events – and quite a euphemism.

Which brings us back to the topic at hand. When it comes to winning in the business world, the ends don't necessarily justify the means. It's not all just one big gray area to play in. Here's where I draw the line so business leaders don't end up sliding down that slippery slope.

Chief executives and their management teams should do what they have to do to win. It's their job, their fiduciary duty to the company, to meet their business goals without breaking the company's rules or those of the jurisdictions in which they compete. As long as they draw inside those legal and ethical lines, it's all well and good.

That said, personal integrity and accountability are a very big deal, especially when it comes to business leaders. At least they should be. Besides, in many ways – legal, ethical, and karmic – you can't really hide behind a corporate veil. Not anymore.

So here's a simple but true test to determine if you're doing the right thing or not: If everyone knew everything you know – the complete and total truth – how comfortable would you be showing your face in public? How would those you love and respect judge you? Would they be proud of your actions?

It's a good test. Corporate officers and directors should use it. I don't think it would hurt their companies, but they might not get to keep their jobs for as long as they do.

Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.
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