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Good Works


By Janet Eastman

Published Apr 1, 2009 8:00 AM

This UCLA grad penned a bestseller that's influencing corporations everywhere.


Dov Seidman '87, M.A. '87, founder of Los Angeles-based corporate ethics consultancy LRN and author of the bestseller HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything ... in Business (and in Life), preaches the gospel of good corporate conduct. His ideas have been embraced by business leaders and lawmakers and championed by influential writers like The New York Times' Thomas Friedman. Seidman's years in Westwood are, in part, "how" all of that happened.

Q: Corporations now routinely engage in ethics-based efforts like "social responsibility," "good- governance," "transparency" and "cause-related marketing." Has business grown a conscience?

A: Businesses have always been great at asserting things. In the 1980s and '90s, they proclaimed excellence, quality and productivity as Job #1. Today, businesses can no longer differentiate themselves solely on the products they make, the services they provide or the processes they use. Instead, they need to differentiate based on the connections they establish and the experiences they create that engender trust and loyalty. So businesses are asserting humanistic values of integrity and trust, commitments to society and responsibility to the environment. We will see which organizations live up to their assertions.

Q: Your column is in BusinessWeek. The New York Times Magazine has a weekly column called "The Ethicist." Does mainstream interest in ethics come in unprompted cycles or is it stimulated by scandals and economic collapse?

A: Every scandal chips away at our confidence and the trust we place in our institutions. The 21st-century dynamics of hyper-connectivity and hyper-transparency, however, have changed the game completely. Mainstream interest in ethical behavior isn't a fad. Today, everyone can see easily and deeply into who we are and into the organizations to which we belong, and our expectations for behavior have risen. The word "ethics," however, has baggage. That's why I talk about how we do what we do — our behavior. Part of what I'm trying to do is reframe how people look at their endeavors so that they can make different choices.

Q: What is the relationship between business ethics and the severe recession we're now suffering through?

A: I talk often about the Certainty Gap, the space between the unpredictable nature of the world and our ideal vision of stability and security. We are experiencing war, recession and a crisis in values that crosses business, society and government. When this happens, we reach out for reassurance, for things that can stabilize us and give us confidence to go on. We look for something to fill the gap. That something is trust. Trust allows us to function in times of uncertainty. Trust creates environments where people feel comfortable taking the kinds of risks that lead to innovation and, ultimately, progress. Therefore, the question of our time is, how do you create an agenda of trust? The answer comes through leadership and behaviors that are consistent and principled.

Q: If you could talk to alleged white-collar crook Bernard Madoff, what would you say?

A: I'm not sure what I would say. The depth of his betrayal is beyond words. His actions were not just stealing; they were stealing in epic proportions. Madoff robbed something much more than just money from the nonprofit world. He robbed the world of their endeavors. Think of all the projects under way that won't be completed. Think of all the people in need who will go without. It's tragic.

Q: Is ethical thinking inherent or learned?

A: People are born with the ability for ethical thinking and most families try to cultivate it. But just as Aristotle said that excellence is not a single act but a habit, I believe we have the opportunity to become excellent at pursuing performance in a principled and consistent way. Think about great athletes. They practice thousands of hours to ensure that in the crucial moment, when the heat is on, they make the right play, catch or basket. I believe we, along with our leaders and institutions, need to apply this same discipline. We need to go to the ethical gym. We need to test and flex our ethical muscles and develop into ethical athletes so that under pressure, we do the right thing, even if it's inconvenient or unpopular.

Q: What about the people who succeed by being unethical?

A: People who seem to be getting ahead that way are not on a sustainable path. They may appear to be making strides, but their unethical actions will likely catch up with them and they will likely falter.

Q: What happens if you mess up in a digital world where you're forever followed by a database of your transgression?

A: In the past, you could control your life story and reduce it to a one-page résumé. Today, in our more connected and transparent world, your story is told in real time by others and it's archived and searchable online. Second chances and reinventing yourself are rare. But while we can no longer control the story being written about us, we can control our behavior. No one expects us to be perfect. An authentic apology is powerful. It allows you to connect or reconnect, recover and move on. Doctors, for example, are sued less when they apologize to patients for mistakes made in their care.

Q: You have begun to counsel clients on sustainability. How is that a business ethics issue?

A: It's time to reclaim "sustainability" from a singular focus on the environment. In its most important sense, sustainability is a long-term strategy for innovation, growth and significance. We need our leaders and institutions to understand it is about our relationship with the environment, but it is also about our relationship with our communities, organizations and institutions. Simply put, our businesses won't be around to fight global warming or to help their communities if they are making the kinds of short-sighted financial and investment decisions that led to our current economic crisis.

Q: You say there are three ways to get someone to do something: coercion, motivation or inspiration. Which is more powerful?

A: Most companies have fireable offenses and they have their place. So, too, does motivating with rewards. There is nothing wrong with carrots and sticks, with 401(k) plans, with bonuses. But they have their limits. Being coerced or motivated means that you are being influenced by external factors. Inspiration is the most powerful source because it is internal. When you are inspired, you are in pursuit of a mission that you think is important. Being inspired doesn't mean you're extra-motivated. Instead, you're acting on your beliefs and you are propelled by your values. Inspiration is renewable and can be shared.

Q: In your book, you acknowledge UCLA Law School Professor Emeritus Herb Morris '51. Tell us about that relationship and what you learned from it.

A: I became a philosophy major accidentally — a result of all other classes being full. It turned out to be a blessing in my life. Herb was my adviser. I took his graduate seminar on guilt and shame. He has remained a mentor and one of my dear life friends. Herb taught me that philosophy was not something to just study; it was something to be practiced. He inspired me, encouraged me to go deeper, to stretch my thinking and be a philosopher. Herb taught me that principled thinking can play a significant role in every part of your life. We continue to have long conversations and we play tennis. There's an ongoing debate about who's better. I like to joke with Herb that, age adjusted, he is a better player.