Leaders Own Their Corporate Culture

Paul Nolan

“So you haven’t resigned, you haven’t returned a single nickel of your personal earnings. Instead, evidently your definition of accountable is to push the blame to your low-level employees who don’t have the money for a fancy PR firm to defend themselves. It’s gutless leadership.”

Those stinging words from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., for former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf were perhaps the most harsh, and certainly the most publicized, of any directed his way during the fallout of the Wells Fargo fraud story. But it certainly wasn’t the only criticism directed at Stumpf and other Wells Fargo executives during the month and change he held on to his CEO position during the crisis before resigning in early October.

As the story broke this fall — months if not years after Stumpf became aware of it and could address it — the CEO told The Wall Street Journal and other publications that low-level employees took matters into their own hands.

“There was no incentive to do bad things,” he said. Commenting on the bank’s decision to fire 5,300 employees in response to the malfeasance, he noted that “if they’re not going to do the thing that we ask them to do — put customer values first, honor our vision and values — I don’t want them here.”

Rotting from the head down
That didn’t sit well with Warren or business commentators. Here’s a sample:

“Stumpf says this despite widespread reports, growing in number every day, suggesting that Wells Fargo’s employees fraudulently opened up to 2 million customer accounts simply because the employees faced unrealistic sales quotas and wanted to keep their jobs. In fact, Wells Fargo has all but admitted that this was the case, announcing this week that it eliminated sales quotas and cross-selling in its ‘stores,’ which it uses to describe branches to reflect its aggressive sales culture.”
– John Maxfield, The Motley Fool

“The Senate hearing exposed where Stumpf’s loyalty lies: It lies with himself and others in the executive suite — not his frontline employees, the bank’s customers or its shareholders.”
– Erika Kelton, Forbes.com

“The problems from blind spots at the top and stifled voices within the ranks will not disappear when sales goals do. Without doubt, there are many great people working at Wells Fargo, and they deserve better. Senior leaders need to see the truth about the bank’s culture and engage all employees in the effort to repair it.”
– Susan M. Ochs, HBR.org

“The failing is a common one: demanding results at all costs in the belief that pushing people to their utmost limits is the only way to make them deliver everything they’re capable of. That belief holds an element of truth, of course. That’s what makes it seductive and insidious, a trap for leaders who don’t fully understand what they’re doing.
– Geoff Colvin, Fortune