Why Madoff Made Off, Blagojevich Made Hay, And Other Consulting Principles

During his presidential campaign, John McCain suggested that the head of the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) ought to be fired. McCain was lambasted for being rash, out of touch, desperate, and (of course) too old.

Turns out the right adjective would have been “prescient.”

However, Mad Madoff made off with everyone’s money not just because regulators were cozy with him (or asleep), and not only because he was slick, but because he was trusted. He was trusted because he created the perception of an “insider’s” world, where there were actually people who could help you land on the sun and not be incinerated. You could merely enjoy the warmth and work on your tan.

So through the perception of special connections, and deliberately not wanting to know too much about how it all worked, investors large and larger were all to happy to act quite irrationally in order to fulfill greedy intentions. Yes, Virginia, charitable institutions and philanthropies can be as greedy as the rest of us mortals because they are, in fact, run by mortals. The Institution for Good, Greatness, and the Betterment of Human Kind is, unhappy to report, run by human kind. And they can be as avaricious and self-centered as, well, Rob Blegojevich.

People are stunned that whoever actually votes in Illinois could have elected such a foul-mouthed jerk to govern the state. (I live in Rhode Island, and used to live in New Jersey, so nothing surprises me and I’m not about to cast any stone at any time.) The truth is, people elected him and supported him who wanted something. The wanted a city job or contract; they wanted a favor of the local ward healer; they wanted their kid in a certain school. Or they wanted not to have to pay attention to details.

Politics is the great trickle down phenomenon. We get the kind of government we deserve, that is, the one we voted into office. There was no evidence that Blegojevich could serve as governor with distinction (as there is no evidence that Caroline Kennedy could serve as Senator with distinction, and there’s another story), but evidence is not what elections are about. Elections are about brands, drawing power, sound bites, manipulation of the press, and above all, money. In this last election, admittedly a defining moment in history, we’re proud that about 60% of eligible voters went to the polls.

That also tells you that 40% didn’t.

For Madoff and Blegojevich’s sins, there is a search for external culpability: The SEC, the intermediaries, the crooked political machines, deception of the perpetrators, insufficient attention of the media, you name it. But people made their own decisions to invest and to vote.

What do we hear in organizational America as consultants or as consumers? “That’s not my job.” “That’s above my pay grade.” “You’ll have to talk to another department.” I’m just finishing a vicious battle with Fedex over a box they lost for a workshop I conducted in Australia. The accounting people were only responsible for billing me, not credits; the claims people were only responsible for trying to find the lost books (never found) not credits; the international operation was only responsible for tracking, not credits. I finally wrote twice (by Fedex) to CEO Fred Smith and, after three months, got it settled, but at a great cost to Fedex’s reputation with me.

The show-stopping comment from accounts payable, after I had told them I had secured a credit and gave them the manager’s name: “We never make outgoing phone calls, even to our own people.” Funny, but when I was consulting with some of the best companies in the world, they had an odd rule: When you pick up the phone, you OWN the issue. You can research it, you can involve others, but you can’t give it away.

We all have to own our own issues, if you get my drift. You put some thought into whom you vote for, beyond your own immediate gratification to have a parking ticket waived. You ask for other opinions about investment options for your money, despite an exclusive club membership or secret decoder ring being dangled. You understand that the customer on the phone may just be vital to your success and a commitment to help might, ultimately, be important to your company’s success and, therefore, your own.

As solo practitioners, we need to “own” our business beyond having our name on the stock certificate. We have to own our issues and not blame the economy, the technology, the competition, or the society. A great many people I’m working with are having banner years, because they realize they can’t say, “That’s not my job.”

Some things, alas, are too good to be true. But some other things, listen closely, are too true to be good.

© Alan Weiss 2008. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Why Madoff Made Off, Blagojevich Made Hay, And Other Consulting Principles

  1. Oh, Alan, you’re going to have the woo-woos and the pollyanna “abundance” folks up in arms over your “negativity.” But it’s the absolute truth, every word. Brilliant post.

  2. Graham Franklin says:

    Thank you Alan,

    At last a voice that expresses the view that we must take responsibility and accountablility at all times for our own actions.

    I can blame the government, economy, bankers and whoever for my own poor outcomes but the reality is that if I just go the extra mile with my clients they will always retrun the favour. This is why I am having a better year than 2007 and know that 2009 will be even better.

    If I don’t succeed I only have myself to blame. At least that puts me in charge of my own destiny.

    A very happy Christmas to all my consulting colleagues……enjoy

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