Wall Street Journal: Risk, Defined
By Jason Rohlf
I have traveled quite a bit in my career, and like most business travelers, I appreciate the value of Reward Programs. My preferred approach is to select one or two airline carriers and one hotel brand and go “all in”, which proves to be the best way to maximize the benefits of these rewards programs. Yet, sometimes my travels take me to a place where my airline carrier of choice doesn’t offer the best (or, in some cases, any) options for getting there, so I am forced to go with a lesser used provider. No matter—I still enroll for every reward program and use those memberships whenever I find myself in this situation.
Recently, I received a mailing from one such carrier informing me that I had a paltry reward points balance (and by “paltry” I mean “not able to redeem for one round-trip ticket”) that was set to expire, and would I like to convert them into various periodical subscriptions? Well, I wasn’t about to let my hard-earned points go “poof!”, so I scanned through the listing of publications and picked a few that appealed to me, one of them being the Wall Street Journal.
Now, I realize we live in a digital age, and all of these publications can be delivered hassle-free to a device of some sort, but I am hopelessly nostalgic, so getting the occasional paper publication is very appealing to me. Most of the subscriptions that I selected are published at most once per month, which doesn’t overburden our house with too much unnecessary paper. The Wall Street Journal, however comes every weekday, and given the sometimes hectic nature of my life, they have a tendency to pile up. If you stop by my desk at work, you are very likely to see a stack of them waiting eagerly for me to consume the information they hold. Because I want the subscription to go to good use, I set aside some time each week to skim the highlights and learn a bit about the world.
Yesterday, I picked up the WSJ’s July 11 edition. As I skimmed the front page, the following headline drew my attention:
A CEO stifling bad news? Sounds like an interesting Tone at the Top tale to this former auditor! To summarize, the blood-testing company Theranos is facing a litany of regulatory and legal troubles, including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) revoking the certificate of their California lab and banning their top executive Elizabeth Holmes from owning or running a lab for a minimum of two years; recently launched investigations by the US Attorney’s office in San Francisco and the SEC over claims it misled investors and regulators about its technology and operations; not to mention the eight consumer lawsuits currently targeting the company that are seeking class-action status. As I read further, I came across several tidbits of information that raised “Tone at the Top” red flags:
- The Wall Street Journal reported in May that Ms. Holmes had voided two years’ worth of certain test results the company had produced and communicated this to regulators without sharing the information with employees.
- “Secrecy has been a hallmark of Theranos since Ms. Holmes founded the blood-testing firm.”
- “Departments were separated from one another with keycards. Employees were discouraged from discussing their work with colleagues in other departments.”
- “As the company’s problems have piled up over the past eight months, Ms. Holmes has continued to tightly control the message internally and externally.”
- “The [FDA] records also show that inspectors initially were barred entry to Theranos’s Newark, CA, facility when they arrived there on August 25.”
- “Inside Theranos, most employees became aware of the [CMS] report’s full findings only [after it was released].”
I do not highlight the details of this story to criticize Theranos or its practices—my only knowledge of the situation is through this particular WSJ article. Nor am I suggesting that organizations need to share every bit and piece of information with every one of its employees; all organizations have information that most certainly should only be shared with its employees on a “need-to-know” basis. What drew me to call out this particular story goes deeper than this.
Back in my internal audit days, one of my Directors constantly reminded us to be on the lookout for indicators of “Wall Street Journal” risks. To put it another way, we were encouraged to consider how certain internal situations would be perceived if they were splashed across the front page of the Wall Street Journal (which oddly enough is where I came across the Theranos article). In this case, the culture of secrecy intrigued me and led me to wonder just what it would be like to work in such an environment. I know for a fact that my job would be much more challenging if I was discouraged from sharing ideas and collaborating with others in my organization. And I know my faith in my employer would be shaken if the first time I learned of significant issues facing my company was when I read them in the newspaper.
As an example from my own career, I was employed by Andersen during its final days in 2002. While we now know that the outcome was quite unfavorable, I vividly recall daily communications from our Managing Partner that provided us with painstaking details about the crisis we were facing and the negative outcomes that could result. Even though it was a terrible situation that was transpiring in no small part due to the firm’s own actions, the transparency demonstrated by our leaders inspired many of my colleagues to remain fiercely loyal to the firm until the very end. I’m not sure whether the issues that Theranos currently faces could have been avoided if its employees had been made aware of them and given an opportunity to help collectively address them, but unfortunately they aren’t going to have the chance to put that theory to the test.
One of the primary value propositions of Onspring is the ability to share critical information across your organization. We believe that giving people visibility into information that impacts them both directly and indirectly helps them obtain a broader understanding of their role and purpose within the organization. To further build on the “need-to-know” concept, we also believe that certain information does not need to be widely shared and must be made available only to people who require it to properly execute their responsibilities. That being said, it is one thing to control and protect select data points for a specific purpose; it’s a far different matter when silos and secrecy serve as the very foundation of an organization’s culture. Perhaps it can be attributed to some level of naivety on my part, but keeping the people you rely upon for your success completely in the dark on the issues facing the purpose they are there to serve seems to be a recipe for disaster. How does your organization balance critical information sharing across departments vs. “need-to-know” areas? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Subscribers to the Wall Street Journal can read the full article here.
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