Business ethics Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

The most important quality of a business leader today is integrity. This is the finding of a recent survey developed by Robert Half Management Resources. It was conducted by an independent research firm and includes responses from 1,400 CFOs from a stratified random sample of U.S. companies with 20 or more employees. These CFOs were asked, “Which of the following qualities do you feel is most important in business leaders today?” Integrity garnered the most responses at 31 percent. Experience and communication skills were second, each with a 27 percent response. Technical or functional expertise was the selection of 11 percent of the respondents.

According to Terry Phillips, vice president of Robert Half Management Resources for Northeast Ohio, “Businesses have learned some hard lessons from the corporate scandals of the recent past. They recognize, more than ever, that they need transparency in financial reporting to retain or gain the trust of those relying on the reports.”

Smart Business talked with Phillips for his insight into the results of this survey and the impact on today’s business climate.

What do the results of this survey tell us about the needs of today’s businesses?

It solidifies what we are seeing in the dayto-day requests received from businesses. The top three qualities in the survey are so important and fit together. Companies want professionals who can immediately apply their experience in an organization. Financial executives with Sarbanes-Oxley/SEC reporting experience and a public accounting background are in particularly strong demand. Communications skills are extremely important as financial executives need to translate technical concepts into terms a variety of audiences, both internally and externally, can understand. They have to be able to converse by the written and spoken word to those above and below them in the organization chart, stockholders, bankers, suppliers, customers and anyone else that has a financial interest or need for financial information about the company. And, all this must be accomplished with the utmost integrity.

What is ‘integrity’ and why has it become such a desired leadership quality?

Integrity is a firm adherence to a code of values. It implies trustworthiness and incorruptibility to a degree that one is incapable of being false to a trust, responsibility or pledge.

Integrity, reputation and ethics are the cornerstones of good business. Shareholders, employees, corporate boards and financial institutions rely on and have an interest in the accuracy of a company’s accounting and financial disclosures. Investors need to feel confident about the underlying integrity of businesses in which they have a stake, and in the company’s management. The attention paid to those situations where the line was crossed, and the resultant losses to so many were so great, has caused more businesses to be even more careful in how they handle their financial matters and how they communicate that information. It has to be accurate and truthful.

Is integrity hard to measure?

While integrity can certainly be subjective, taking an ‘integrity self-audit’ can be a good measurement tool. An integrity self-audit can include asking and answering such questions as: Whom in the business world do you admire and why? What qualities are appealing and how can you emulate those traits? Do you regularly share appropriate information with your colleagues/team members to ensure there are no opportunities for misinterpretation or misguided actions?

Is integrity an innate quality or can it be improved upon?

Successful leaders have a core set of values that they consistently uphold in business. To insure that employees have a clear understanding of what is expected, many companies have either implemented or enhanced ethics training throughout their organizations. Ethics has to start at the top and be carried throughout the organization.

Is the CFO’s role more difficult?

Companies want financial executives who not only have SOX experience, but who also demonstrate honesty and integrity around corporate governance regulations. Integrity has always been a valued trait, but it’s high on the list of qualities sought in leaders today.

TERRY PHILLIPS is vice president of Robert Half Management Resources for Northeast Ohio. He can be reached at (330) 252-1870 or by e-mail at Terry.phillips@rhi.com.