Three Critical Questions: The Content of Corporate Character

By Glenn Phillips, General Manager of Human Resources, North America Products
ChevronTexaco Corporation

Consortium for Graduate Study in Management Conference - ChevronTexaco Reception

San Francisco

ChevronTexaco is a long-time supporter of of the Consortium of Graduate Study in Management (CGSM) and was one of three major corporate sponsors at CGSM's 2002 conference in San Francisco.

On behalf of ChevronTexaco, let me add a warm welcome to San Francisco and our heartfelt congratulations for winning your scholarships.

It's a real honor for me to speak with you this evening. I have to admit up front that I'll never be as entertaining as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, or insightful as Ms. Julianne Malveaux (writer and syndicated columnist).

But what I can offer is a bit of insider information on what Human Resources (HR) managers are looking for these days and what you might look for in a potential employer.

First, it's every HR manager's dream to look back at the end of a career and say, "I hired the CEO" or "I hired the President of Global Operations." So, we're looking to the future for that diamond in the rough - for the individuals who might take a department (or even an entire company) from good to great, from better to best, from world-class to most admired.

You folks are those diamonds. Consequently, you come to the interview process from a position of strength.

You're intelligent. You can read a balance sheet -- maybe in several different languages. Your talents are in demand. That gives you a rare liberty to ask hard questions during interviews -- and the freedom to choose an employer for the right reasons.

Let me submit to you that the right reasons go beyond benefits, beyond paychecks, even beyond the coveted parking space. Frankly, when it comes to pay and perks, most companies that court you will be about the same. Underneath, they're not.

Finding the difference means looking deep into the content of a corporation's character. It means figuring out whether that workplace could compromise your personal values.

This issue has never been more important.

At no time in modern industrial history has the business community been held in such low public esteem. The only two institutions that ranked lower in a recent Gallup survey were Congress and the criminal justice system. So, how can you tell if today's promising company might be tomorrow's pariah?

There are, of course, no guarantees.

But you can start sizing up character by asking three questions in an interview.

  • How does your company handle success?
  • How does your company show compassion?
  • Does your company have a well-defined set of core values on which there's no compromise?

The first question: How does your company handle success?

Notice I didn't mention failure. That's because dealing with failure is easy. A company either goes out of business or uses the experience to be even better than before. In fact, great companies usually look at mistakes as an essential element of growth, a by-product of progress. They learn and move on.

Handling success is far more difficult.

By its very nature, success breeds arrogance, pride and a sense of superiority that's almost always self-destructive. Only the greatest companies have the inner strength and humility to understand that today's success is no promise for tomorrow.

So listen for answers that include words like "re-invest," "integrate" and "share." That's because great companies re-invest in success, with continual professional development.

They integrate success so that others in the organization can incorporate new ideas into their own processes. And they share the ideas behind their success with others.

Most of all, people in companies of good character never contend that they have all the answers.

The second question: How does your company show compassion?

I think Henry Ford answered that best when he said, "A company that makes only money is a poor company indeed."

Great companies make money but also time for employees to volunteer in churches and schools and civic clubs. Great companies make funds available to soup kitchens and animal shelters. Great companies make life better in their communities.

So, don't join a company that's just in business for the business.

But there's also another side to compassion you'll want to ask about.

It centers on how the company handles life experiences of employees, like births and deaths and long-term illnesses. And how they handle people's feelings when it comes to downsizing or mergers.

Ask your interviewer to tell you about a friend inside the company that got laid off or reassigned or had a personal tragedy. If they come up with a wonderful story, that will tell you a lot. If they hand you the benefits book and say it's all written out on page 32, well, that will tell you even more.

The third question: Does your company have a well-defined set of core values on which there is no compromise?

The answer to this one should be a no-brainer.

But after what we've heard about Enron, Arthur Andersen and big firms taking out life insurance policies on their employees, it's a question more and more companies are asking themselves.

Listen closely to the answer. Does it come from the heart or do you think the values are just being recited?

What's more, companies of character also have what I call a circle of discipline that forms around core values to protect them during good times and bad. Whether a company is going up or coming down, it's those absolute values that enable an enterprise to choose and do the right things.

The answers to these three critical questions can speak volumes about an organization's soul.

Thanks for having me here this evening. I look forward to shaking hands and meeting each and every one of you.

Updated: May 2002