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Giving Grace

An Interview with Johnny C. Taylor Jr.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and one of the judges for our Ethical Leader of the Year Award (ELYA), recently spoke with the Fund about principles, second chances, and what he looks for in an ELYA candidate.

Can you share with us how SHRM helps to make sure that people in positions of power are leading ethically?

I’m a lawyer and I can guide compliance all day, but ethical leadership is more than that. Ethics is making a choice—even if it doesn’t violate the law, should you do it? Is it the right thing to do? And what I realized is that, fundamentally, creating ethical organizations is about creating ethical cultures. Human resources are the keepers of culture. We are the nurturers of culture. We’re the ones who remind the organization when you’re going too far. Is it illegal to do certain things in the workplace? Perhaps not, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel right. That’s where I find the alignment.

How can leaders strike the right balance between focusing on profits and staying true to their values?

The truth is that the leader who does not focus on getting a return for their investors will not last very long, and that’s whether they’re for-profit or nonprofit. They have to meet payroll. They have to make sure that the business has the resources and the financial returns to keep it viable and thriving. That’s one side of the scale. The real question is how much money do you need?

Smart organizations are also reinvesting by taking care of their people because at the end of the day, they’ve made their money on the backs of those people. Reinvesting in people, particularly in workforce development or issues of mental health, can also lead to larger profits at the end of the day.

What does ethical leadership look like to you?

Justice Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court was famously asked about his definition of obscenity and pornography, and his response was, “You know it when you see it.” More importantly, you know it in the case of ethics when you experience it. It’s not a general moral compass filled with you’re right for feeling this way or you’re wrong for feeling that way. But if someone operates outside the general framework, we know, we feel, that to be unethical. For me, it’s a thing you can’t quite touch. It’s different in different cultures, so it’s often an instinct thing. I wish I could give a definition of ethical leadership but it’s increasingly difficult to be prescriptive around what is ethical behavior.

Will you share some of your values with us?

My number one value is transparency, or let’s call it reasonable transparency. There are all sorts of reasons, including legal ones, why we can’t be 100% transparent. But when people know and understand what’s happening, that’s when they can make informed decisions. The second value that guides me is the notion of servant leadership. It guides everything I do. There’s the notion that if I take care of the individuals, the collective of all of these individuals will yield a much bigger net result than I could otherwise do. I care deeply about serving the individual employee and trying to understand what motivates them, what matters to them. This informs all of my decisions around where I invest to whom I promote. And then I think the third value, which might sound like a weird one, is that I’m incredibly competitive and I think competitiveness matters. When you talk to people about values, rarely do people want to talk about that. But I can’t take care of you if we are not profitable, if we’re not viable. And so you’ve got to win. Business is competitive by nature. No one wants to be on a losing team. It’s not winning for the sake of winning, it’s winning so that we can deliver more impact to the communities.

You’re one of the judges for our ELYA. What values do you look for in the candidates?

I want someone who is clear about their foundational set of values—values that apply to how they’re going to operate personally, professionally, and they’re typically the same. When I look for an ethical leader, they should
be able to articulate their guiding principles. The things that dictate how the person sees the world and operates in the world. I’m known to ask people to tell me about an ethical situation where they made the right decision, but better and more important, I also have them tell me about one where they didn’t. That’s the heart. We can all talk about great decisions we’ve made, but we’re all evolving and sometimes it’s the one thing that wasn’t perfectly ethical that ends up ultimately making a more ethical person. That’s the person I want.

Part of what you’re sharing is that being an ethical leader is learning to be an ethical leader, that the stumble is beneficial?

We have to be willing to give people grace. The maturation of this journey called life should not be easily dismissed. Sometimes it’s about who gets caught. How many people, how many of us, have done the same thing and simply gotten away with it? We need to give people the permission and safety to tell the stories they’re
least proud of.

Second chances are necessary for everyone and are clearly important to you. Where else do you see the impact of second chances?

I just met this morning with a 65-year-old woman who is working on her encore career. Back in the day at 65, she’d be retiring. Instead, she’ll be spending another 10 or 15 years in the workforce. We have an obligation to help people realize and maximize their individual potential. Leaders sometimes see employees as human capital, and what that means is that they’re going to use them for as long as they can without preparing them for what’s next. Is that ethical? Workforce development is in part about trying to change that and not just for this generation but the generations to come.