So there’s this mouse who wants to cross a river, and a poison snake who offers the little fellow a ride. “Will you bite me?” squeaks the mouse. “Of courssse not,” replies the snake. The mouse gets on the scaly back of the helpful snake, and they begin crossing. The snake flips around and mortally bites the mouse. “But you said you w-w-w-wouldn’t bite me,” cries the mouse, as darkness descends around him. The snake merely replies, “I’m a snake.”
I feel bad for the mouse. And, I feel sort of bad for Gregg Smith formerly of Goldman Sachs, or anyone for that matter who spends a quarter of their career traveling down a path they never should have been on. All of our careers have been on the road to Abilene at one time or another. (To paraphrase a bit…Let he who has not imagined smashing a cheeseburger in the face of a horrific boss throw the first Big Mac.)
So Gregg…you rode on the back of a beast that uses “Atlas Shrugged” as its owner’s manual, and sharpens its claws on the bones of its competition. Did you really expect a culture rivaling that of Habitat for Humanity? These are not people looking for win-win situations. They are fierce competitors, and ultimately most of their clients remain fabulously happy, or they don’t remain clients. It regulates itself.
Looking past the press memes and poor career choices, it is fair to ask whether Goldman Sachs should learn from this. The answer is yes and no. Reputation is everything, as evidenced by the $2.2 billion drop in Goldman’s market cap, but I’m sure no one in the company is going to respond well to sensitivity training.
There are 14 principles already embedded in the corporate culture at Goldman, which are as good as any out there. Perhaps, though, it is time to revisit them. I believe there are two principles (#13 and #14) that seem to be most at odds with each other, and perfectly capture the conundrum of having to act like a shark with table manners:
13. Our business is highly competitive, and we aggressively seek to expand our client relationships.
14. Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business.
It is the word “Aggressively” that bothers me here, especially in the context of Integrity and Honesty. Aggression contains a Darwinian nastiness that permits sharks to eat each other in utero. I think the word they were looking for was actually “Assertively.”
It is a fine point, but with vastly different connotations. On the one road, your client is at your side, and on the other your client follows you. With your client at your side, you’ll always know where they are and where you should be headed. With your client traipsing behind, you may one day turn around and find them gone, and the road you’re traveling paved with fool’s gold all the way to Abilene.