Tone at the top: The movie

Tone at the top: The movie

Donna Boehme – Compliance & Ethics Professional – July/August 2012

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Last year I made a concerted effort to stop saying or writing the phrase “at the end of the day” with moderate success. There were occasional slips, and I had to call my sponsor a few times, but we’ve made respectable progress. Same with “synergy” and “buy-in.” I’m also weary of “GRC” (which I think stands for Guaranteed Revenues for Consultants, but I could be wrong). But lately, the nails-on-the chalkboard for me is, hands-down, “tone at the top.”

And that’s because companies so often misfire on both “tone” and “top.” First, real tone is achieved by visible action, not mere words. CEO speeches, sustainability reports, posters—that’s the easy part. But you knew that already. Sometimes I wish Boards and CEOs would just stop talking, and do. Second, what do we mean by “top”? According to a 2011 Booz & Company study, the median tenure of an operationally involved CEO is only 4.9 years. So I’m hanging the whole “tone” thing on the Board, not the CEO, because the Board stays and the CEO leaves. The Board sets the tone; the CEO carries it out.

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