In December 2013, when I returned home after spending nearly 14 months in federal prison, I was naturally exuberant to have my freedom back. But soon after my release, my Probation Officer, Kimberly Gorton, slammed the brakes on my enthusiasm. It turned out she was right, and I was wrong.
All I knew in those first post-prison days was that I wanted to take full advantage of life anew, without delay. I’ll never forget my excitement when I was invited to give a keynote address at a major compliance event in DC just four months after my release. I needed my Probation Officer’s approval, which I thought would be perfunctory, to travel from my home in Connecticut to DC, but that call did not go at all as I expected. She said, “Mr. Bistrong, you just got home, and my ability to allow you to travel outside the district is based on trust, and trust gets built over time. So, the answer is no.”
That was certainly unexpected and unwelcome news from Kimberly Gorton, and the first inkling I had that a return to normalcy was going to take time. Only much later did I understand that Kimberly Gorton was right, and that she would ultimately have a profound and positive impact on my life.
It would be nearly a year before I was allowed to travel outside my probation district, and three years until I could go overseas. During that time, when I could no longer go “too far and too fast,” I repaired and rebuilt family relations, and worked hard to restore my health, which had been damaged in prison by contracting MRSA, a bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics. Eventually, slowly, it worked out better than I could have imagined — thanks in part to the good judgment of Kimberly Gorton.
Why am I writing today about my post-prison transition? Because of Covid-19.
The workforce that will eventually emerge from this crisis will be different from the one that entered into the crisis. It will be stressed and uncertain, while also being anxious and excited for business to get back up to speed. The Harvard Business Review warned in a recent spotlight edition called “Emerging from the Crisis” along with an article by Max Bazerman, “A New Model for Ethical Leadership,” that a workforce which is stressed, anxious and uncertain, can easily struggle with ethical decision making. As Bazerman shares, in crisis mode, we are less likely to engage in slower, deliberative thinking which “leads to more-ethical behaviors.”
Naturally, commercial leaders – restless to demonstrate their value — will put a high priority on the “need for speed” to get business rolling again. Yet the peril for them and their organizations is the same one I faced after my release: short-term goals and thinking which can overwhelm what’s in everyone’s long-term interest. As the HBR put it, “the tyranny of the present” requires a unique “capacity to sense, shape, and adapt” to the future, and from my perspective, that’s going to take time if we want to keep everyone on the right side of ethical decision making.
What will the “tyranny of the present” look like after Covid-19? Much of it will be around messages, spoken or unspoken, from anxious managers about doing “what it takes to get things done.” The question, then, is who will balance the operational “need for speed” with putting the brakes on, to slow things down, as to make certain that ethical decision-making won’t be lost as we start commercial life anew?
Surely the months ahead will be an enormous challenge for compliance officers. The commercial world is about to need a lot of Kimberly Gortons. Compliance professionals will have a duty to deliver a message that business teams and leaders might not want to hear: “Let’s take our time. Let’s rebuild relationships. Let’s repair the health of our organization and help everyone to heal, including all our stakeholders.”
Today, before the all-clear sounds, is an opportune time to look forward. Instead of being anxious and stressed by the “tyranny of the present,” we can set our sights on the future. We can visualize, talk about, and make sure that everyone appreciates that integrity never has to be sacrificed to succeed, even as we emerge from a crisis, with decision-making that’s slower and more purposeful. That’s how we can achieve post-Covid-19 success, one ethical decision at a time.