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  • mattheelan

What my mother taught me about values and due diligence.

My mother wanted to be a teacher from a very young age and she was the first one in her family to graduate from college. When I was 8 years old my mother quit her job as a teacher and she never taught again. Whether you're an entrepreneur starting a new company, a CEO leading an organization, or a teacher instructing students, we all hold a set of ethics, values, and principles that guide how we operate our businesses, teach our children and lead our lives. If we're fortunate, we learn these principles from our parents, families, and friends at a young age and continue to develop and refine them as we grow older. Building on that idea, I would like to explore how we can identify whether an organization shares similar values, ethics, and principles before deciding to join them. Throughout our careers, we're bound to make poor decisions when choosing companies to work for. One of my most significant mistakes has been joining organizations that didn't align with my values, ethics, and principles. This became apparent in various ways, from how they handled employee crises to their decision-making processes for promotions and transparency regarding the company's stability.

Back in 2018, I had a conversation with a CEO about joining his firm as an executive. I had gotten to know the CEO well over the previous couple of years and believed that I understood their values, ethics, and principles. He was eager to grow the organization rapidly, and I was thrilled to be a part of that journey. However, I was mistaken. The CEO wasn't necessarily a terrible person or difficult to work with, but he didn't live up to my expectations for transparency. Ultimately, he was less than forthcoming about the extent of the company's issues, his willingness to address them, his own maturity level as a leader, and the overall direction of the organization. During our 3-4 hour-long conversations, I posed difficult questions to the CEO about the leadership team's performance, the company's strategic direction, growth plans, and any employee issues. Additionally, I conducted due diligence by speaking with people in my network who were familiar with the CEO's executive reputation and standing in the business community. Here are some lessons learned from this experience: 1) Do detailed research. Conduct thorough research on the company, its products or services, competitors, and industry trends. This can provide insight into the market, the company's position, and growth potential. Additionally, it's essential to gauge the organization's values, ethics, and principles as a part of this research." 2) Consider talking to people who have left the organization. Talking to people who have left the organization can be valuable, but it's essential to weigh their perspectives appropriately since you'll only hear one side of the story. Nonetheless, this can still provide insight into the company's culture and any potential issues.

In my case, I spoke with someone who had left the organization a year earlier through a mutual connection. While their perspective didn't necessarily change my decision, it provided valuable context regarding what it was like to work in the organization. It's worth noting that talking to former employees can offer useful insight, despite the limitation of only hearing one side of the story.

3) Identifying one of the company's customers and connecting with them can provide valuable insight into their experience working with the organization. In my case, I spoke with people who had done business with them and most reported a positive experience with the leadership and team members. In one instance, a customer explained how the company handled a dispute related to invoices, which offered insight into their organizational ethics.

4) Requesting to review the company's financial statements can provide valuable insights into their financial performance and potential red flags. Look for trends in revenue, profitability, and liquidity. Keep in mind that the CEO and leadership team may reject your request, which is understandable but also insightful in itself.

5) Ask smart, challenging questions. When speaking with the CEO, ask smart, challenging questions that cover a broad range of topics and issues. Ask "why" questions to understand the reasoning behind their decisions, and ask about mistakes they've made and what they learned from them. Direct questions about the company's values, social responsibilities, ethics, and principles as a leader can also provide valuable insight.

6) Case studies and hypothetical situations. Creating case studies or sample situations can be helpful in understanding how the company operates in different scenarios. It can also give you insight into the decision-making process and the company's approach to problem-solving. This can be especially useful if you are considering joining a startup or a company in a new industry where there may not be as much information available. By creating hypothetical scenarios, you can gauge how the company might respond to real-life situations that could arise in the future.

7) Examine their actions. Examining the actions of an organization can be a good way to gauge whether their values and principles align with yours. Look for examples of how they've acted on their stated values and principles in the past, such as charitable donations, volunteering, or sustainable practices. You can also research how they treat their employees, including benefits, pay, and work-life balance, to get a sense of how they prioritize their people. Additionally, look for any public statements or policies that the organization has released on topics such as diversity, equity, inclusion, environmental responsibility, or ethical business practices.

8) Ask for access to the leadership team and board members. Again, not all organizations may allow you to talk directly to the leadership team or board members but it is worth asking. It can be very insightful to have conversations with the leadership team and board members to get a sense of their values, leadership style, and overall direction for the company. It can also help you understand how decisions are made and how different viewpoints are represented in the organization.

9) You may never know. No matter how much research and due diligence you do, there will always be some uncertainty and risk involved in joining a new organization. However, by taking the time to conduct thorough research, asking tough questions, and examining the actions of the organization and its leaders, you can increase your chances of making an informed decision and joining an organization that aligns with your values, ethics, and principles.

In the end, my mother quit her job as a teacher because she had a set of values, ethics, and principles that were non-negotiable. I learned from her the value of integrity, honesty, and transparency at a very young age. I learned that especially during difficult times and situations it is even more crucial that you evaluate your decisions against this set of personal criteria. Finally, I learned that if over time you understand that the organization does not align with your values then it should make your decision to leave even easier.

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