It’s 10:47pm on a Sunday night. You’re presenting to the board, along with the CEO, at 9:00am tomorrow morning. You check your emails to see if the CEO, who has just arrived back from overseas, has approved your presentation.
In his email, he asks you to delete four slides from the presentation. ‘Fine,’ you think, deleting the slides, except that when you look over the revised presentation you realise that the last-minute deletions create a more favourable impression of the projected financial position of the company.
What do you do?
This was the situation a friend of mine found herself in recently. Although a reasonable and immediate response might be ‘just don’t do it’, things were not so straightforward.
First, the change removed data relating to the risk analysis and downgrading of returns from a project that she had prepared at the CEO’s request when she had first arrived. While the CEO had said he accepted her results, the operations managers responsible for the project had contested the analysis and revised revenue projections.
Second, she had only been working for the CEO for three months – he had brought her in – and she was still learning her way into the role and her relationships with him and the executive team. As a result of her newness, she was unsure as to whether there was any reasons for the deletions beyond creating a more favourable impression with the board.
As CFO, she felt her effectiveness as a member of the executive team depended upon some degree of flexibility and practical-mindedness. On the other hand, she also felt it was her responsibility to ensure that the company maintained high standards of financial reporting to the board and other stakeholders.
The difficult choice
My friend believed she had several options, neither of which she was totally happy with.
She could send her CEO an email that he would read in the morning shortly before the meeting, politely and constructively refusing his request to amend the presentation, with an explanation of her position.
As a variation, she could ask the CEO to meet her before the meeting and explain her position with a request that the slides be left in.
Or, she could make the changes, and risk misleading the board.
Like many ethical issues confronting leaders, there are social issues, question of facts and risks of escalation tied up in the matter of what to do.
The power dimension is immediately apparent; there is also a social dimension because the individuals involved, including the board, have existing relationships with each other. And this may well be a matter of courage – my friend may need to decide whether to act against her own self-interest out of commitment to a principle.
What should she do?
I encouraged my friend to consider two things.
First, the change to the presentation is subtle, so it’s necessarily open to interpretation. It is not possible to definitely conclude that the request to delete the four slides is intended to deceive.
After all, it’s possible that he believed the presentation was merely too long and that removing four slides would create a more succinct presentation.
Second, she should seek to understand the CEO’s motives. If she were to wrongly conclude that the CEO intended to be deceptive, she would be unnecessarily and unwittingly escalating an issue out of perceived violation of a principle.
If she determines that the CEO holds a clear intention to misrepresent the facts, she has three choices:
- She can just let it go.
- She can raise the issue with the CEO, and be guided by his response, whatever that may be.
- She can raise the issue with the CEO but refuse to delete the slides.
So what happened? Having discussed the matter with a colleague, she raised the issue with the CEO, who agreed that the slides should be retained. But he did not agree that deleting the slides resulted in any meaningful change to the presentation.
And while my friend remained uneasy about the matter, I think she was glad that she had shown some courage. It also reminded us both that such dilemmas rarely turn out to be clear-cut ethical violations that are easily resolved.