Victoria Whitaker is a Deloitte Partner in Australia’s Risk Advisory business unit. She also represents the firm on the global Energy, Sustainability and Climate for the Business 20 taskforce, a globally convened group of companies that provides policy recommendations to the G20.
From a capability perspective, can you do what you say you can do? Are you capable of it? From a reliability perspective, do you do it consistently? And thirdly are you truthful about who you are? So, if you claim certain values, do you actually uphold those values and live those values as a company?
Over her career, Victoria has worked extensively across corporate and organisational sustainability, helping companies understand their impacts on others and upon the environment. Today, her focus is on people and trust, a natural evolution from her previous work, and one that often regrettably begins at the point where trust has been lost.
“There is a significant amount of a company’s valuation placed in reputation or trust. When companies ethically fail, it can cost billions, and lead to significant job loss,” she says.
So how do you stop the breach before it happens? Before jobs are lost and capital is destroyed? For Victoria, it begins from within. The culture of an organisation must propagate and champion psychological safety.
“If you can’t trust the person who you work with day to day, why would any of your external stakeholders trust you? Psychological safety is about enabling productivity, maintaining operational rhythm and hitting your strategy targets. It’s also about truthfulness.”
In her view, trust between people and the psychological safety that develops is an antidote to poor behaviour. As she points out, it’s rare for a significant ethical failure where it’s one decision of one person. “It’s usually some normalising of poor behaviour over a period of time that leads to the catastrophic ethical failure.”
Language can normalise poor behaviour. Business jargon can hide the truth or use language to distort or embellish what is actually happening. While honesty is one of her three dimensions of trust, it seems clear that truth is pre-eminent.
I believe the most precious element of trust is honesty. Because if you fail with capability and reliability, you can recover if you’re upfront and honest about it.
Truth naturally encompasses risk management and the critical relationship with regulators. “When issues are raised, they must be dealt with candour and clarity. It requires a constructive open relationship with regulators, not the cosy ‘let’s go fishing’ on the weekend kind.”
The same applies for community stakeholders, which becomes acutely relevant for industries like energy and resources or banking. She cites examples where the breach of community trust magnifies when the company involved applies a legal lens, not an ethical perspective.
Rather than make excuses for what has happened, choose what is right.
Contrary to the argument of defending a mistake and waiting for the smoke to blow over, doing the right thing quickly and with good intent has a significant long-term positive affect on community relationships.
“Community relationships are more critical than ever before, and trust is at the centre. When communities believe they have a voice they feel empowered. They can work with the company. Problems can be solved collectively. Plans can be executed collectively.”
Addressing a problem today with a half-hearted or disingenuous plan for tomorrow is also an area that inevitably leads to a bending of the truth. Or worse, a flat out lie. Being dishonest about targets and plans can lead to major breaches in long-term trust. Issues like diversity or climate action demand organisations to have clear plans and strategies to deliver meaningful outcomes.
It is no longer OK to project a glossy sustainability report full of promises with no action. Companies need to be able to show their plans for action. We are now facing a time in which there is the potential companies will hide away from action right when we need it. What they need to be is authentic and truthful. If their plan misses its mark, like many do, they need to tell their stakeholders early and explain why. But they shouldn’t hold back on considered ambition.
According to Victoria, a simple question that should be asked is ‘what is your intent?’. Is the intent to deceive and hide a problem or in the above case, falsify a solution, or is the intent to act with integrity and honesty whatever the challenge?
If your intentions are honourable and clear, according to Victoria, you can mitigate unforeseen challenges. Intent is the difference in a short-term problem that can quickly become a long-term erosion in trust. She cites the cyanide in Tylenol versus Cambridge Analytica.
“It’s hard to blame Tylenol for a disgruntled employee or customer in the same way as when you think about acts that intentionally seek to instill hatred. People can see the difference. That’s why when you look at a trust failure, the intent is as significant, if not more than the impact incurred.”
So much work can go into defining company values, Victoria is dismayed and troubled by situations when there is a sense of flexibility.
“I have witnessed situations when values are allowed to be turned off and on. Once this happens, trust erodes quickly. Values are not changeable depending on the situation.”
Aligning behaviour to values is important, ensuring you stick to them is critical, but how do you define your values in the first place?
Recently Victoria worked with a construction client and the question of defining values was answered with questions. How are decisions made? Do those affected have a chance to give feedback before a decision is made? When you make a decision, how do you know it is a good decision?
These questions drew out what would become the company’s values while also building a decision making framework that could measure, in an objective way, whether values were being upheld.
“Values can be strongly or weakly lived. If care is a value – not harming would be low level, whilst enabling flourishing would be the higher order living of this same value,” Victoria explains.
“When that’s applied to a whole set of values, you start to see a pattern, and it enables conversations about what might change in a decision to push it to a higher level.”
As our time with Victoria Whitaker comes to a close, it becomes evident that her ideas around capability, reliability and honesty are crucial to trust. But you also get the sense that she landed on this answer by always asking the right questions.
And we are very glad we have had the time to ask Victoria so many questions when we met.