Integrity: How to butter the parsnips and move to real action

If you’re the new CEO of Barclays, Integrity is much on your mind.

Promising to bring this elusive quality back to the bank–just like his recently booted out predecessor Antony Jenkins—the latest CEO Jes Staley promises much and it all sounds impressive. [1]

Jes Staley2

Translated, this means helping the culture to develop in new ways, or to return to previously abandoned ones. This might involve some or all of these:

Helping the cutlureDoubtless Mr Staley means well. He would presumably also approve of the seldom used 17th Century English aphorism:  “Fine words butter no parsnips.”

The source of this obscure saying hardly matters here. Yet its sentiments most certainly do. They are further brought to life in John Taylor’s Epigrammes of 1651:

Words are but wind that do from men proceed;
None but Chameleons on bare Air can feed;
Great men large hopeful promises may utter;
But words did never Fish or Parsnips butter.

In simplified English, this poem aptly reminds us it’s easy to talk about Integrity but harder to achieve it. The same applies  to VW, where yet another replacement CEO is also promising a systemic cultural overhaul:

“We are leaving no stone unturned to find out what exactly happened and to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
VW CEO Mathius Muller 19th October 2015



VW is therefore in for a large culture shift. Its success will depend on active parsnip buttering in the coming months, in which real change, not a notional one, must start to happen.

Restoring a company’s Integrity places a huge burden on a CEO and the top team. At VW it:

“…will take everything in our power to win back the trust we have lost.”


Pity then that at the recent conference call for investors in late October, the freshly minted CEO said little of note, and left within 30 minutes. An earlier pledge to be more transparent, combined with saying nothing, was an obvious case of fine words doing little for the parsnips.

But what does Integrity really mean? Is it for example, one of those buzz words too vague to matter and yet too important to ignore?

Certainly the results of integrity imply winning trust, respect and the loyalty of customers, employees and other stakeholders. Yet like so much to do with culture in business, easy to use evocative words often obscure the complexity of what must be achieved.

It is rather simpler to say what integrity is not. As Dr William Cohen, drawing important lessons from the still admired management guru Peter Drucker, explained:

“Integrity is not about profit.”

So what is it?

The first step in seeking clarity is to accept Integrity is multi-faceted:

Integrity diamond

For instance, Integrity for the average CEO may mean “We stand for something”, “We always act lawfully”, “We aim for consistency and transparency”, “This is our identity, “This is our moral or ethical purpose” and so on.

In turn, there are important questions to answer about the link between integrity standards and promotions to managerial positions. Do all managers have a formal responsibility for maintaining and promoting integrity? Are decisions consistent with the organisational values and open to review and scrutiny?

“In no area of corporate life is leadership commitment more important that creating an integrity culture.”
Ben Heinman: Avoiding Integrity Land Mines Harvard Business Review April 2–7

Incidentally, if integrity merely means doing what’s right under the law, then most large organisations are probably doing what’s required—or at least not getting caught doing otherwise.

It’s not illegal for instance, to sell food containing excessive amounts of sugar. Yet society is beginning to question whether this is right and therefore to re-define what it means to have integrity.

personal integrity2When it comes to banking integrity the new Barclays CEO cannot avoid creating a general sense of déjà vu. Whether it’s the CEO at HSBC swearing to bring back integrity after the money laundering scandal. Or Andre Orcel of UBS–fined $1.5 bn for its involvement in the Libor benchmark rate -–promising to overhaul the Bank’s culture and claiming to be “serious about integrity before profit.”

The lessons about integrity of the last few years are now piling up, for the benefit of leaders such as Barclays’ Jes Staley.

For example the percentage of people who work in an environment where they feel motivated and empowered to do the right thing, doubles amongst those who work for companies with comprehensive ethics and compliance programmes. [4]

And because integrity touches on each person’s character, there’s also a danger of in talking about it as if it’s one dimensional. Even well-intentioned leaders for example, can seem to be attacking or even challenging everyone’s personal integrity. Consequently, ethical issues can be downplayed or ignored, simply because nobody senior really wants to get into this emotionally charged arena.

But public expectations about integrity both amongst leaders and companies are rapidly changing. Even back in 2007 Mckinsey found for example that society had higher expectations of companies than in the previous five years.

Since then, as scandals piled up, and public trust in big companies declined, the demand for business to demonstrate what it really means by “integrity” or “being ethical” is becoming unavoidable.

When Unilever for instance defined its own integrity partly in terms of human rights, the scale of the challenge became more focused:

Unilver human Rights2What is definitely encouraging is the gradual increase in the number of senior corporate leaders willing and even keen to talk publicly about issues such as integrity, ethics, trust and culture.

Fine words indeed, but then parsnips remain relatively cheap. What counts is the proverbial butter, or in modern day parlance, signs of real action.

Buckminster Fuller3

Leadership and integrity

The latest report from The Economics and Compliance Initiative, has some useful suggestions about Integrity and how to generate it across an organisation. It offers advice on specific actions leaders should take.

The Principles and Practices of High Quality*Ethics & Compliance*Programs is a discussion document but gives tangible guidance for leaders. In particular keeping risk to a minimum is not a short cut to integrity. What matters is the culture, and leaders are the principle drivers of that.

Amongst the suggestions are Leading practices for intergrity by leaders




1 J. Treanor, New Boss at Barclays promises ‘trust and integrity as overhaul continues, Guardian 29th October 2015
2 Fine Words Butter no Parsnips, Phrase Finder
3 Andrew Leigh, Integrity, Are Your leaders Up to it?
4 KPMG Integrity Survey 2013
5 The Principles and Practices of High Quality*Ethics & Compliance*Programs The Economics and Compliance Initiative,December 2015

Comments are closed.