How to Effectively Counsel the C-Suite on Ethics: Jim Lukaszweski

Joining me on this week’s episode is Jim Lukaszewski, one of America’s most visible corporate go-to people for senior executives when there is trouble in the room or on the horizon and the C-Suite needs ethics counsel.

In this interview, Jim discusses:

Tell me more about yourself and your career?

I’ve been in the public relations field for now 42 years. I’m the oldest guy in the room every time I go someplace. My career started in government when I was working for a Minnesota governor back in the 1970s. My college degree is actually in political public relations and that government career is what really got me into public relations and into the particular areas that I work in – crisis management, generally with senior executives. My practice is a very specialized one in that area. You have to be really in serious trouble to work with me.

I do a lot of executive coaching because fundamentally when organizations get into trouble, these are leadership issues and the folks who caused these problems really need someone who’s been there before. For a story to be written about my life, my career, I added up the number of scenarios I’ve worked on in my career and it’s over 400.

Thinking about the 400 scenarios, if you had to pick one, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

This is probably about 25 years ago, but I was invited by a team of attorneys in Western Canada to meet with what turned out to be about a hundred Indian chiefs in American terms. In Canada, they call them First Nations and they’re considered Aboriginal tribes. But they have two kinds of chiefs, blood chiefs and elected chiefs. And the issue had to do with Canadian sovereignty for these native communities. The British government had stopped doing treaties with the Aboriginal tribes in the middle of the 1800’s and they turned it over to the Hudson’s Bay Company to have contracts with these tribes instead of treaties. What’s going to happen was that these tribes are going to become extremely wealthy in the process.

They were going to get pieces of, in this case, British Colombia and we’re talking coal mines, forestry. There were 82 different First Nations vying for pieces of the city of Vancouver. And if they could establish a legitimate tribal history, then they would be entitled to that land. It was really interesting. And I was called upon because I’d been doing some work in the province on cultural issues and ethical issues in business and they wanted me to meet with these chiefs to talk about the change in their life and get them to be more comfortable with the fact that they’re going to go from this horrendous state of oppression and depression, similar to the Native American tribes’ story in this country, to wealth.

Anyway, I went up there different days. I met a day with chiefs themselves, I met with their spouses the second time, and with their children the third time. And it was a real problem. It was a big failure of mine. Probably the biggest failure in my life because I thought I could help them understand how they could move past all the things they’d suffered over the centuries as it were.

We had wonderful conversations. These are wonderful people. I thought I could tell them about just putting these things behind you and going forward. I talked about the concept of forgiveness because it seemed to me what they would have to come to terms with everything. Just forgive what happened in the past and move forward because you couldn’t think of a penalty large enough to satisfy all the things these people had suffered.

But these tribes did not have the concept of forgiveness in their culture because their cultures were so honorable. If you messed up somebody’s life or something like that in their cultures, you were supposed to go to that person and get it fixed today. And so they really couldn’t understand looking backwards at these awful things that happened to their family and their cultures. The damage had been done and never accounted for. So, I was in a way really trying to promote an issue that they couldn’t recognize. And it was a very emotional meeting with these people and their children. Many of them wrote to me for years afterwards. But my contribution didn’t really help. It stopped because some began stopping cars on the highway and shooting at things and stuff. I don’t work when there’s gunfire.

But of all the things I’ve done in my career, that was the one that I thought was by far the most important and the one where I was truthfully this kid from Robbinsdale, Minnesota, spectacularly unqualified to help these people. But everybody up there had great confidence in me and the senior chief lived a long time and he actually sent me a letter at Christmas every year for many, many years. But it was something I failed at and I feel badly about that to this day.

And from an ethical perspective, what was the biggest ethical challenge you dealt with when you were talking to the indigenous peoples?

Their system of ethics was more powerful than I even understood. The ethic of their culture is that anytime you cause someone else pain or suffering, you immediately deal with it. And then it’s over. I mean that’s an enormous advantage and one which doesn’t really happen in our culture. We go through a lot of the pain and suffering that often is not resolved, and we behave badly in the process. So, I learned more about walking with these people than I knew when I went up there as an expert in ethics and cultural development.

Looking back on that engagement, is there anything you would have done differently to get to that conclusion sooner or have a more productive meeting?

This is embarrassing to say, but I should have refused the engagement. I met a lot of people in Western Canada who are experts in this field, experts with First Nations and people from First Nations as well as other cultures and the culture of Canada. But the reality is I should not have accepted the engagement. I was totally unprepared. It was really evident that I really couldn’t really help them, but they were tremendous towards me for making the effort. And I always feel honored by that engagement.

Thinking beyond that one experience, when you’re thinking across the industry, what do you personally see as some of the key public relations ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

One major lesson that I’ve learned is that essentially all behaviors, improper, inappropriate, illegally moral, all those sorts of things are intentional. Nobody accidentally robs a bank, nobody accidentally defrauds customers, nobody accidentally assaults somebody else. These are the decisions of adults. They are intentional. People think about them. One of the things I’ve studied really is this pattern of decision making where someone who’s really smart begins to step over the line and then steps a little further and he looks around and nobody’s noticing. So, he steps a little further.

He and she, but it’s mostly he’s in my experience at this point in time, mostly because they’re not that many she’s running large organizations, but these behaviors are intentional. And the interesting part of that is that all legal, moral, ethical, and responsible behaviors are also intentional. Meaning people choose, they have to decide to be bad. And when you look at how this plays out, there is this constant blurring of the line between did he really mean to do that, what were the circumstances? In my judgment, in my experience, people make affirmative decisions to be good and they make affirmative decisions to be bad. So, when I work with a client who has ethics and behavior at the root of all bad behaviors, we talk very frankly about this and because I can predict the patterns that people are going to go through to avoid doing anything to resolve the issues they’re facing.

There are constant patterns. I’m actually writing a book called The Pathology of Management Misbehavior. It’s probably not going to be out till the end of next year, but because I’ve studied these behaviors, tried to understand why these really smart people choose make the wrong choice. Look around in the news. I mean the Volkswagen situation; this wasn’t six guys on a weekend going in and tampering with a handful of cars. This was 800,000 vehicles. Meaning that everybody in the company was in on it, from top to bottom. Wells Fargo is another example that has so many issues and so much intentional wrongdoing affecting literally millions of people. These were conscious decisions by smart people to do things that they knew were wrong.

My advice is pretty simple. It’s pretty straight forward and quite often when I walk through with the people I’m going to work with, what we’re going to be doing in the next few days someone will often say, this sounds very familiar. Why is that so familiar? My question is this, do you have a mom?

The answer is, well, of course I had a mom. Well, she told you this at seven. She told you this at 13. She told you this at 20. And she told you this at 27. These are the major inflection points in most people’s lives. And so the comment often is, and we’re paying you to give us our mother’s advice. And I say, well handsomely as a matter of fact.

But my job is making things. My job is simplification. It is to get rid of all this clutter and all of this stuff that comes up, fabricated now maybe in the media, and having the people who were perpetrating the process getting the resolution to the problem. And I’ve done this so frequently that all of this is actually written down and I send people like a kit. The kit has what I call “Profiles in Failure” and it lists the issues and the behaviors of people to stay in trouble. Because even though they know they’re doing these things the often continue.

For example, one is silence by not saying anything and waiting to see if something’s going to happen. Another one is stalling. Another one is I call testosterosis. And it’s, you get angry because people are on your case about what’s happening. And so, you lash out and you push back. All of these behaviors avoid the things that you know you’re going to have to do to resolve the issue. I’ve done this so often that if I had the slightest inkling of what it is they’re troubled by, I can actually begin to describe to them what’s going to happen to them. And when I do that sometimes, someone on the phone with me who was talking to me for the very first time will ask me, Jim, who are you talking to? And the answer is, I’ve been through this many times and I know what you’re going to, what’s going to happen to you.

And by golly, that’s exactly what happens. So, it’s sort of a difficult to work with me on these issues because I’m interested in getting them fixed. And most people go for our public relations help, essentially to try and mitigate and move away from the issues they tend to be facing, not necessarily fix them.

When somebody sees someone else in their company engaging in intentional ethical violations, what’s your advice dilemma on how to effectively speak up and challenge the incorrect actions?

First of all, my advice is to speak up. The number one reason that bad behavior and bad decisions are tolerated is because people simply do not speak up. In all these companies we read about that are having serious ethical problems and cashiering their CEOs, there are public relations people present at these circumstances and they don’t speak up either. And if they speak up, they don’t necessarily have the command presence to force or at least open the eyes of the people who are making these bad decisions going forward. When you think of a big one like Volkswagen, these are basically leadership problems. These are not public relations problems initially.

Most of us, the moment these things happen, we begin writing messages and all kinds of other stuff. But the point is – if wrongdoing is occurring, it has to be pointed out, explained and named. Our profession tends to pride itself on often being the conscience of an organization. But it’s an extraordinarily difficult challenge because the people who actually do things, own things, run things and make decisions are not public relations people. We really have to begin approaching management not writing messages. Every problem I define first and foremost as a management problem or a leadership problem. If we start with communication, which we often do, they’re not there yet.

And when you don’t start at the same place, you’re not going to end up with the same place at the same time. So, the issue is first and foremost a leadership problem. Secondly, it’s a people problem because when managers misbehave, the culture in many organizations is to go along with this or to make very limp efforts to respond. Someone has to stand up and begin saying, no, we need to change the course of action here. We need to really examine what we’re doing. We need to make some changes and think about this. And it’s very difficult. If you work in a corporate setting, you know what I’m talking about. It’s very difficult. In a smaller company they tend to have smaller problems and they’re mostly for the company itself.

By big companies like I’m describing here tend to have large problems that get lots of visibility. In the United States, there are millions of smaller companies that are doing just fine. They have their problems, because all companies have issues at different points in their life, but they’re not necessarily of the caliber of these larger issues which get all the attention.

Beyond intentional unethical action, what are some of the other key ethics challenges that you’re seeing?

The fundamental challenge we have as practitioners is essentially the bosses and people we work for generally expect very similar things, whatever the organization happens to be. I actually wrote a book about this years ago and I call it, Why Should the Boss Listen to You? It talks about what do these people look for in what they want us to do for them. The first thing they want almost constantly is advice on the spot. Interestingly enough, one thing that tends to separate the outside consultant from the internal advisors is that the internal advisors generally speaking, aren’t necessarily known for this – because, I’m going to offend a lot of people now, we don’t generally have a good sense of the business we’re working for.

I know this also sounds very accusatory, but we really don’t. 75 percent of us can’t add, subtract, multiply or divide reliably. In fact, that’s why they’re in public relations. I asked this question for every professional audience I talk to and I raise my hand and say math has never been a friend of mine. How many have you had it never had math as a friend? And I’ll tell you, the hands will go up very slowly, and by the time I leave, I wait for about a minute and a half. Three quarters of the audience is raising their hand. That’s why they came. And this is a problem.

An even greater problem is many of us lack this capacity to give information on the spot. People tend to forget; business operate in real time. Bad things happen in real time. And if you go to a meeting at 10 o’clock and are debriefed, and then you leave and try to figure out what you do, and you come back at two o’clock…a lot has happened in those four hours and you’re forcing the management, the leader to go back. Which they’ll do, probably with great courtesy, and then they don’t do what you suggest because they’re past the information point that you give.

I think another weakness we have is that we believe so strongly in what we believe in, that sometimes we don’t realize how much pressure we’re putting on people. I’m a senior practitioner and I meet with a lot of senior practitioners and one question that is asked most frequently is “Jim, I worked here nine years, I work for a guy I really, I like him, I respect him. I think he’s good, but there are things he should be doing that he just isn’t doing. And what’s this? What’s, I’m the crisis guru, right? So how do you get these people to do the things that they should be doing?”

My answer is this, I have a 10-day rule on ideas. If they don’t do it in 10 days, I would ask again if I think it’s that important. But if they don’t do it after that, drop it and move on to something else. They’re not going to do it. They’re adults. They have made the decision not to do it and they’re just too courteous to tell you get off it.

I talked to one guy a couple weeks ago at a convention. I was giving advice to the communicators in the group and this one fellow said he couldn’t get his manager to do what he proposed. I said, well, how long have you been proposing this kind of stuff? He said it’s going on 13 years, 13 years! Does this guy even talk to you anymore? I mean, come on.

Here’s the problem. We tend to forget whose bus we are on. It’s their bus. The people who run the place, it’s their bus. If you can’t get along, if you have a problem with how they’re behaving or acting, get off the bus. Get another bus or start your own. It’s one of the benefits of our business. We can easily go into business for ourselves.

But you’ve got to remember whose bus it is and that all staff functions are on there and paid for to help management drive the bus better from their perspective. The first issue is not communications. It is knowing where the leader is from their perspective. That’s the hardest thing for us.

I also teach a specific technique for giving advice to resolve this issue of, they don’t listen to us.

It’s called a three-minute drill, but it basically revolves around the concept of making suggestions, writing options for action. We don’t have time to talk about the whole thing, but the concept is to always have at hand three potential options for them to choose from. Our problem is we’re so strong on communication that we walk in and the boss wants options, but we say things like, I know in my heart this is the right thing to do. Well, the boss isn’t running the bus with his heart.

We characterize ourselves as solution finders. But many of us can’t be solution finders because we can’t add, subtract, multiply, divide and the rest of management can. The issue for us really is we don’t know the business. We can’t know the business because we’re not business people.

So, to help these people and not be shut out of the conversations, the solution I have found over the past 25 years is to offer three options every time. The three options are very simple.

First is to do nothing, and it is an option. It’s a strategic option. We tend to avoid it because we like to do stuff right, but doing nothing is a zero percent solution. Then there’s doing something which I call the 100 percent solution, which is important to do and then there’s the third category which I call doing something more. – or the 125 percent option.

Always give them three choices. This is the one time perhaps in our entire career when they recognize that we were actually thinking about their problems from their perspective, they will like it and they will call you back sooner. If you want more information on the three-minute drill email me

This is a very important concept. Offering options instead of solutions because options are smaller and they’re doable and you’re actually helping them be successful. People who do this notice, they get called back sooner than others because everybody else comes in from a staff function perspective and has their solution in hand.

The bosses don’t work that way. One of the mistakes we make when there’s trouble is as staff people link arms around the people in trouble and we want to keep all the other voices away. This is the one time in a boss’s life when they want to talk to anybody for any reason who might have any information on how to solve this thing. And the people who are listened to, including public relations people, are the ones who help them find people to talk to. Particularly in the crisis arena they want to talk to everybody. They’re not going to fire you and hire me. But I’ve got things that I can help you with to get out of the hole you’re in. And then I’m gone.

Well here’s the real catch. A lot of us stick around because we think we can help these people change. And just one thing I’ve learned in my career is people do not change. Women at 8 and 13 are becoming the people that are going to be. Men, we’re slower, sloppier, and a little more stupid. It comes at 16 or 17. But once people pass that mark, they’re not going to change much. So, we have this benevolent notion that we can help people. We can coach them incrementally to improve things. But look at the executive who has not been changing for 13 years.

Here’s the rule for you personally. If it’s illegal, immoral, monumentally stupid and irritating, you’re going to have to change jobs. You’re going to have to just go someplace else. And right now, it’s a pretty good time to do this because the economy is so, really hot and United States and some of the countries or the Western world too. This notion about sticking around because you’d make people change is one I’ve been disabused of long time ago. The issue is really, if you have good advice and they’re not taking it, find a place that will.

As you’re thinking about new developments, AI and fake news and all the other issues, are there new challenges on the horizon that you’re concerned about?

It’s a funny thing. Yes, we have technology issues, but we have Ten Commandments for a reason.

One of the most common questions I get is “Well Jim, with your long career, what are the trends you see in doing bad things?” The answer is none. We do the same things time and time and time again.

One of the great questions is, especially for America, is we are so brilliant at creating great companies and great leaders, but the question is why do these great companies run by these smart people always get into trouble. In the last month, there’ve been like 22 major company CEOs fired for a variety of reasons, but we’re really good at creating these flashing successes.

I sort of explain it this way. We’re so busy creating a great company when we need to strive to be a good company before a great one. Because all these companies, I could run the list but basically they’re in trouble, made this leap, they got great before they got good, so they have to go back that step if they want to survive and become good companies that doing the things, forgive me, but that your mother taught you when you were growing up.

Sometimes people complain that when I’m around it a sound that sounds too much like Sunday school, but the last company I worked with had pled guilty to 391 felonies and my structure of teaching, it’s not religiously based, it’s simply sensibly based on principles in most cultures.

And the president of the company was saying goodbye to his consultants at a special meeting. I was the very last one he talked. He said “There’s Jim Lukaszewski. Every time Jim is around, it feels a little like Sunday school or like your mom talking to you.”

I had to respond. So, I looked at him, I said, Tom, if my company has pled guilty to 391 felonies, I think a little Sunday school would be in order. Don’t you?

Everybody laughed, but Tom.

I’m still working for that company. He was gone a long time ago so.

And I think you bring up a good point and I was talking to Scott Monty a few weeks ago and he reminds us that the ethical issues we’ve been dealing with now are what Mark Anthony and others dealt with two thousand, three thousand years ago.

The kinds of behaviors are the same regardless of the technology, regardless of the circumstances you find yourself in. In the Volkswagen case for example, one of the indications that this was a massive crime was that there were no whistleblowers. There are almost always whistleblowers. When there aren’t any, you know that everybody’s in it from top to bottom. And it’s a much bigger circumstance than it might be perceived to be on the surface, but the problems are the same.

Thinking back over your long career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

The best piece of ethical advice I got it from a man named Chester Berger who was a very famous PR person decades ago. And he said to me, Jim, you’re really great as a technician and getting things or explaining things, but you need to learn to think up, think at a higher level.

That was such a profound piece of information for me because it put me into that mindset and wanting to work and working in these upper levels of management where the really the bad things happen and where mistakes are made and where people are too reticent to point it out.

And so it falls to me and people like us to risk it are we are explaining what’s going on to the people who are actually committing their crimes. The notion of starting to thinking about where the business is, where the business leadership is at, is really profound and important. Because eventually we’ll get to the communications part, but if you start with communications right off the bat, they don’t listen. I’ll tell you why. Of all the staff functions, whether it’s accounting or law or security, the rest of it, these business people we work for aren’t experts in those fields. But every single person we worked for who was a leader thinks they’re a brilliant communicator.

Every audience I ask this question “How many of you work for bosses who think they are bad communicators?” If there’s a hundred people, one hand will go up and I’ll look at it. They’ll say, well, there’s always one, but a fact is, and here’s the problem. When they get advice from their lawyer or from the accountant or from the security person, they’re listening carefully because they’re learning things. When we talk to them, they’re battling with us because they think they’re great communicators. So, no matter what we recommend, their brain is not taking it in and saying, well, I think does a pretty sensible alternative. They’re saying, is this guy really smart or not? That’s pretty simple. I could think of something better than that any day, and they’re not listening to us.

If you wonder why we don’t have an impact, that’s one of the reasons. They think that they’re better than we are in communications. Most leaders from the time they’re a first line supervisor believe that their communication skills are what got them the promotions that they have. Often it’s the case, but you’ve got to keep this in mind. That’s one of the reasons why I think the idea of options I talked about earlier, is really successful and powerful. We are hired as creative idea persons who can think of options for people to work from.  

It’s a great point. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight, Jim?

Oh, about 100,000 things.

But picking one, being an ethical person requires you to develop your own personal code of ethics. We’ve got PRSAs and some others, and by the way, I was part of the team that wrote the PRSA Code of Ethics in 2000. There were eight of us in the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. It took us four years and it is actually the basis for most world codes and we didn’t anticipate that. The Code itself becomes controversial from time to time because we don’t punish people. But this Code is so sensible. So, I think when it comes to ethics, we have a good handle on it as a profession.

But my point is you need to develop a personal ethical code for yourself. Having a personal code that talks about what you believe in and what you count on and what you think about things is essential.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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