The ethical trap of enabling toxic, abusive high-performers: Lisa Gralnek

Joining me on this week’s episode is Lisa Gralnek, the Principal and Founder of LVG & Co. She is an expert brand builder, business strategist, and forward-thinking change maker with more than 20 years’ experience creating and operationalizing innovative strategies that help companies grow.

Lisa has some great insight to share, including:

Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I grew up in Los Angeles. I spent every summer on an island off the coast of Maine with no electricity. I went to college on the East Coast. I went to grad school in Europe. I’ve traveled to more than 60 countries, lived in seven countries, lived in six U.S. States, and speak three languages. I have equally parts to my brain that are left and right, creative and business. And I see the world as a result at 30,000 feet and 300, which I think makes me especially adept at integrating disparate information sources to be able to see what’s ahead and identify and operationalize this best path forward.

Over the last 20 years of my career, I really never had a role that existed before I took it. They’ve either been created for me or new roles that I step into, always with the same mandate, which is we are here and we want to go there. What do we do, and how and when do we do it?

I led strategic initiatives for fashion and luxury companies in the first part of my career, and since then in-house at Adidas,, Chobani, Walmart’s forward-thinking tech incubator, and many consulting clients.

So I think if I really sum up everything I’ve done and everywhere I come from, it’s really about being intellectually and culturally motivated to help businesses be better and really help them move from where they are to where they want to go by leading with their values to really positively contribute not only to their bottom line, but also to the world we all share.

Thinking about that diverse tapestry of your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

There have been many. As a systems level thinker, I tend to see trend lines. My toughest ethical challenge is reasonably consistent and I think it’s something that we see a lot, which is when everyone knows that there’s a bad player or a bad players, and they don’t take action. When we’re looking the other way, when there’s this willful ignorance, or even straight up defense of bad behavior, I find that really ethically challenging.

This came up in one of the companies I worked with, unfortunately. There was a real culture of this. It was to the extent that whenever there were big meetings where the entire organization would come together, senior female leaders would regularly coach and advise the younger female employees not to end up alone with a particular male executive.

There were a few of them, but there was one in particular who continued a meteoric climb through the organization. And yet he had this very long track record of hitting on and harassing younger female employees. Everyone knew it but never did anything. It made for a pretty toxic work environment. That culture ultimately penalized everyone, people who don’t speak up, and if they did, as I ultimately did, you were really gravely limited in your career advancement. And in my case, I was ultimately forced out.

Otherwise, your only choice is to put your head down and go along with it or to be one of these senior leaders who think that you’re protecting your younger females by telling them about this. But I just never understood that mentality.

And the truth is this extends beyond discrimination or harassment, it’s true whether a particular leader or manager takes credit for someone else’s work, or when a firm or person in power overly exaggerates or spins the positive impact of their work. That for me, poses such an ethical dilemma. The enablement of unethical behavior in defense of power is really a challenge.

Businesses talk about we have the no a-hole rule. But when you look at it, if the person is a rainmaker or the main contact for your largest billing clients, the pressure is to look the other way and just say, oh, it’s just person X being person X. So, what’s your advice for organizations or for executives when they find themselves in that role? How you can take that stand and actually purge that toxic performer?

It’s such a cultural question. Because on the one hand, this kind of behavior of silence and complicity really enables what I call the “Pass go, collect $200” behavior mentality that’s so prevalent in large corporations and public institutions. Where you put your head down, you nod, you smile, you do what your manager tells you to do, where you do the bare minimum to survive, and you’re rewarded for it.

If you’re going to say there’s a no a-hole rule, or we don’t tolerate harassment and discrimination or we’re equal opportunity, you really need to walk the walk. And I think that’s where I get to the work that I do, which is about letting your values lead.

Values are the guideposts for driving forward. They are the GPS coordinates. In getting to a destination, you really need to put those parameters in place, and you need to communicate them to the organization. And I don’t know if I’d say there should be a zero-tolerance rule, because everyone makes mistakes. But you certainly can’t have everyone in the organization aware that there are exceptions and hope that you’re going to be able to change the culture.

How do you recommend organizations instill that culture, where they drive home and reward the values and help people feel comfortable speaking up to live their values?

It starts with your mission. Why do you exist? What is your vision? What do you want to achieve? What are your values. These values guide you from the mission to the vision to the destination and throughout the journey.

Almost every large organization and many small ones have annual performance reviews or a performance management system. You need to tie values to these things.

On the hiring process, it’s partially culture. And you’re seeing it a lot with diversity and inclusion right now in the midst of Black Lives Matter, there’s this commitment, we want diversity and inclusion. Well, if you want diversity and inclusion, you need to hire that way. You can’t hire blind, number one. You also need to be able to make commitments that elevate people who would often too traditionally fall out of the workforce.

You also need to enable people and encourage people to speak up. HR and senior managers have a very large role in this. You need to give them enough training and enough runway so they know what to do if someone comes to them, and that they encourage it. You need to abide by values and not just shunt it under the rug, because it creates problems more broadly. If you’re going to walk the talk, you need to make sure that the people who are the pathways and the conduits to that are really taking action and trained appropriately.

I tell a lot of companies that I work with “You need to make ethics questions a part of the interview process.” It is the same thing with the values, you need to help people understand how to live those values.

I think that’s absolutely right. Values are personal morals and they need to be readily accessible for day-to-day use and reflection. If this is going to be part of who you are you need to do it in the interview process from the outset. You need to include it in performance management and train the people who can make the decisions.

A friend of mine, Patrice Tanaka, says the question she always asks is, “What is your purpose in life?” And she says about 20% of people look at it like a deer in the headlights, and she just moves on. But otherwise it really helps to understand do the people think about themselves or do they think about others? And if so, how many others? It really is an interesting way to uncover the way people think about other people.

It’s a great one. I love it.

Circling back to the example that you gave, when you were dealing with abusive executives, and you said it ended up forcing you out of your job. What is your advice to others? Are there things they could do so they could avoid potentially being forced out but still get their point across?

More than ever, I see values as a code of conduct. I think they create culture. They provide the guardrails and guideposts by which we navigate the path forward. I wrote my senior thesis in college on identity politics, which is the connection between self and other. It’s imperative for respect, reciprocity and authenticity in civil society. I look back on how I’ve walked the talk myself. And I’d say, honestly, in that case and others, I wouldn’t fall on my sword so often. That does not mean that I wouldn’t stand up for others that were being mistreated or defend myself in the same way multiple times.

But I’m a pretty candid person. I speak pointedly. I have a major allergy to injustice and inequality because it doesn’t fit. But the truth is, I don’t need to be a sacrificial lamb in order to be able to get that point. If you can operate within this system, you probably actually have greater impact and influence. And I’m learning that softening, leaning on my empathy, practicing patience, becoming more measured, isn’t about softening up on the issues, but rather in delivery of what I have to say and in defense of them. You attract more flies with honey.

There are so many issues out there to address. I try to focus my work now as a consultant on advocating for triple line, bottom line models, and since 2015, action measured against the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

That makes a lot of sense. As I say, is when you tell somebody, “That’s not being ethical, or that’s not living up to our values,” that’s like taking a 20-pound sledgehammer to the side of their head. And sometimes that works, but sometimes you may need a more subtle approach to that when you throw down that gauntlet, because then they get very much on the defensive right away.

Absolutely. We’re still in that fight or flight mode of our ancestors, and you don’t want people on the defensive if you want them to move forward.

Thinking beyond your own personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

The number one thing I’m seeing is this “me before we” attitude. We’re this tiny planet spinning in a tiny solar system in a galaxy of many galaxies. We need to come together, and so the “we” needs to lead. That attitude really will hopefully impact other things that I’m seeing that concern me, which are this very near-termism approach. We need to looking at the triple bottom line, meaning both profit as well as people and the planet.

Overcoming that shortsightedness, that near-termism, really is about thinking farther ahead than next quarter’s profits. I think we as people lack a sense of history. We have only been on this little tiny planet that’s been here since the big bang for 13.7 billion years. If you put that on a 24-hour time horizon, man has only been here for 48 seconds. America is less than 250 years old. The Industrial Revolution, which kicked off this recent age of man, started in 1800. We’re just babies, and I think we have to not forget that. We take ourselves way too seriously. We are impatient and seek convenience. But we have to ask ourselves at some point, at what cost?

Finally, and this is truly the role of marketing, communications and especially PR and each of us individually I think as well, we need to look at accountability. We have to hold each other, and those especially in power, accountable to look out for all, not just some. And because I really fundamentally believe that without this group collective values, we not only can’t thrive but it’s really questionable whether we’d survive.

I think you brought up some really great points when you were talking about the near-termism and the people, profit and planet. The Business Roundtable in August of 2019 said it’s not just shareholder value, it’s stakeholder. My pushback is, are they actually going to do something about it? What are the ways you encourage businesses to get beyond that near-termism to look things from a longer-term perspective?

Every company is different, of course. You have companies who are now benefit corporations, B corporations as we call them. And there are more and more companies going this direction where you’re not able to take that short-termism view. And they’re making commitments that goes back to the Business Roundtable new statement of purpose for a corporation. It is about all stakeholders across the value chain, across the business ecosystem. At any given point where I interact with a company, oftentimes I’m hired at these key inflection points.  

And that’s why I like to tie it to the mission, vision and the values, because then you can really uncover, what they are trying to achieve. You want to enter a new category, let’s say, because the macro trends and consumer behavior is telling you that we’re moving off of dairy and into plant-based. That makes sense. So then what is your supply chain going to look like as a result of that? Who are the people you’re going to engage? Who are you going to talk to? How are you going to get the information that really leads you to the right solutions that are not only bottom line indicated? And what kind of innovations really can you afford, incorporate, consider along the way? So, it’s really thinking from an integrated whole, rather than a shortest leg to reach the results. Recognizing of course, that financial pressures in business are real and patience is not necessarily always a virtue.

Sometimes it’s evolution and not revolution…but some evolution is faster than others.

Absolutely. And there’s so much happening right now, I think. If you just use packaging as an example, it’s one of my big, hot points. Johnny Walker Black is about to launch in wood pulp, recycled, post-consumer material instead of having glass or plastic bottles. There is so much innovation happening on the material science front right now, especially in packaging. And I think that this is one tiny, tiny, tiny little example across the value chain that you can really consider and ask questions about.

You brought up earlier how “me vs we” is wired into us from our Neanderthal age. And I’ve seen the Academy of Management study, which shows we tend to be selfish when you’re not given time to think. So how do you train yourself to think beyond that short-term interest? How do you encourage your managers and your employees to take that we versus me approach?

I think we are all influenced. I give this talk about values and where they come from, and so many of them are intrinsic. They come from our DNA, they come from our childhoods, they come from our ancestry, they come from our communities, they come from our education, and we learn them and we gain them from experience. These are the six ways you come to one’s values. In my case, I grew up in a particular kind of environment where I had to always fend for myself, but I was on the lookout all the time. I was always considering all the different factors.

And so, as an empath, which is what I learned to be, and an intellectual, there are always all these different factors. I’m also a triple Libra, which means that I see all the different sides, which is a crazy astrological way of looking at things. Which I liked to joke with people who care about that stuff that, that explains it a lot.

But I think that there is also a slowing down. And that’s an interesting outcome potentially of COVID, where people are being forced to slow down and reckon with what is right now in a way that we haven’t historically done recently in this very fast moving, fast paced train of modern life. And I wonder and I hope that people, as a result of thinking a little bit closer in, are then going to be able to look further out to say what really matters.

I think we’re seeing the interdependencies, the interconnectedness and the integration of all of us, of nations, of cities, of states, of businesses, of industries, of individual lives, that is so relevant. And I think that’s what I’d just say. It’s always asking. So, you think X, why do you think X? Have you considered Y, Z, et cetera? And that’s the way I approach it. I don’t try to force people, but I try to encourage and provoke the thoughtfulness that leads to different outcomes.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

I have one area of concern right now that is very profound. What is truth? Where do we get reliable information these days? As a business person, I need information and facts and figures and data to decide a course of action for sustaining solid performance. As a citizen, information guides our daily lives.

I’m concerned about where we’re getting factual information in this very capitalistic world where media is pressured to perform, to collect clicks and dollars. The fragmentation, because there’s so much special interest and how you can build a platform. Obviously, there are hacking and security issues as we look at technology.

I do think that it really is on us as marketing and communication professionals in many ways to say what is our role in making the world a better place and how can we help?

I agree with you a hundred percent. My listeners have heard me talk about it before. I say we’re entering the disinformation age. And one of our biggest challenges, how do you fight against that disinformation?

It terrifies me that an age of disinformation suggests real chaos and confusion, because facts are on which we can really move ahead, and everything else becomes very… The sands beneath you shift when it’s disinformation. So that scares me, but I am fearful of the same.

You mentioned you’re being shaped by so many factors, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

The very, very, very best ethical advice I ever was given was kind of indirect. And it was in a situation in elementary school where a big bullying situation was happening. My third-grade teacher was a very lovely man and very warm and supportive, as you would hope a third-grade teacher would be.  I learned through him, that we are better off when people don’t speak behind closed doors about things they wouldn’t say in the open.

I think the point, of course, here is it’s about not speaking behind other’s backs, not whispering, not being two-faced. I’ve lived this way and offered it to others since.

First of all, it’s an immense freedom. You never have to remember what you said or anything else, because you know you’ve already said it. But also, I think it extends into all aspects of life, especially in business. And it comes back to what I was talking about in terms of accountability. Transparency and accountability are really, I think, the best defense of ethical behavior, because it’s about walking the talk, about not only being true to yourself, but being true and committed to what you say you are to others. Honesty and openness, leads to ethical behavior, because others see and hear you.

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

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
Follow Me
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

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *