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For decisions, use ethical mode

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Leslie Muma once read, “Ethics are not taught. They’re caught.” He applied that insight to his leadership.

Muma, co-founder and former chief executive of Fiserv, a $4.7 billion data management company in Wisconsin with more than 20,000 employees, liked to preach the importance of ethics to his staff. But he knew that actions speak louder than words.

In the early 1990s, for example, Fiserv was expanding internationally. It was aggressively selling its services abroad.

“We had an opportunity to make a big sale in another country,” Muma recalls. “A foreign agent in that country wanted a fee from us before we signed the contract. That’s not right and it’s not legal, even though everyone does it to get into that country.”

Muma met with his management team for two hours. Some of his top executives argued for doing the deal. But Muma refused.

His action led Fiserv to lose a $5 million contract. But the message it sent throughout the company was priceless: Our ethics are not for sale.

In another example, Fiserv had done business with a client for more than 12 years when a serious problem arose: The client informed Fiserv that a competing data management firm undercut Fiserv’s rate by almost 30 percent.

Muma questioned the ethical repercussions of retaining business at a rate so low that it would shave his company’s margins and make it nearly impossible to operate with the same level of service. After a tough debate with his management team, he elected to fire the client.

“That client was paying us $18 million a year,” says Muma, who retired as Fiserv’s CEO in late 2005. “It’s hard to walk away from revenue and it’s hard to say, ‘We lost our biggest client.’ But it was the right thing to do.”

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