Lessons on Silos From Trump Administration

We pivot back to the Trump Administration today, which continues to give compliance and governance professionals lessons galore in how not to run a large organization.

I spotted an article on Politico.com last week, just before the government shutdown. The headline was “Shutdown threat tanks West Wing morale,” which is no surprise unto itself. One paragraph about halfway down, however, said this:

Some West Wing staffers are dealing with their frustration by keeping their heads down and focusing on the issues over which they have control. As a result, the White House is becoming increasingly siloed, with policy staffers separated from the top brass in the West Wing.

Any time I see the word “silo,” I perk up. In the business world, silos are one of the most pernicious threats a compliance officer faces. Silos can cause the most grand plans for effective compliance to go wrong, once those plans move out of the executive suite and into the business operations,

That sounds a lot like the Trump Administration over the last year. I’m sure President Trump and his inner circle love the grand plans they hatch in the West Wing. A tiny handful of those plans even make sense.

Then comes the achieving of those plans, and the Trump Administration has been one mishap after another. So what can we learn here? What lessons of leadership — or the lack thereof — that compliance officers might absorb, to keep your compliance program efforts away from silos and paralysis?

First, Silos Aren’t Bad

Compliance officers like to say silos are bad, but that’s imprecise. Unto themselves, silos are vital to the success of any large organization — especially businesses.

Silos in the modern organization are just a large example of the division of labor. Each department focuses on one specific task, from sales to marketing to technology to HR to procurement, and so many more. They’re all silos.

The problem is in silos that don’t work together effectively. Alas, the compliance profession has come to abbreviate that idea to “silos,” which is a disservice, really. Because once we just blurt out “silos!” as some bad thing to avoid at all costs, we slip into another bad habit of believing the problem is about structure: too many silos, or the wrong silos reporting into the wrong places.

That’s not the real issue for compliance officers trying to promote good conduct, or for political administrations trying to foist ideas onto a skeptical public.

The real issue is what fills the space around and above your company’s silos: culture and communication.

Lessons From Military Strategy

Last year I wrote a series of posts for the Ethics & Compliance Matters blog over at NAVEX Global, exploring how lessons of military strategy apply to corporate compliance programs. (Disclosure: NAVEX pays me to write stuff like that.)

After all, the military is full of silos: four branches of service, each mobilizing huge numbers of troops, who are organized in a complex hierarchy. Decisions made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington ultimately translate down to soldiers seizing hills in Afghanistan, bombing sites in ISIS-held territory, watching the waters off North Korea, or launching raids in any number of countries.

How does an organization that complex try to keep things together?

As I wrote in one post, the key is for senior officers (or executives, in the business world) to focus on setting big, strategic objectives; and on cultivating a single culture where all members of the group understand the mission and trust each other to act in the mission’s best interest. Then junior officers focus on more immediate goals, and the tactics to get them achieved.

The key is for senior officers to focus on setting strategic objectives; and on cultivating a single culture where all members of the group understand the mission and trust each other.

A large organization can’t succeed in this manner unless senior executives place enormous amounts of trust in the junior executives to make the right decisions— especially in fluid, rapidly changing environments like a military campaign, an overseas business expansion, or major political legislation.

And that trust can’t survive unless you have a strong culture, clear strategic objectives, and clear lines of communication back to the top, so junior staff can freely tell the boss, “No, this isn’t working the way we expected.” (Separately, the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2018 was released last night, and of course trust is in poor shape in the United States. We’ll address that later this week.)

Back to the Trump Administration

By now, you can probably see how this line of thinking applies to the Trump Administration. The Administration achieves its strategic goals so rarely because Donald Trump has no strategic goals, other than to glorify the status of Donald Trump. The only goal he did grasp with any whiff of intelligence was cutting taxes — hence, that was the only real achievement of the Administration in its first year.

TrumpNow, within the Administration, we do see pockets of clear-eyed ambition and skill. At the Environmental Protection Agency, director Scott Pruitt is on a mission to repeal as many regulations as he can. His goal is clear. His subordinates (the ones who agree with him, anyway) know the goal, and know that so long as they’re repealing regulations, Pruitt will be happy. Hence, the EPA is one of the most successful agencies within the Trump Administration, even if “success” now means increasing pollution rather than reducing it.

But compare the EPA to the State Department, which has been one aimless disaster after another. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been overruled via Trumpian tweet numerous times on critical foreign policy issues. U.S. leadership in the world has tumbled, and the department’s diplomatic corps has hollowed out. The EPA is an effective silo; the State Department, ineffective.

What’s missing is the connective tissue stitching those departments (and all the rest) back to the goals and principles set by the West Wing — because in almost every situation, Trump has no goals or principles. So he opens his mouth at the wrong times, says the wrong things, makes promises he won’t keep, and hints at reversals he will never make.

In an atmosphere like that, created by a leader like that — well, why would any subordinates care much about the organization as a whole? The goals of the whole organization will change tomorrow, or this afternoon, or at the next tweet or press conference. So just keep doing that which won’t get you fired, and wait until you can go home.

Back to Your Organization

That’s the outcome you want your company, and your compliance program, to avoid: a collection of silos disinterested in each other, uncaring about the organization, and why the organization has the goals that it does.

You avoid that outcome with strong leaders who articulate a clear mission. Those leaders build trust and common culture, based on a foundation of strong moral values — above all, honesty.

Then they set a few clear objectives (pay no bribes, harass no colleagues, break no laws, punish no whistleblowers), and let junior executives in sales, or procurement, or the Emerging Markets division tell them how those objectives will be achieved.

Will every silo succeed equally well? Nope. But every silo will at least try to succeed, and care about succeeding.

I’m not sure we can say that for the Trump Administration. I’m not sure we ever will.

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