December 12, 2017

I remember my excitement a number of years ago when I was invited to attend the quarterly marketing meeting for MCI/WorldCom, which was then the largest telecommunications company in the world. The meetings were held in a large ballroom at a prominent Jackson, Mississippi, hotel not far from MCI’s corporate headquarters.  One by one, marketing managers in charge of various divisions within the company were called to the front of the room. With elaborate PowerPoint presentations, they presented their division’s quarterly performance against assigned goals.

When performance exceeded the goal, applause ensued. When performance was short of the goal, the room became tension-filled and very uncomfortable.  Someone, usually the underperforming marketing manager’s boss, would stand up and deliver a public tongue-lashing to the offending manager about the importance of achieving goals and reminding him or her that any further failures to achieve the assigned numbers would not be tolerated. There was no questioning whether conditions had changed or if other factors had affected the outcome. It was all reduced to whether the numbers had been achieved or not. You were either a hero or a bum.

My host informed me that these public humiliations were an important means of promoting goal orientation among managers. Anyone witnessing this spectacle would strongly desire to make sure that goals were achieved at all costs so that he or she would not be publicly embarrassed. I came away thinking that there was something inherently wrong with this approach.

What was wrong? Certainly goal orientation is important, and many regard it as a virtue.  But if goal orientation is regarded as the highest of virtues – the one that trumps all other virtues – then the emphasis is potentially dangerous. My concern was born out later when news reports revealed that CEO Bernie Ebbers had been doctoring the books to make it appear that the company’s financial goals were being met. He was so “goal oriented” that he cheated to make the numbers happen! As a result, he earned a 25-year prison term.

Prudence, justice, courage, and moderation – the Cardinal Virtues – form the foundation of natural morality, and these four virtues must always be at the forefront of managerial thinking. One must develop them first and observe them.  Only by doing so can one truly become goal oriented.

Brian Engelland is author of Force for Good: The Catholic Guide to Business Integrity and ordinary professor of marketing in the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America. He holds the Edward J. Pryzbyla Chair of Business and Economics.