The Role of the CEO in Building an Ethical Organization

On Feb­ru­ary 1, 2011, Mark Lon­er­gan mod­er­at­ed a pan­el dis­cus­sion spon­sored by The Markku­la Cen­ter for Applied Ethics at San­ta Clara University 

A pan­el of tech­nol­o­gy CEOs, all of whom have run pub­lic com­pa­nies in the Sil­i­con Val­ley, was con­vened by Mark Lon­er­gan to dis­cuss the top­ic of ethics and the role of the CEO. The Pan­el was spon­sored as part of San­ta Clara University’s Busi­ness and Orga­ni­za­tion­al Ethics Part­ner­ship Pro­gram. In atten­dance were an engaged group of ethics and com­pli­ance offi­cers, HR exec­u­tives, in-house and out­side coun­sel, and aca­d­e­mics. Employ­ees from such com­pa­nies such as Hewlett Packard and Cir­rus Log­ic were in attendance. 


All three pan­elists agreed that the CEO plays a fun­da­men­tal role in set­ting the eth­i­cal tone of the orga­ni­za­tion. CEOs come to their role, they agreed, with a foun­da­tion of val­ues com­ing from their upbring­ing first and fore­most, and mold­ed and expand­ed by their ear­ly work environments. 

Men­tors could and often did play an impor­tant role. 

The spir­it of great com­pa­nies such as Cray, Hewlett Packard, and Sil­i­con Graph­ics deeply influ­enced employ­ees in their for­ma­tive years by estab­lish­ing a foun­da­tion for their future sense of cor­po­rate ethics. 

The CEOs were aligned in believ­ing that ethics were not best con­veyed through poli­cies and rules/​regulations alone.

Great com­pa­nies appeal to their employ­ees’ emo­tions and to their core val­ues. The H‑P Way,” the Cray Style,’ and the Spir­it of SGI” are all exam­ples of eth­i­cal philoso­phies dis­tilled from the val­ues of the founders and ear­ly com­pa­ny builders. 

When the CEO remains true to these philoso­phies in eth­i­cal sit­u­a­tions, the result is pow­er­ful lessons taught to their orga­ni­za­tions at a pro­found emo­tion­al level. 

Read the Markku­la Center’s write­up on the event.


Ken Den­man, CEO of Openwave

Rad­ha Basu, For­mer CEO & Founder of Supportsoft

Robert Bo’ Ewald, For­mer CEO of Sil­i­con Graphics