Emory Report

November 1, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 10

"Best Place to Work" CEO speaks on values in business

Upon learning that his company, Synovus Financial Corp., had been ranked No. 1 on Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work for in America," James Blanchard was dumbfounded. "I said, 'They must have made a mistake,'" confessed the Synovus CEO.

Blanchard came to Emory Oct. 21 for a lecture on "Tending the Heart of a Business," sponsored by the Ethics Center's Ethics & Servant Leadership Program. Born and raised in south Georgia, Blanchard reminded his audience in the Goizueta Business School of how simple workplace ethics can be.

The secret to making a business both successful and moral, he said, involves one principle: love your neighbor as yourself. "If Synovus could have only one stated policy, I'd want it to be the golden rule," Blanchard said.

Named "most respected CEO in the state" by Georgia Trend in 1997, Blanchard explained that treating his 10,000 employees with dignity and respect is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. It is, he explained, a "noble calling ... as well as a great business strategy."

And while Synovus has not evolved to the point where its CEO can discard most of its bureaucracy in favor of the golden rule, it might be headed in that direction. America's largest credit-card transaction processor, the Columbus-based Synovus is largely organized not by corporate policies but shared values. Its "values chain" begins with people and ends six steps later with shareholder value. Of course, Blanchard reminded business leaders in the audience that shareholder value is certainly still important. "But shareholder value can't be improved by focusing solely on shareholder value," he said. It can only be improved by tending to the heart-that is, the people--of a business.

For Blanchard, tending the heart of Synovus means doing three things: communicating to each employee his or her intrinsic worth, offering employees the opportunity to make a difference, and providing them with the chance to be part of a winning team. Toward these ends, Blanchard helped create the Leadership Institute at Synovus.

The leadership process begins even before an applicant is hired--persons interviewing for jobs are carefully screened in an effort to ensure that everyone in the "Synovus family" will enter with an eagerness to work and strong moral sensabilities. Once hired, employees are placed into one of three permeable categories: emerging, young leaders; mid-level executive leaders; or top-level organizational leaders, such as Blanchard himself.

Headed by Stephanie Alford, the institute offers employees and managers two to four weeks of intensive training sessions each year. Sessions focus on systems thinking, personal development, servant leadership, teamwork, conflict resolution, communications and strategic leadership planning.

Former Ethics Center associates Andy Fleming and Steve Olson currently serve as consultants and trainers/facilitators for the institute. During training, the most promising emergent leaders are handpicked for higher levels of management. Blanchard emphasized the importance of servant leadership among those being trained for top-level positions. "The more power you give away, the more power you have," he said. Supervisors who "salute the flag while kicking the dog" are not wanted in the Synovus family.

The greatest barrier, according to Blanchard, to being both a successful business and a great place to work? Arrogance. He emphasized that while excellence is expected at Synovus, arrogance will not be tolerated. Not only does it violate the values chain, it also makes a poor business strategy; lack of humility, Blanchard said, has been the downfall of numerous corporations and executives in the 20th century.

"You can violate those rules [of humility and integrity] for a season, but the trap door will eventually open up," he said. "And you'll fall through."

Blanchard concluded his lecture with a reminder that the success-driven components of business must be kept in spiritual perspective. Using a biblical metaphor, he asked, "When I die and stand in front of the 'Book of Life,' what will be listed under my name?" The work that has brought him fame--making Synovus successful and humane--will be absent from the page, he contended.

Instead, the "Book" will reveal "whether I loved my wife. Whether I raised my boys right. Whether I was a giver and not a taker."

-Stacia Brown

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