Michael G. Winston’s name will probably forever be linked to the Great Recession of the late 2000s, but in a good way: He’s the whistleblower who dared to take on the subprime mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp. So what better person to ask about blowing the whistle as an IT pro?
Now a leadership consultant and author of the book, “World-Class Performance,” Winston has become something of a folk hero in the recession’s aftermath, never shying away from speaking out on corporate malfeasance. In a recent interview, I presented a hypothetical scenario to him in which a newly hired network engineer learns that the IT organization is engaged in an effort, initiated by the CEO, to hack into the networks of the company’s competitors, and he’s expected to go along with it. What should the network engineer do? Winston said he should say, “No,” which is what he did at Countrywide:
I was asked to lie to Moody’s. They said, “Oh, Michael, you’ll take the Countrywide plane, we’ll go across country, you’ll go and you’ll meet the guys from Moody’s, and just put this spin on it.” Moody’s had done a governance report and had dinged us for six or seven things that they said we were doing wrong — and we were doing them wrong. I had been fighting for years to get them to embrace new governance practices. But they asked me to lie. And I said, “I know what you’re asking me to do. But I can’t do it. I’m just not your guy.”
Beyond refusing to go along with it, what should this network engineer do? Where does he turn if the malfeasance is coming all the way from the top? Winston said it depends:
That’s a very tough situation. As companies try to recover from the recession, more and more of them are turning to the dark side, and doing whatever they can do to get competitive advantage. So it depends. If there is a hotline in your company, and you can remain anonymous, that’s where I’d start. I also think there’s strength in numbers, so if it’s offending your sensitivities and sensibilities, and feeling wrong to you, you’ve got to expect it’s feeling wrong to other people. So maybe a group of people writes a letter to the chairman. I wouldn’t sign it, though. I worked for a company that had all sorts of rhetoric that they were ethical and honest, and they were not. …If the CEO is ordering the hacking of a competitor, chances are that will not end well. If I think about my own situation, what I probably should have done is dust off my resume and just go somewhere else. There are all sorts of companies that are doing things the right way. But I couldn’t, because there were almost a dozen people who had worked for me well before I joined Countrywide. They had worked for me at Motorola, and then subsequently at Merrill Lynch. They quit their jobs, they moved their families across the country to work with me again, so I was stuck there. But my situation is unique in that regard.
Winston went on to explain what it took for companies to succeed post-recession:
I saw people really focused on holding on — holding on to their jobs, holding on to their positions in companies. And yet I saw a small sliver of the work force saying, “Look, I’m not going to hold on, I’m going to build on. I’m going to grow something right now.” And those people, when the downturn started turning favorable, they were ready to pounce on the next opportunity. As opposed to resting on their laurels, they were creating next-generation stuff. Google built, Facebook built, all these companies said, “To hell with the recession, we’re going to go guns blazing, and we’re going to go headlong into whatever’s next.” They didn’t know what’s next, so they created what’s next. They created new tools, they created new technologies. Those were the companies that were better positioned. Some might argue, and I’m one of them, that the recession is still with us. I don’t believe at all the jobs reports that are put out. I think they’re put out for political reasons — they’re not reality-based. But people are pouncing on the next opportunity. The companies that gain — and, more importantly, maintain — the leading edge are those that invent what happens to them.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.