Question: What would you consider a real-life example of business risk? One possible answer: Invest significant time, money and resources towards construction of the first nuclear power plant in the U.S. in 34 years. Leading that charge is Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Company, an $18 billion utility company. One of his first claims to fame in the business world? Some 20 years ago, back in his early days when Fanning was a treasurer at the company, he blew the whistle on a colleague who allegedly violated FCPA regulations. So, the man knows risk. He fights for his company. He understands regulations. He is an ethical leader.
Though I’m a native Atlantan, I didn’t know much about Tom Fanning or even Southern Company (which is headquartered here), but in this past Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the first line in a story about Fanning caught my eye: “Not many buttoned-down CEOs of publicly regulated utilities rise through the ranks after blowing the whistle on a colleague involved in financial improprieties.” I wanted to know more about this guy.
Too many of today’s business leaders are caught up in negative news – corruption here, personal scandal there. Following the “financial impropriety” at Southern, Fanning took on the responsibility of working to exemplify his company’s standing and reputation. Along the way, he learned valuable lessons about family and work-life balances. No doubt, that strengthened his moral and ethical fiber.
Another of Fanning’s redeeming character traits, and one that is a powerful catalyst for any successful compliance effort, is preparation. One of Fanning’s favorite books is Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the classic treatise on strategy and tactics, and his office features a wall map of Napoleon’s campaigns into Russia – where the French leader was soundly defeated. As with most good leaders, Fanning seems to know the value in learning from mistakes – whether one’s own or those of others.
Ethical leaders are the key drivers of right behavior for their organizations. We talk a lot about tone from the top, and how business values and ethics are driven from the top down through all levels of the business. It would seem that in leaders such as Tom Fanning, we have an ethical ally who is committed to company, his family, his employees and his customers alike.