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No business in the bedroom, but don't be mum in the boardroom

How honest are we really? It's not a trick question, but perhaps the most profound one all of us will have to answer this year - and every year - because if we are really honest with ourselves, we aren't that honest with others.
Lucia Mabasa, managing director of pinpoint one
Lucia Mabasa, managing director of pinpoint one

It isn’t always our fault; sometimes boardrooms are little like a scene in George Orwell’s 1984. The statements are there, but like Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth, they mean the exact opposite. If you have been in one, you will know what I am saying.

I do not know how many times I’ve heard blue chip companies looking for candidates who are ‘brave’ or ‘brutally ethical’ and who are filled with ‘courageous integrity’. It’s probably about the same number of times, I’ve seen directors and senior managers whose body language screams that they do not agree with a decision, and stay silent. And then when the meeting is over and the chair has left, all the managers and executives start speaking freely among themselves.

They all moan about the decision that was just made, yet none of them had the courage to speak out. If they had opened their mouths then maybe, just maybe, the company would not have ended up in stormy waters within the same financial year.

And then there are those managers and executives who just can’t keep their mouths shut. Anything seems to be fair game, from letting the cat out of the bag about who was shortlisted for a job – or who got it - or who is about to be retrenched.

Being ethical means being brave. It means opening your mouth and taking the consequences, whether that is open disapproval or a black mark against your name when you are due for a promotion or a contract renewal.

It’s very hard to be honest. It’s very painful. My mom used to say, ‘the truth or die’, metaphorically of course before she gave us a hiding if she caught us lying. The same should apply today, but it doesn’t. Sometimes it is because people are fearful of speaking out – or, thanks to working from home and switching off the cameras and muting their mics on virtual meetings they have already become used to living lives of deception.

It doesn’t matter how small the lie begins, it always grows – and if you’re terrified of being caught out, you have to keep adding to the lies, and being consistent, at the same time. It’s a terrible position to find yourself in, yet so many people are doing it. I have come across this deceit with candidates too. They are suddenly unavailable to attend meetings and would rather do an interview remotely because they have already taken another job and now want to get a physical offer of employment from a third party to squeeze their new employer into giving them a raise.

The little lies creep in all over the place, like employees saying they have called clients, even though the easiest thing for you to do is to call the client themselves to check that. I have seen the same deceit further up the ladder, with people breaking confidences that should remain between executives, sharing them with people who have no right to know – and then bluntly denying they did.

The only solution is to get back to basics. Honesty means owning up to your own failings not trying to cover them up or telling outright lies to protect yourself. Being honest means being brave. Being ethical means speaking out when the situation demands it – and shutting up when you have no right to be sharing company confidences. If you can understand the difference and do it right, you will be an asset to your company; a person of principle who can be trusted with greater responsibilities and therefore receive greater rewards.

It is not an easy road to travel. Many boardrooms don’t like dissent. I ask the hard questions, because that is how I’m wired, but I also get told to shut up and sit down because I’m not part of the company. I’ve heard C-suite members tell colleagues, ‘integrity is not a currency’.

I’ve spoken to plenty of candidates, as we prepare them to go to a panel interview. I often ask if they ever had an opportunity to blow the whistle on wrongdoing they uncovered. Many have had that experience. Many have reported it to their line supervisors or even the board. Many have been persuaded by those same superiors to shut up and say nothing more because it goes against company culture or because there’ll be collateral damage if they push too hard.

So, what does that say about our country? How can we moan about the catastrophe that Eskom has become or the inability of government to act, when our own private sector leaders and managers are doing exactly the same thing? If you are a parent, how can you expect exemplary behaviour from your children, conduct to a standard that you can’t even be bothered to maintain?

Never before have Mahatma Gandhi’s words rung so true: If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.

We have to become the change we want to see in others and in society. We have to start doing the same here. People actually do respect others who tell the truth. They respect those who are not gossipmongers and who uphold the values of the team. People with ethics, people with principle are high value assets; integrity actually is a currency when it comes to the long-term effects on your CV.

So, this year, speak up when you have to – and in the correct forum. Don’t just do it for yourself, do it for your colleagues and, if you have them, for your children too. They all need real role models to look up to and that’s your job too.

20 Feb 2023 09:24


About the author

Lucia Mabasa is managing director of pinpoint one, a proudly South African Black women-owned boutique executive search firm providing critical C-suite, specialist and critical skills
solutions across industries and professional disciplines, in South Africa and across Africa.
Visit to find out more or read her previous columns on leadership;
avoiding the pitfalls of the boardroom and becoming the best C-suite executive you can be.