Wells Fargo might as well be trying to sell timeshares at Chernobyl right now and they’d have better luck than trying to hire a new CEO. Look at these headlines.

Wanted: Chief Executive to Clean Up Radioactive Mess. HazMat Suit Not Provided. (SFGate.com)

Top Job Goes Begging (LinkedIn)

You remember the Wells Fargo (WF) scandal, right? I’ll forgive you if your response was ‘Which one?’  There were lots of them. They included:

  • Up to 3.5 million fake accounts created by bank employees to gin up profits, trigger bonuses, and reach quotas set by managers and top execs up and down the food chain at the bank, which resulted in a $185 million fine
  • $2.09 billion fine for mortgage practices dating back to the financial crisis.
  • 5,300 employees fired for engaging in the account fraud, lots of their senior management being axed
  • Forced by OSHA to pay $5.4 million to a former employee turned whistleblower, who was fired when he reported potential fraud to a company hotline
  • $480 million paid out to settle a securities fraud lawsuit
  • Claims by former employees that they were fired for refusing to create fake accounts

That’s not a series of isolated incidents.  That’s a systemic breakdown of standards–it’s a toxic culture of epic proportions.

Let’s run with the SFGate.com headline of Hazmat suits–it’s a great metaphor to describe what awaits the lucky person who chooses to take on the DIY project of reforming Wells Fargo.

Things are so dicey at WF that the Federal Reserve has capped the bank’s size until they feel comfortable with the myriad of cultural and operational changes that have needed to be implemented.  And the Feds need to approve the new CEO.  This isn’t just oversight–this is a corporation having to wear an ankle monitor and check in with a parole officer from a regulatory standpoint.

Despite all that, the last CEO, Tim Sloan, was paid $18 million in 2018–$14 million in salaries and another $4 million in incentives and bonuses.  But despite the expected windfall for the next CEO, according to a report out of the Wall Street Journal today, top financial services execs are uniformly taking a ‘hard pass’ on this ‘opportunity.

I’m guessing it’s the same reason no one else should walk into a job of any toxic organization willingly without a lot of assurances.

Just like a real hazmat crisis, you have NO idea what you’ll be cleaning up, what is lurking under the surface, what the long-term effects might be on you, and whether the hazardous situation you’re working on is the only problem.  Plus, of course, you have the people inside the organization who may be wanting to spill another load of ethical, operational and cultural into the organization’s eco-system.

What do hazmat heroes like the next WF CEO need to think about before entering a toxic environment?  Almost everyone likes a challenge, but what do you specifically need to know in any tough situation?

  1. Assess the damage early–if you don’t, you’ll get blamed for anything people didn’t know about before. At WF, undoubtedly any potential CEO is deeply concerned about what else is out there that hasn’t been discovered.  Life isn’t fair, but on the blame game point, it’s predictable. Be ready for it, describe it and don’t paint a rosy scenario because it makes your board feel better. They can flee just as quickly as they can rally around you and you don’t want to be left standing alone.
  2. Protective gear–communicate early, often and be clear in your mission.  And ask for everyone in leadership around you to help in the clean-up.  They need to walk in your shoes and they need to ‘own’ the mess and the cleaning
  3. The strongest cleaning solutions–get all the tools necessary to clean house literally and figuratively if you’re walking into hazardous duty.  Demand them–in a nice way, of course. Don’t take the job if you aren’t getting carte blanche to do everything that needs to be done
  4. Don’t use unqualified cleanup teams–if the WF mess is as bad as it sounds, recruit people with the wherewithal and experience to help address the problems
  5. Have an evacuation plan–have a strong contract and exit strategy in case you didn’t hear the full story about the situation coming in or you’re not getting the support you need
  6. Don’t let the polluters clean up the spill.  As tempting as it may be to play nice and placate former problem children within the company, be selective in choosing your team and don’t create the potential for self-inflicted wounds.

Finally, be aware of the long-term effects of contamination.  Your reputation, your physical and psychological health, as well as your resume can be affected by the move.  Whether it’s the hazmat cleanup example or the ‘Smelly Car’ episode on Seinfeld, the toxic environment can stay with you for a while.  The reward of cleaning up a company like Wells Fargo can be high, but the risk can be too.

Let me know what you think.

If you want to see exactly how high the risk can be, check out my book, The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures and you’ll be measuring yourself for hazmat attire for the rest of your career!

Pete Havel is author of ‘The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees and Cultures’, the CEO of the Cloture Group–a consulting and training firm for cultural transformation, a public speaker, a regional executive for some of America’s leading trade associations and a former chamber of commerce president.  He can be reached at pete@petehavel.com or 855-NO-ARSON (855-662-7766).  The Arsonist in the Office is available at http://www.arsonistintheoffice.com or Amazon.


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