When It Comes To Your Brand's Health, No Detail Is Too Small

If you're responsible for leading a brand, you can likely recall times when issues considered "below your pay grade" rose to your attention. With the 10,000-foot view required to keep all parts moving, the instinct to delegate the more minor details is often the right one.

But not always.

Not all of us lead brands, and even fewer are CEOs. However, many of us are leaders in our own right, and we all have a stake in the brand's overall health and bear responsibility for its success. Equally, we all encounter details we might deign beneath our attention. I was reminded of this as I read about the resignation of Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf in the wake of a scandal where it was revealed that the Big 4 consumer bank had opened thousands of fake accounts without customers' permission or knowledge.

The net effect has been considerable: an erosion of trust in the brand, a cratering stock price, 5,300 allegedly complicit employees fired, and costly legal actions and increased regulatory scrutiny sure to come down the pike.

The malfeasance at Wells Fargo grew from an overly ambitious commission structure that encouraged frontline sales teams to fudge their numbers. While he may have signed off on aspects of that structure at some point, it is doubtful that Stumpf was actively monitoring his sales teams inner workings. Knowing how many business verticals demand a brand leader's daily attention, I would not be shocked if Stumpf found out about the endemic fraud around the same time the rest of us did.

What Stumpf knew and when he knew it is beside the point. As the brand leader, the buck stopped with him--fair or not. This is an attitude that good corporate cultures strive to instill not just in CEOs, but also in all leaders--managers, directors, up to executives. Accountability is important, not just in your own area of concentration, but for everything affecting the brand's wellbeing. "Not my job" is not an acceptable phrase from any leader.

As such, the Wells Fargo scandal should be a wakeup call. Before this scandal, Stumpf was an executive whose reputation and integrity was never in question, even called "Mr. Clean" by some news outlets. When one or two or a few dozen employees take advantage of a systems gap to fraudulently enrich themselves, it can be explained as a series of isolated incidents. When thousands do it, as a matter of practice, you have institutional dysfunction. Before potential hazards become real sinkholes, there are a few due diligence best practices we should incorporate into our day-to-day.

'Walk the floor.'

The concept of the "floor walk" is as old as retail itself, but it is just as pertinent today as ever. For those not acquainted with it, a floor walk is exactly what it sounds like: management walks the floor of a store, restaurant or retail center to make sure the granular aspects of operations are in line with what should be happening.

It's a concept applicable beyond retail. Whether you have a storefront, thousands of bank branches, or operate in purely digital space, you should make a floor walk a regular part of your routine. How are your customer-facing team members doing their jobs? How are they interacting with each other? How do they feel about their compensation package (apart from generally wanting more money, a sentiment shared by employees at all levels)? Is there a schism between what they're tasked to do and how they get it done?

Follow a dollar.

Consider your cash flow management. Inspect your points of sale, where the transactions happen, where the rubber meets the road. Follow a dollar through your cash flow, from wallet to bank. Witness a transaction play out all the way. Don't leave this exclusively to your operations or IT teams--you need to see it for yourself.

Listen to your customers.

Whether or not your job directly involves customer service, you should know what your customers are saying. Don't leave this job solely to your customer care or response teams to report back to you. Get in the weeds a bit. Hear it for yourself. I recommend having an active customer service line piped into your office, and answer at least one inbound call every day. There is simply no replacement for a good firsthand look at what your customers are thinking.

Listen to your people.

Just as important is having open, unabridged lines of communication with your workforce. If something is amiss, they can be your eyes and ears. Many leaders pay lip service to an "open-door policy," but this is only part of the equation. In-person interactions can be daunting. Instead, open a hotline where employees can report shady behavior. Take steps to ensure this protocol is incorruptible. At Wells Fargo, it has been reported that employees faced retaliation that included disciplinary action up to termination for attempting to flag fraud. This kind of retribution is as corrosive to morale, culture and brand wellbeing as the fraud itself.

These may seem like mundane aspects of your operation to monitor so closely, and it may be even harder to justify such close scrutiny when you consider how much you spend on salaries for top professionals whose job it is to do so. But they are not you, and in the event of a crisis, it won't be their reputations on the line. There is only one brand leader.

Any one of the best practices above, followed in good faith, could have prevented the spread of corruption at Wells Fargo. Yes, they are details, and yes, they seem small in the larger scheme of things. But if the question is "how small is too small," when your brand's health and reputation are on the line, the answer is "there's no such thing."