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Deloitte exec Owen Ryan: Ethics, Reputation and the Bottom Line

Deloitte & Touche LLP AERS Advisory CEO has some professional advice: Put your reputation first, and good results will follow

by Lynn Freehill Maye

September 6, 2013

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When a call to the company’s ethics hotline involves his branch of the business, Owen Ryan gets the word.

Ryan is the CEO of consultancy Deloitte & Touche’s AERS Advisory practice. In his nearly 30-year career, Ryan has heard it all: Attempted bribes. Workplace indiscretions. Would-be clients who admit they don’t want to do the right thing. Often he has to make the final decision in how to handle a matter.

So how does he sort out the most ethical course of action?

Ryan shared his approach with a University of Notre Dame audience on Sept. 3. His talk kicked off the 2013 John A. Berges Lecture Series in Business Ethics at the Mendoza College of Business. Students jammed Mendoza’s Jordan Auditorium to hear from a leader of the company that not long ago established the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership.

The dilemmas only become more complex as your career progresses, Ryan warned. To simplify a nuanced problem, he suggested bringing it into the light of day by considering what you would want known publicly.

“Some say you should think about whether you’d want to see it in the newspapers,” Ryan said. “I think about it a little differently: What would my mother think?”

Of course, a CEO gets to make final decisions. But what should interns or entry-level associates do when confronted with a possible ethics violation? one student asked.

Start by talking it out with a peer group, Ryan advised. Then find out who has the power to make a decision. He added: “The one thing I would say is don’t sit on it.”

Some of Owen Ryan’s other key ethical counsel:

*Back away from anything that seems fishy. Having been even tangentially involved in an unethical issue or area can tarnish you permanently. “If something smells a little dirty, there is a lot more dirt there,” Ryan said. “The best thing to do is get out.”

*Choose your clients or associates carefully. One prospective client admitted to its potential consultants that the company didn’t really want to fix a problem at hand—they just wanted to get a C+. Ryan declined that work, he said—a $7 million contract. “When we make a decision, it’s not just money, it’s the Deloitte brand behind it.”

*Be fearless. Don’t be afraid to speak up and disrupt the status quo. Organizations need disagreement in order to figure out how to do things the right way, Ryan said. Learn to disagree without being disagreeable.

*Put your reputation first. When you work for an organization with a long history, it’s not just your personal reputation at stake, but also that of the institution. “Your reputation is your most important asset,” Ryan said. “All of you have seen in the last few years—pick your favorite scandal—how quickly a reputation can be torn down.”