Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf will testify before the Senate Banking Committee next Tuesday about the company’s sales practices. This word comes less than a week after Wells Fargo agreed to pay $185 million in fines from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Comptroller of the Currency and the City Attorney of Los Angeles. So what went wrong?
Well, I’ve seen similar disasters in other companies when the structure—and, yes, the culture—of the organization encourages competing with colleagues and cutting corners rather than collaborating with colleagues, customers and partners. The key building blocks of the organizational structure are principles, practices and processes. We get clues about Wells Fargo’s principles from its written “vision and values” which include:
“Our ethics are the sum of all the decisions each of us makes every day. If you want to find out how strong a company’s ethics are, don’t listen to what its people say. Watch what they do.”
So what exactly did Wells Fargo people do to cost the company $185 million plus untold damage to its brand and reputation?
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Wells Fargo opened over 1.5 million unauthorized deposit accounts and may have funded these accounts by transferring funds from existing customer accounts without consent or through “simulated” funding. This practice generated about two million dollars in fees from 85,000 accounts. The CFPB consent order also states that Wells Fargo submitted credit card applications, ordered debit cards and enrolled consumers in online banking without customer consent. Clearly, this behavior represents at best a disconnect between principles and processes particularly the reward system process.
Wells Fargo’s “vision and values” cover everything from ethics to doing what’s right for customers. But written “vision and values” and mission statements don’t tell the whole story for many companies. Often, the real principles that govern an organization are unwritten. These principles manifest in break rooms, cafeterias, meetings, “off-site” sessions and sometimes during dreaded performance reviews. At best, Wells Fargo’s unwritten principles echo its written values and the problem is a disconnect between principles and processes that culminated in widespread abuses.
At worst, the company’s unwritten principles are something like “win at all costs” and “loyalty above all” which by some accounts were the unwritten principles of Lehman Brothers. Lehman, once the fourth largest investment bank in the United States, no longer exists. Neither does Enron which embraced the principle of following orders without questioning them. The wrong unwritten principles or a disconnect between the right principles and processes can start small with, say, approving mortgages for people who don’t qualify and culminate in a near collapse of the financial system.
Many organizations espouse collaborative principles while short circuiting collaboration and value creation through reward systems that reinforce internally-competitive, command-and-control behavior which can easily morph into cutting corners and illegally fudging numbers. Along the way, trust dies among team members and ultimately among customers, partners, regulators and others. This happens in industries ranging from financial services and healthcare to manufacturing and technology. And it doesn’t help that increasingly team members across multiple industries prefer to interact with devices and computer systems rather than with their customers.
Why would the third largest U.S. bank by assets—and a favorite stock of Warren Buffett—risk its reputation by cutting corners? The most likely answer: to keep the squeeze on team members through a reward system that the bank believed would deliver ever better quarterly returns.
When I hear analysts and others suggest that a company has a secret sauce shrouded in mystery that delivers outlier returns, alarm bells reverberate in my brain. This is also true of financial advisors touting a particular investment. In 2009, Warren Buffett suggested in a Fortune interview that there was something special about how Wells Fargo does business. “The key to the future of Wells Fargo is continuing to get the money in at very low costs, selling all kinds of services to their customer and having spreads like nobody else has.” This sounds sort of like a secret sauce—and there go the alarm bells. Sometimes there’s a reason why a company is an outlier. Mostly, what Buffett was referring to is the Wells Fargo practice of cross selling which is simply selling more products to existing customers. It turns out that cross selling involved phantom sales. Wells has told some team members to stop cross-selling amid the crisis.
So how can Wells Fargo be fixed? The company has fired more than 5000 employees, because of the illegal practices. But is the real problem these team members or the company’s principles, practices and processes? Wells Fargo CFO John Shrewsberry apparently feels it’s the former. Shrewsberry reportedly told the Barclays Global Financial Conference in New York on Tuesday that the team members who committed the illegal acts were “at the lower end of the performance scale” and they were trying to hold onto their jobs.
Wells Fargo senior leaders are missing the point. The real villain is the reward system they created or approved that drives the behavior of team members at bank branches. This system apparently rewarded employees for opening accounts regardless of whether customers funded these accounts with new money. What value does this create? None. In fact, it likely costs more to open and ultimately close an unauthorized account than to do nothing. It makes little sense to blame bank branch employees for trying to retain their jobs when senior leaders have likely created principles, practices and processes that prevented more than 5000 people from acting ethically, selling products and creating value.
As its CEO prepares to testify before the Senate Banking Committee, Wells Fargo announced today the company is eliminating sales goals for retail bankers. Fixing the reward system without systemic repair may help for a while, but a lasting solution requires a more comprehensive approach. I’ve learned that trying to change an ingrained culture fails without changing the organizational structure.
The unfolding crisis provides an opportunity for Wells Fargo and many other companies in multiple industries with similar issues to replace an obsolete organizational structure while revamping the flawed reward system. This involves focusing like a laser beam on the key building blocks of a value-creating collaborative company: principles, practices and processes. Only then can the culture evolve.