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Volume 21 No. 1
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What organizations can learn from Penn State’s mistakes

The terrible events at Penn State University involving the enabled victimization of children by former football coach Jerry Sandusky have captured our collective attention since the first gripping grand jury indictments last December. We now know through the internal investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh and subsequent NCAA sanctions that many mistakes were made in the handling of this matter throughout the university at multiple levels.

The Freeh report is painfully self-explanatory. To the credit of Penn State, instead of challenging the NCAA sanctions, it has begun implementing necessary changes and healing the university community. During the past months, several corporate CEOs, general counsels, sports franchise executives and university officials have asked me during conversations what we should all learn from this tale.

Here are four operating principles that are applicable to both universities and other organizations:

1. “Do Ask, Do Tell and Report” if an incident occurs involving minors.

The failure to grasp this basic principle was the biggest miss in the entire Penn State debacle. It doesn’t matter the environs (e.g., summer children’s camps, internships, etc.), if information comes to your attention that a minor has been harmed, usually strict legal reporting standards apply, varying by state jurisdiction. Regardless of the statutes, our moral obligation to care for minors is omnipresent. Overrule any contrary instincts or immediately dismiss individuals who suggest otherwise. Not reporting an incident yourself to authorities and demonstrating transparency is a recipe for disaster.

2. Failure to plan for an institutional crisis is failure, period.

It is astonishing how many large, successful organizations do not have an established process to anticipate issues or manage crises. Many perceived Penn State to have been caught ill-equipped when the initial grand jury indictments appeared and the news cycle began. Wasn’t it obvious for a long period of time that law enforcement authorities had been interviewing victims, university personnel and others in order to determine culpability? Unfortunately, the university squandered a precious asset to prepare: time. The advantage of time brings some degree of control when managing complex events. Therefore, it is better to be equipped with as much information as reasonably possible at the time, dispense it quickly yourself and admit any culpabilities before others do it for you.

3. The lack of diverse viewpoints at the decision-makers’ table can lead to bad outcomes.

While serving in government, I participated in many critical decision sessions, discussing issues that ranged from assistance to poor families in need to carrying out inmate death penalty sentences. On a somewhat lighter note, while an executive at one of the world’s largest athletic brands, I have been in conference rooms analyzing shareholder value impact of an acquisition or divestiture. In both cases, the key to a successful, balanced decision was the diversity of opinion and relative experience present.

Externally, it didn’t appear evident from the court documents that a senior strategic communications professional or lawyer was involved in that final crucial decision loop to properly advise coach Joe Paterno, President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz of the tragic consequences of the failure to report (see point No. 1). Further, the fateful alleged decision by Curley to forgo reporting after talking to Paterno lacked the necessary perspective that leads to reasoned decision-making. Even in a closed decision-making loop such as this, did any of them, in the interest of informing the debate, externally consult with any women or men with expertise in the behavior of pedophiles? No.

It may now be hindsight, but leading organizations are avoiding the trap of bad judgments made where the assembled decision-makers are, as cited by a major pension funds manager, “too male, stale and pale.”

Freeh’s report detailed the failures of the university’s decision-makers at multiple levels.
4. University presidents and boards of trustees must use this teachable moment to recalibrate their institutions between the administrators, athletic departments and academic mission.

Both the Freeh report and NCAA President Mark Emmert brutally detailed not only the failures of the university decision-makers to protect the victims, but also outlined how the football program’s dominance imperiled the governance of the university. As a former university trustee/regent and having worked with college athletic departments in industry, both sides understand the interdependence of one another for the advancement of the institution. While recruiting a Nobel laureate is vastly different than a star running back, each of the highly prized talents has one common denominator: the reputation and governance of the institution. However, the trustees and presidents — not the football or basketball coaches — run the institution and are accountable for its successes and failures. It doesn’t matter if the team is undefeated or the revenues generated from the turnstile ticket scanners have brought success to the school.

In the coming months, universities, companies and other governance-driven organizations should self-examine and customize measures that assist them in avoiding such tragedies. However, all the manuals, savvy consultants and protocols available cannot be effective if the culture of an organization stifles the ability of its members to freely challenge or report activity — internally or externally — that may be unethical or illegal. As members of a university or company, employees can tend to be somewhat tribal. It has been my experience that their first instincts are usually to report ethically troubling issues internally first, with expectations that will trigger those in authority to follow the legal course of action for resolution. If too much time elapses with no visible remedy taken or absent any updates, the chances of external reporting increase dramatically. This is true unless, as seemingly occurred at Penn State, the football culture was dominant enough to preclude the proper handling of an eyewitness rape of a child in a locker room shower.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s memorable anti-terrorism slogan, “If you see something, say something,” is generally good advice to follow in multiple situations. If Penn State’s officials would have adopted that philosophy and taken the implicitly encouraged proper step of reporting these crimes to law enforcement, it probably would have been a game-changer for the lives of the victims and the university’s reputation.n

Vada O. Manager, a former global executive at Nike, is a senior counselor affiliated with APCO Worldwide and its sports business practice. He is also a corporate board director and presenter on the business discipline of issue marketing. Follow him on Twitter @VadaManager.