The scandal over Wells Fargo's falsified accounts is another sad commentary on the business ethics of American companies and the field of financial services. But more alarming than how employees were trying to meet and surpass sales goals was how the bank's leadership responded to the controversy.
How did Wells Fargo's brass, including Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf, explain the wrongdoing? It was the employees' fault. Yes, you read that right. The bank blamed employees — not leadership — for the fact that the company was in violation of banking standards and ethics and was fined hundreds of millions of dollars.
The bank has also explained that it will address the problems that led to the penalty by eliminating sales goals at the branch level, thereby removing the incentives for employees to market additional products to customers.
While I was dismayed by the revelations of the unauthorized accounts, I was more shocked by Wells' response. Is it really the employees' fault? Absolutely not. What happens on an executive leader's watch starts and stops with that executive. That is especially true when it comes to sales and sales leadership.
Wells clearly had (and potentially still has) a sales leadership problem. Sales goals and the strategy for meeting those goals are nothing without leadership from the top laying out how best to execute that strategy. If Wells Fargo had had strong sales leadership in place, this never would have happened. A sales leader would not only be aware of sales goals that were being met and those that were not, but also how employees were meeting them.
More engagement between sales leaders and on-the-ground employees would have quickly identified problems that led to the Wells fine. Working one-on-one with employees and talking to them about their customer relationships can easily uncover who is legitimately meeting goals and who is doing something underhanded. A lack of sales leadership can result in employees taking unfortunate measures to achieve goals. There was clearly fear and a lack of help in the Wells Fargo culture. When you have sales goals without sales leadership, you open the door to suspicious sales practices.
Wells' chosen response — eliminating sales goals and cross sales at the branch level — seems misguided. While those goals had serious consequences at Wells, sales metrics are still crucial to ensuring that employees focus on building customer relationships, customers hear about and get the services they need, and that investors see the growth they are expecting.
Goals, sales and incentives are not the issue here. Without sales goals, the very act of proactively talking to customers about products and services will surely shut down. This means customers will not be served and company growth initiatives will not be met.
Wells Fargo's employees reported that they met, sometimes several times a day, with their supervisors to report their sales progress. But, since those meetings obviously did not put an end to the falsified accounts, the sales leaders were apparently just focused on the result, not on the behavior that led to the result. A strong sales leader is focused on both behavior and results.
Strong sales leaders also know that the buck stops with them. To ensure that a bank's culture is development-based rather than fear-based, the leader should take ownership of both the success and failure of the team. Wells Fargo dropped the ball big-time here by placing responsibility for the scandal squarely on the backs of its employees. That's not leadership.
Meridith Elliott Powell is a strategist who advises on relationship skills and is the author of three books, including "Winning in the Trust & Value Economy."