Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
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4/14/2009
06:12 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Global CIO: Would You Risk Your Career To Be A Whistle-Blower?

It's not an easy choice, but you don't get paid to avoid conflict.

The bloody-knuckles legal battle between Motorola and its former CFO has become as personal as a heart attack. The ex-CFO portrays himself as a whistle-blower and says the struggling company was "intentionally or recklessly misstating" financial forecasts for 2009, while Motorola says the ex-CFO was a "treacherous officer" who was trying to extort "millions in return for his silence."

Is this a one-in-a-million example of a quirky situation, or does it reflect the types of risks that C-level executives can face when taking strong positions corporate orthodoxy? Is the global recession, along with the growing web of regulations facing almost every industry, going to bring more pressure on CIOs and other executives to accommodate public disclosures that they believe are not accurate?

Take the recent Ponzi-scheme collapse of $8 billion investment firm Stanford Financial Group, whose CFO, James Davis, "misappropriated investors' funds, falsified financial statements, and trained employees to lie in a 'massive' fraud," according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. How far did the corruption spread? How many employees did the CFO train to lie -- although, if they were willing to join in the lie, they probably didn't need much training to begin with. The CEO is implicated to the hilt and keeping quiet, and the chief investment officer was cooperating with authorities until her arrest six weeks ago on charges of obstructing (lying to) investigators. One Stanford exec who was apparently clean is the former general counsel, who said in his Feb. 12 resignation that he was "incredibly surprised and disappointed."

But let's go back to the Motorola example itself to get a sense of how some corporate executives these days seem to be believe that truth has recently evolved into some abstract concept that washes in and out across a spectrum of gray depending on the needs of the moment. The company attempts to deflect charges raised by former CFO Paul Liska that Motorola "intentionally or recklessly" misstated financial forecasts by saying that such forecasting failures were "common" in the industry because of the worldwide recession. That global slowdown, Motorola said in court documents, "affected the mobile phone industry as much, if not more than, any other industry and the fact that forecasts had to be revised downward in the midst of this crisis is hardly remarkable and was well known to the Motorola board." The company also saw fit to add that its competitors had to revise their fourth-quarter forecasts.

OK -- got it? Your company admits its forecasts are basically groundless but also says there's nothing it can do about it, and, heck, the whole industry's been putting out shaky numbers and then revising them later. And to make it really kosher, the company washes away any ambivalence by saying that because the board of directors knew all about, then it must be OK!

Now, I don't claim to know whether former Motorola CFO Liska is a courageous whistle-blower or a "treacherous officer." But we do know that on the day Motorola announced that Liska was stepping down as CFO, it also said that its mobile-phone sales plummeted 51% in the quarter, contributing mightily to a loss of $3.6 billion for the quarter. BusinessWeek offered this insight:

Liska's filing describes in detail Liska's concerns about forecasting by the phone unit. For example, in a 90-day period during the fall of 2008, "Mobile Devices' internal forecasts for 2009 radically changed, with projected unit volume down 40 million units (40%) [and] sales down $7 billion (47%)." Furthermore, the complaint states, Liska was worried because the phone unit had not provided him or Motorola's board a full 2009 business plan by the time of a Dec. 15 board meeting.

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So let's bring this a bit closer to home: You're the CIO at a retail company and based on some security analyses your team has done, you believe your company's at risk of a significant data breach. So, per your responsibilities, you deliver a full report to the board and advocate an aggressive campaign to inform customers of the risk. But the board says, "Well, thanks for the report, and now our board knows about it. But all retailers have data breaches, so we're not going to say anything about this, and neither are you."

What do you do? Reach for the whistle, or just follow orders?

Or the CFO sends a memo to his entire organization telling them to delete all files pertaining to a certain complex transaction. But you know -- and the CFO should know -- that the wonderfully named Federal Rules for Civil Procedure require you to not only tell people not to destroy documents, but also to ensure that even if they are destroyed, as in this case per the CFO's memo, that you have in place an über-system that captures, stores, and indexes everything, no matter how hard someone tries to obliterate it.

So what do you do? Blow the whistle on the CFO, or just sit back and wait for somebody else to jump into the line of fire?

It's not easy, and it never will be. Then again, you don't get paid the big bucks and sit atop your profession because you're a mealy-mouthed conflict-avoider.

GlobalCIO Bob Evans is senior VP and director of InformationWeek's Global CIO unit.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO,
or write to Bob at bevans@techweb.com.

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