Lessons from the FBI that businesses can use
The FBI Way: The Seven C’s of Excellence
THE Federal Bureau of Investigation is a respected American institution that had its beginnings in 1908. Its 100-plus years of exceptional performance, the former head of counterintelligence Frank Figliuzzi says, is attributed to the organizational code that demanded internal excellence at all times, from everyone. He calls it the FBI Way.
In The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence, Figliuzzi organizes and explains that code and how it is maintained as The Seven C’s. These seven values are worth considering in any context.
The code reflects the core values that are shared by everyone in the organization.
If you haven’t established basic behavioral benchmarks in your business, organization, team, or family, you should. They don’t have to be numerous; in fact, they shouldn’t be. Too many rules can very quickly turn into no rules at all. Determine what type of conduct so undermines whatever you or your group stands for that it poses an existential threat. Communicate those “danger zones” clearly and frequently.
The FBI, as an institution, enforces code and investigates deviations from that code—the U.S. Constitution and the criminal code. Living out their own code becomes critical to that process, especially in a political environment with really no code.
You can’t live by two codes at once. You also can’t spot and avoid the kinds of codes and conduct that threaten your values if you never even develop a strong sense of what it is that you value. You’ll never see the threat coming. We might not die from an absence of code, but regardless of who we are, our lives and livelihoods are enhanced when we know what we stand for.
The FBI is a conservancy. I like his terminology here. Like stewardship, conservancy is “a collective effort to preserve and protect the true worth of a place or thing. People in conservancy agree to become stewards accountable for sustaining an entity greater than themselves.”
Accountability is key here. And everyone in the FBI is accountable to someone, and the higher up you go, the more accountable you are.
He briefly mentions the missteps of Jim Comey in 2017. Comey cast doubt on the FBI when he allowed himself to be drug into the political drama of the time. It’s human, but Figliuzzi says it basically came down to the fact that he forgot who he was accountable to. It is hard not to become political, even when writing a book such as this, but it is critical to the FBI’s credibility that it is not seen as political. As Figliuzzi advises later in the book, “Sometimes taking a broader view of your mission can help you preserve your values.”
Figliuzzi notes that families need conservators too. And his wife filled that role.
Clarity applies in a number of ways. Clarity includes “bright lines;” Those lines, that when crossed, get you fired. Clarity of code.
The need for clarity of information for decision making and the clarity to know when you have enough or all you are going to get. “You need to know when to demand clarity and when to just walk away.”
And there is the clarity of purpose and principle that help you to know when to say yes and when to walk away.
Too often, when organizations have their most important standards challenged, they engage in a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether to defend their core values. Those organizations don’t recognize that standards worth defining are standards worth defending.
There should be no surprises when it comes to consequences. A code must have repercussions when it is violated, or it is just “window dressing.”
A code that’s not enforced quickly becomes a lie that undermines your entire operation. You can’t just wish a code into compliance; people need to understand that there’s a price to pay if they endanger the collective health of the larger team. Consequences put teeth in a code.
A family, a company, or a country that’s shy about triggering established consequences can expect boundaries to be repeatedly pushed to the point of breaking.
A code without compassion doesn’t work for long. Compassion and consequences go hand-in-hand. Sometimes compassion means looking in the mirror to see how you or a dysfunctional system lead to the poor judgment or wrong behavior.
Compassion provides the necessary balance to what could be an otherwise harsh and cold process. As sure as people need to know that their leaders have set bright lines on conduct, they also need to trust that those leaders will treat them as valued human beings. That’s why good leaders take a holistic approach to weighing consequences by assessing an employee’s total record, the context that led to their lapse, and that team member’s capacity to overcome their wrongdoing.
Credibility is the bedrock of a values-based organization or group. And that applies both within the organization and about the organization. “People must believe in us and the values we represent. It is credibility that determines whether values survive beyond the personalities of individual leaders.”
Credible preservation of principles happens when the process is codified, objective, and comprehensive. Codification means the process must not only be in writing but also easily accessible, understandable, and taken seriously.
Credibility isn’t about being perfect, it’s about being trusted. Trusted to do the right thing even when it’s painful.
Consistency is about intentionality. It helps to preserve what really matters.
There was a beauty and simplicity to establishing a rhythm that went beyond mere routine. I’m talking about developing a system in your life, your work, or your studies, and sticking with it if it works, or tweaking it if it doesn’t. A consistent system. Not just winging it.
But as Figliuzzi points out, that shouldn’t be confused with rigidity. Consistency may mean, at times, redefining “your entire approach in order to remain consistent with your values,” as they did after 9/11.
Change shouldn’t be something that happens “to” people, it should be something that happens “with” people. It’s crucial that everyone involved understand that adapting doesn’t mean an abandonment of values or mission. To the contrary, the proposed changes must reflect how those changes are not only consistent with your values but vital to preserving them.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, consistency and change are joined at the hip. To preserve our core values, we all inevitably must change, adapt, and transition to new ways of preserving and promoting what we hold dear.
He observes that the “FBI’s highest-profile mistakes happen primarily when its leaders act contrary to their own rules.” So build in systems that make it harder to fail.
Woven into the explanation of each of these qualities are stories of 9/11, interstate chases, Quantico, anthrax, espionage, counterterrorism, homicides, and much more to illustrate his point. The FBI Way is a very profitable and interesting read. And well worth your time for the principles that are applicable anywhere.