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Inspired Middle Management: The Komen PR Nightmare

Inspired Middle Management, Leadership Development, Executive CoachRegardless of where you stand on the issue of Komen’s funding of Planned Parenthood, rarely do we get such a public example of a personal agenda being pushed to the detriment of the organization, which is why it’s our topic for discussion today.

We see middle managers and executives pushing their personal agendas in the organization, sometimes with distaste from those of us who don’t agree with it, but rarely does it come into the public spotlight in such specatcular fasihion.

An Extremely Abbreviated Background – The Facts

Susan G. Komen for the cure is a non-profit organization whose vision is a world without breast cancer.  Per their website, “Komen for the Cure is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures.”   Per its founder, Nancy Brinker, Komen’s mission is to “save women’s lives”.

Though Nancy Brinker and the majority of the Komen board identify with and contribute heavily to Republican political candidates, the organization historically has steered clear of the pro-choice/anti-abortion debate.  Carolann’s interpretation of this stance is that Komen wanted to appeal to people at the widest base possible, and their position on reproductive rights is and was irrelevant to their vision and mission.

The Komen foundation money to Planned Parenthood went strictly to breast cancer education and screenings.  Not for abortions.  Not for contraception.  Recently, Komen made the decision not to fund Planned Parenthood in 2012.

The primary driver for cutting the Planned Parenthood funding was the now-former-VP of Public Policy for Komen for the Cure, Karen Handel.  Handel’s most recent history was running for the governor of Georgia on a strict anti-abortion and anti-planned parenthood campaign.  She was also the driving force behind Komen’s new policy around funding organizations that are under governmental investigation.

What Went Wrong – It Quacked Like A Duck

Komen’s rationale for defunding Planned Parenthood might pass the reasonable test on its face:

  • As an organization that wants to avoid the reproduction controversy, removing funding from the fattest lightening rod in that controversy makes sense.
  • Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide the screening services themselves.  To many, this is where the duck starts to quack.  Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of women’s healthcare for low income, uninsured and under-insured women, and if you’re going to take the education material away from the one place these people go to get care, it does seem antithetical to their mission for early detection.
  • Planned Parenthood was under federal investigation.  This is true, however, many believe this investigation to be a political witch hunt.  And, Komen didn’t defund Penn State, also under investigation.  QUACK!

The challenge in the aftermath is that people have a hard time taking Komen at their word that their decision wasn’t politically motivated.  They hired a person who was vocally anti-Planned Parenthood as their leading public policy person.  To try do deny that this wasn’t a part of Karen Handel’s personal agenda would be silly.  It may not have been politically motivated by the rest of the board, but Karen Handel, the face of the decision ran a political campaign on it.  Furthermore, she reportedly said, “If we say it’s about investigations, we can defund Planned Parenthood and no one can blame us for being political.”  QUACK!

Involving Ari Fleischer, noted enemy of Planned Parenthood, however “informally”… QUACK!

Takeaways for the Middle Manager

Just because Karen Handel had convenient, politically correct explanation for cutting off the funding doesn’t mean that’s reality.  From the outside, this sounds manipulative and disingenuous.

Lack of candor erodes trust.  Your staff isn’t stupid and most of them smell a rat, even a well hidden one.  Even when the end result of the personal and organizational agendas is the same, motives matter in ongoing relationships.

Even after the firestorm, Karen Handel reiterated the lack of political motivation in her resignation letter: “Neither the decision nor the changes themselves were based on anyone’s political beliefs or ideology.”  Folks, this is a classic blind spot.  It seems she sincerely believes her advocacy wasn’t motivated by her politics.  The question is, do you believe it? Do Komen’s constituents?  It’s hard to get past her statement “If we say it’s about…”

The inability to own up to one’s own actions and motives creates a real trust problem.  Lack of awareness or lying to oneself shows up for others as untrustworthiness.  Karen Handel had a personal agenda, and trying to pretend it didn’t enter into the equation reduces our ability to trust her.

What are your observations?

Our years of observations indicate that this sort of thing happens on a smaller scale in low-trust, low engagement cultures all the time and that employees get jaded and their managers don’t realize that engaging in this behavior erodes their own confidence and self esteem.

It will be interesting to see what the ramifications are for Komen in the long term.  Karen Handel’s resignation hasn’t ended their PR woes so far.  They’ve broken the trust with the public.  They’ve done a monumentally poor job handling the fallout.  And, now Komen itself in under scrutiny as to where it’s donation dollars go (as in only 15% went to research).

The ramifications in your company may not have public visibility and global scrutiny, but the impact of artifice, guile and blind spots may be just as impactful in your organization.

What do you think?

Be Your Best You Today,

Carolann Jacobs


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