Sneak Peek: Inside the FBI's Playbook for Organizational Excellence

April 11, 2021

By Frank Figliuzzi

Sneak Peek: Inside the FBI's Playbook for Organizational Excellence

In this four-part series, Frank Figliuzzi shares business principles of integrity learned from his 25-year career with the FBI.

I was a code keeper. For parts of my twenty-five-year FBI career, my assignments required me to apply the Bureau’s code of conduct to the confirmed misconduct of some of the finest people in the country — our own employees. Stints as a unit chief in the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) and, later, as the Bureau’s chief inspector provided insights into a system that contributed to the historic lack of systemic corruption amongst the FBI’s worldwide workforce (comprising more than thirty-five thousand employees across sixty nations). Communication, as is often the case with anything that matters, was at the heart of that system. Specifically, communicating the agency’s “code” — via the concepts of conservancy, clarity, consequences, compassion, credibility, and consistency — was critical to preserving values that penetrated and persisted even under pressure. These proven methods of values preservation apply to individuals, teams and even countries, because they universally apply to humans and their organizations, including families and businesses.

CODE

A code is a system of principle-based rules. People and their groups need a code that mirrors their values if that organization, and its values, are to thrive and survive. In fact, anyone who is serious about integrity should have a clear code of conduct. In the FBI, integrity is communicated not only in its core values but also in its official motto, “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.” Prominently marked guideposts increase the odds that the behavior of individuals will complement, rather than compromise, core values. All meaningful codes of conduct have one thing in common: they reflect the core values of the organization. In the FBI, the approach to preserving its code begins with eight core values:

  • Rigorous obedience to the U.S. Constitution.
  • Respect for the dignity of all those we protect.
  • Uncompromising personal and institutional integrity.
  • Accountability by accepting responsibility for our actions and decisions and the consequences of our actions and decisions.
  • Leadership, both personal and professional.

A team that learns to communicate deeply anchored values, and internal processes to enforce those values, is far less prone to seeing its ethical guardrails destroyed — even when those boundaries come under attack.

Frank Figliuzzi qoute

Your organization’s collective conscience should be embodied in a standard of conduct. Members of your team may already possess a strong sense of personal integrity. In the FBI, only a fraction of misconduct cases involve a total failure to grasp the concept of code. However, that doesn’t mean that individual standards fully align with those of their colleagues or the group. Variables such as age, gender, culture, life experiences, and even geography may at times contribute to disparities between how someone perceives the world and how their employer sees it. Workplaces experience dysfunction when the values of their employees don’t track with those of the greater organization and its mission. That’s why teams need a rigorous structure and process to preserve their code, their mission, and their future. Communicating a code should start with the recruitment and vetting process when selecting new employees. Planting the seeds of your team’s code begins with signaling to candidates about what matters most by putting integrity at the center of your selection process. Comprehensive background inquiries, interviews, and social media checks are all part of decreasing the odds of bringing someone on board who simply can’t or won’t live by the code demanded by the team. The principle of caveat emptor, or “buyer beware,” should govern a process driven by a desire to know precisely what you are acquiring before you take possession. You’re not trying to hire perfect people, just those whose moral threshold is so high they will likely never have to confront that threshold. Of course, communicating the code must continue from day one upon joining the team.

Frank Figliuzzi portait

CONSERVANCY

Start seeing each member of your team as part of a conservancy — and treat them as such. A conservancy is a group effort to preserve and protect the true worth of something. Members of a conservancy agree to be stewards responsible for maintaining something bigger than themselves. If those who belong to a group begin to perceive themselves as accountable stewards, they don’t just tolerate the group’s values; they assimilate those values as their own. Corporate leadership starts to sow the seeds of stewardship by making it known that members will be held accountable not only for how their own conduct impacts the group, but also for how their colleagues’ conduct impacts everyone.

When the conservancy concept is properly communicated, it’s a powerful method of maintaining department standards. This requires that the concept be applied not only to senior leaders, but also to everybody so that it is woven throughout the fabric of the organization and any of its compliance mechanisms. This might mean rethinking and expanding the scope of who conducts internal inquiries and disciplinary decisions, and requiring those assignments for career advancement. Some companies unconsciously message their people that compliance with ethics is someone else’s problem. But if having ethics shouldn’t be optional, then neither should enforcement of those ethics. How can we trust our personnel to comply with our standards if we don’t trust them to enforce those standards? The higher the rank of the leader, the higher their degree of accountability. The beauty of a team that sees itself as a conservancy, where all members are responsible for something bigger than themselves, is that it leads to excellence. That excellence results from the unique human capacity to see beyond self-preservation or herd survival and strive toward a common idea or value. FBI employees do this extremely well, yet you and your team can adopt these same concepts of values-based excellence to succeed even in the midst of a crisis.

CLARITY

Clarity is a key communication component and critical to any team’s code. The Cambridge Dictionary defines clarity as “the quality of being clear and easy to understand.” If you don’t already have them, work to establish one or two “bright lines” that, if crossed, bring swift and certain penalties — including termination. Clarity serves at least two purposes: it delineates the expected standards of the organization, and it articulates anticipated penalties. In the FBI, for example, lack of candor under oath renders you useless to the agency and therefore gets you fired. Every FBI employee knows that.

Frank Figliuzzi qoutes

Importantly, when your codified bright lines are challenged, either by employees, unions or in court, defend them like your mission depends on it — because it does. Defending your standards communicates to everyone how seriously your team views the trust placed in it by your community. Too often, when businesses have their most important standards challenged, they conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether to defend their core values. Those companies don’t understand that standards worth defining are standards worth defending. Perhaps that’s because those leaders never really achieved clarity when trying to define their standards. Remember, communicating what you most value is better done before a challenge, not in the middle of one.

Maintaining clarity — of purpose and principle — helps everyone remember what they stand for and who they are. Crystal clear clarity of code also allows us to say yes to choices, as individuals and as organizations, when they bolster our purpose, and even more importantly, to say no to options we should just walk away from. That’s because clearly understanding who you are not, and what you should never do, goes hand in hand with knowing who you are and what your mission is.

CONSEQUENCES

The element of surprise may be a great advantage in a SWAT raid, but it’s an undesirable approach to doling out discipline. Random and arbitrary disciplinary decisions undermine adherence to standards, erode credibility, and violate fundamental fairness. The “he didn’t know what hit him” approach to discipline might address conduct in the moment, but it won’t win hearts and minds to achieve lasting results. That’s why it’s critical for leaders to establish and communicate the likely consequences of misconduct, and to make specific offenses as well as their anticipated consequences easily accessible to all employees.

We can’t just wish a code into compliance. Employees 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, and everyone has a role in the care and maintenance of those teeth.

In the corporate world, codes of conduct are often deliberately vague and poorly communicated. They don’t spell out specific consequences for breaking specific rules — if such rules even exist. Corporate leaders say they prefer the freedom to decide whatever penalty appears appropriate for a given scenario, and they claim they can’t possibly foresee every potential act of misconduct. Yet disciplinary categories don’t have to be precise or all-encompassing. In the FBI, disciplinary ranges for specific offenses are often quite broad. For instance, the disciplinary range for drinking and driving begins at a thirty-day suspension but might result in dismissal, depending on the gravity of the incident.

Savvy leaders also communicate their desire for fair and just outcomes by adjusting organizational code in response to some new trends or patterns of conduct, and crafting consequences where none previously existed. This requires a kind of vigilance over our values — as individuals, as organizations and as communities.

COMPASSION

I made hard calls in hundreds of internal disciplinary cases during my tenure as an Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) unit chief in the FBI. I touched hundreds more when I entered executive management and led field office and headquarters teams. I still recall most of those cases and the role that compassion played in the process. My favorite definition of compassion is “the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion is an essential component of consequences. It provides much needed balance to what would otherwise become a harsh and unforgiving process. Just as employees need to know that their leaders have established bright lines on conduct, they must also trust that those leaders will treat them as valued human beings. That’s why respected leaders take a holistic approach to weighing consequences by assessing an employee’s total record, the context within which their lapse occurred, and the team member’s capacity to overcome their wrongdoing.

Compassion also requires leaders to acknowledge when an employee’s conduct might be a symptom of a dysfunction somewhere in the system. Sometimes, identified patterns of conduct might mean that the workforce is communicating a problem with some aspect of how the organization is doing business. While I was in OPR, I adjudicated a couple of cases involving undercover agents who were caught committing petty crimes like shoplifting. Studies across law enforcement identified a kind of “undercover syndrome” with various physical and mental maladies linked to the stress of sustained undercover work. As I understood it at the time, one of the responses to prolonged undercover assignments was the “need to get caught” in order to reconcile the guilt associated with a very good person who had to regularly pretend to be very bad. The Bureau assessed each such instance and implemented stronger programs to monitor and support undercover agents, refine their selection process, and mitigate risk. In doing so, we were communicating compassion.

Frank Figliuzzi qoutes 2

Compassion in your adjudication system is commensurate with the capacity of decision-makers to comprehend context. Fair and just outcomes are more likely to happen, and more likely to be accepted, when the people making disciplinary decisions understand not only the company but also the people in it. That’s why the adjudication process should include experienced personnel who have done the work and lived the lives of the employees whose conduct they review.

CREDIBILITY

Communicating your team’s standards is about communicating values. Almost anything we do that has meaning is rooted in some form of values, and credibility is the cornerstone of any values-based endeavor. So if we want our work to not merely succeed but also to sustain, people must believe in us and in the values we represent. That’s as true for the leaders and members of an organization as it is for the organization itself. It is credibility that determines whether values survive beyond the personalities of individual leaders. Credibility can be communicated in our actions, policies and practices.

When an organization or its leaders, and what they communicate, lack credibility, their employees never truly assimilate lasting and real values. The same goes for the process by which integrity standards are enforced. History tells us that entities and empires failed when protecting a person became more important than preserving principles. In contrast, when enlightened process took precedence over personality, values tended to prevail. For example, most Americans abide by the rule of law not because of loyalty to a person, but because we recognize that laws are put in place for the collective benefit of society. Citizens generally accept as credible the process by which our laws are enacted and enforced. Police officers read Miranda warnings, detectives apply for search warrants, defense counsel is provided for the accused, trial by jury allows the evidence to be weighed, and appeals can overturn bad outcomes.

Frank Figliuzzi qoutes 3

There isn’t anything arbitrary or mysterious about our justice system. Even when we don’t agree with a verdict or a sentence, we find comfort in our belief that the process responsible for how we got there was credible. That’s because transparent process builds credibility, and credibility fosters compliance. But just claiming you have a process isn’t enough. Don’t expect employees to trust what they can’t see. Trust comes from transparency, and transparency breeds credibility. The process must be easily accessible, understandable, and taken seriously. Communications can help bolster the credibility of the process in a few proven ways.

Some organizations include questions about perceived leadership integrity in periodic employee surveys. Such questions send a message that integrity matters. Other successful approaches include seizing “teachable moments” by issuing quarterly communications that highlight selected disciplinary cases, in a generic enough fashion that employees aren’t embarrassed nor are union grievances filed. Brief samplings of certain internal cases that represent troubling trends, or serve as reminders of what not to do, might include the consequences levied on the employee. In small companies, or those where union or administrative protocols preclude even general references to internal inquiries, it’s still possible to share trends, patterns and consequences with the workforce.

It’s not only rules and repercussions that should be transparent. People mirror modeled behavior when it’s encouraged through positive reinforcement. Exemplary conduct should be systematically celebrated. From casual praise to more formal annual award ceremonies, the kind of conduct that exemplifies desired values must be regularly recognized.

Beyond transparency, credibility also requires people to believe their organization’s process of investigating and adjudicating misconduct is objective, fact-based, and blind to factors such as rank, race, religion, gender, age and orientation. The moment personnel perceive the process is impacted by external variables is the moment the organization begins to lose both credibility and compliance. That’s why it’s important to communicate that misconduct by senior leaders will be treated more harshly than that by the rank and file.

the fbi way by frank figliuzzi

Lastly, any process of preserving standards must be comprehensive and communicated as such. For example, it’s not enough to simply establish a way for employees to report integrity concerns if there is no system for rapidly responding to and thoroughly investigating their allegations. Employees stop reporting what they know if they think their attempts to do the right thing are falling into a black hole. Make it easy to do the right thing by providing multiple methods of reporting misconduct concerns. Similarly, a business can’t claim it values fairness and justice if it doesn’t offer accused employees a formal opportunity to tell their side of the story and to appeal substantial penalties. Further, credibility of the process is enhanced when a corporation separates internal investigators from adjudicators. Professional distance between fact finders and discipline deciders helps ensure that a dispassionate party decides whether the allegations are proven and what the consequences should be. Rigorous due process help communicate credibility.

An organization remains credible when it maintains a track record of investigating its own, admitting its mistakes, sucking it up, and fixing whatever went wrong. They don’t cover it up or sugarcoat it; they deal with it. Credibility isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being trusted — trusted to do the right thing, even when it’s painful.

Ask yourself whether you have cultivated the kind of credibility that allows your team to trust you as the promoter and preserver of the group’s values. If you think the answer is yes, that’s great. But understand that credibility needs regular care and maintenance. You don’t need to be perfect to be credible, just passionate about getting it right.

CONSISTENCY

Preaching to the choir is a piece of cake compared to converting the agnostic. Likewise, it’s much easier to consistently communicate your standards when everyone around you agrees with them. But the life of a leader is seldom so tranquil. We get ourselves into deep quagmires when, under stress, we abandon our principles when it becomes too painful to defend them.
Organizations can enhance their capacity to consistently do the right thing under pressure by empowering employees to speak out, elevating leaders who embody core values, and fiercely defending against threats to those values. Steady preservation of values offers the added benefit of resilience in the face of adversity because it permits you to pivot and adapt as needed, without abandoning what you stand for.

When threatened by an unprecedented challenge of overwhelming proportions, the fight-or-flight response can cause people to not only flee the scene but also to jettison well-established principles. Often, severe stress associated with the unforeseen, or the never-before-seen, serves as a false rationale to walk away from everything that previously worked, at the precise time when proven practices are needed the most. We seem to think that if what we’re facing is radically different from anything we’ve ever seen, then some radically different approach must be required to resolve it. This is flawed logic, whether we’re talking about a nation dealing with a global pandemic or an executive running a dynamic team managing a crisis a week.

Don’t get me wrong; consistency should never be confused with rigidity. In fact, bureaucracy at its worst is a morass of useless, outdated rules and regulations. The worst kind of bureaucrat is so wedded to how they do something that they’ve forgotten why they do it that way. Smart leaders become adept at communicating that they realize when things need to change and at rewarding those who help make those changes. Successful leaders and their staff remain faithful to their code even as they adapt and transition the methods by which they carry out that code. This might even mean redefining your entire approach to stay consistent with your values. That’s what the FBI had to do after the 9/11 attacks. In a national crisis, flexing and adapting meant surviving.

Frank Figliuzzi qoutes 4

Even though it seems counterintuitive, consistency and change are joined at the hip. To preserve our core values, we inevitably must change, adapt, and transition to new ways of preserving and promoting what we hold dear. Successful leaders and their teams don’t view change as a threat. Instead, they understand that adaptation is the means by which they maximize their mission and remain vital, relevant, and consistent with who they are and what their team and their communities need them to be.

Communicate your organization’s code by weaving it throughout the fabric of policies, processes and practices. Incorporate the concepts of conservancy, clarity, consequences, compassion, credibility, and consistency into all aspects of your group’s culture. No matter how long your enterprise has existed or how lengthy your tenure in leadership, your survival and success can’t be taken for granted. When it comes to preserving what matters most, we should all share similar values and codes. That can’t happen without regularly communicating that code in our words and deeds.


Frank Figliuzzi was the FBI’s assistant director for counterintelligence and served 25 years as a special agent. Currently, Frank serves as a national security contributor for NBC News. Mr. Figliuzzi graduated cum laude with a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Fairfield University. He is the author of the recently published The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence.