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I remember not many years ago talking with the CEO of a substantial but not famous publicly traded U.S. company, who was agonizing over what he should do in Brazil. His company had been operating there for a few years, doing well, but now he wondered if he should pull out. The reason: His company was fighting legal battles with competitors in Brazilian courts, and he was convinced, with good reason, that the process was rigged against him. He refused to pay bribes, but if he didn’t, he couldn’t compete. Every alternative was bad.
Corruption is everywhere in the news today, an impossible issue that every leader must face sooner or later. On Wednesday, Transparency International released its annual ranking of perceived corruption in the public sector of virtually every country. Least corrupt: Denmark. Most corrupt: North Korea and Somalia, tied. Brazil suffered the greatest increase in perceived corruption. And as it happened, Brazilian authorities on Wednesday raided several locations and arrested six in a continuing probe of bribery that threatens to topple president Dilma Rousseff’s administration. On Tuesday, China’s government announced that the chief of the national statistics bureau, Wang Bao’an, was under investigation for corruption. Also on Tuesday, a top Chinese financial executive being investigated for corruption jumped to his death from his 12-floor apartment.
When corruption is a fact of life, what’s a business leader to do? Most of the world’s fastest growing economies – not all, but most – are notorious for corruption. All four of the BRICs are, for example. Companies wanting to grab some of that growth may face the quandary of the CEO who was throwing up his hands over Brazil. And even if a leader isn’t personally scrupulous about bribery, he may operate under laws such as America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that forbid him from committing the graft that competitors engage in routinely.
Big, famous companies can often avoid the conundrum. Their mere presence may be so valuable to a country or local government that no graft is required; on the contrary, public officials may be under orders from the top to make sure everything goes smoothly. So, for example, Tata of India is known for operating cleanly even where corruption is rampant, and the company deserves applause for its stance. But it has an advantage, which it has earned over decades, in following that policy.
By contrast, what’s the right policy for a small or medium-sized business just fighting to stay above water in a fiercely competitive environment? I have never heard a good answer. I can only offer a bit of hope. As economies grow larger and compete increasingly in the fight to attract global capital, they tend to clean themselves up. Sometimes it can be done quickly; Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore’s public sector from massively corrupt to world-class honest in just a few years. Chinese President Xi Jinping has waged war on corruption since getting the job three years ago; his progress is still unclear. Even in Brazil, where skepticism is always warranted, the current anti-graft investigation is at least unprecedented, even if its success can’t yet be judged. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying hard. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, don’t even ask.
The only good advice for leaders is that if you haven’t faced this issue yet, prepare yourself. Dare to raise it with your peers. It’s one of those problems that you have to deal with, even if it’s unsolvable.
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What We’re Reading Today
It’s The Donald v. The Debate
Donald Trump‘s vow not to participate in the Republican debate on Fox News tonight has sapped attention from the debate itself. Trump has said he will participate only if anchor Megyn Kelly is removed as a moderator, and Fox has refused. If neither side budges, news coverage will focus on the absence of the party frontrunner and not the contest itself. NYT
PayPal added a record 6.6 million new users in the fourth quarter
That’s up from an average of 4 million new accounts per quarter in the recent past. CEO Dan Schulman told analysts that the company is benefitting from shoppers’ shift to mobile devices. PayPal is gaining momentum, Schulman says, as newer entrants to the payments space discover it’s a hard business to crack. Fortune
H&M is standing by its big China bet
As the Swedish fast fashion retailer reported an 11% drop in quarterly net profit on Thursday, chief executive Karl-Johan Persson acknowledged that sales growth in China has slowed dramatically. Yet he reiterated his commitment to expanding in the country. Most of H&M’s new stores this year will open in China. WSJ
Meet Uber’s insurance guru
Two years ago, insurance companies didn’t want to cover Uber’s drivers. The ride-sharing startup found an unlikely savior: Gus Fuldner, a young executive who had zero experience in the insurance business but did have a penchant for fine print. BuzzFeed
Building a Better Leader
Most business activity is slowing down
For all the talk of disruption and change, getting stuff done at large companies is actually really hard. Exhibit A: It now takes 63 days to hire a new employee, up from 42 in 2010. Fortune
At the negotiating table, be exact
Precise bids for company shares lead to better market outcomes than offers of round numbers, according to a study. HBS Working Knowledge
D.C. officials have on earmuffs
They don’t want to hear complaints about how ill-prepared the city is for snow. The Washington Post
Up or Out
Frank Quattrone is stepping down as CEO of Qatalyst Group. Fortune
The New York Philharmonic named Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden as its new music director. NYT
Fortune Reads and Videos
Mark Zuckerberg insists Facebook is really, truly all about connecting people
That 52% jump in revenue it reported in Q4? That’s just a byproduct. Fortune
If you think the Fed cares about your 401(k), think again
It ignored the recent stock market slide at its meeting Wednesday and barely mentioned the slowdown in China. Fortune
Nike has produced a branded content series called “Margot vs. Lily” on YouTube
The company—of course—produced the show’s wardrobe too. Fortune
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has an “Invest/Maintain/Kill” list
That’s one way to prioritize. Fortune
Billionaire businessman Carlos Slim Helú turns 76 today Biography
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy turns 61. Biography
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|Produced by Claire Zillman|