This weekend I've been thinking about integrity - specifically the importance of surrounding yourself with people of high integrity, and striving to achieve integrity in all your personal / professional relationships. I'd like to share a story from my past that has always inspired me. Since I did not ask permission from the people involved, I'll be a little vague on the specifics.

Several years ago I was in a startup that had to navigate some market turbulence. To help motivate the management team, the CEO worked with the board to put in place a multi-million dollar hold back. The idea of the hold back was that in the event of a successful acquisition, the agreed upon amount would be subtracted from the purchase price and made available to the CEO to disperse to his executive team.

As you can imagine, this hold back helped attract / retain members of the management team, and was something they thought about more than once when things were tough. After a few years, the CEO & his team successfully steered the company to an acquisition. But due to the purchase price, the acquisition was not going to have a big financial impact beyond the executive team.

The Monday after the acquisition, the CEO sat his management team down for their usual staff meeting. He presented only one agenda item: what to do with the hold back. He provided two options: 1) disperse the hold back as planned and the team could all go home knowing they had a good pay day, or 2) expand the pool of participants to key individuals across the company that helped make the successful exit. The obvious downside of option #2 was a substantial reduction in the impact of the hold back on the executive team. The CEO then guided a debate, which lasted less than three minutes and unanimously went with option #2.

When I think of integrity, I always think of this story. The CEO had every incentive - even a right - to choose option #1. This was also almost certainly the preference of his board. But with the doors closed and no one to watching, he led his team toward the high integrity choice.

When you work with people who have proven lapses of integrity, you will never know what they do when the doors are closed and the interests of you and/or your team are at stake. Integrity is what you do when no one is watching. It is who you are, and how you think about the people around you.

If given a choice between hiring smart people or people with integrity, choose both, and then go back to executing your business knowing you never need to look back.

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