An Interview with John H. Conley CFA, Senior Vice President of Smith Hayes Advisers, Inc. (Note: the firm was merged into the D.A. Davidson Companies after this interview.)
By Nickolas Alexander, Creighton University MBA student, and Victor Diaz, a Creighton University M.S. NDR student
CORE VALUES & ETHICS
Mr. John Conley, Senior Vice President of Smith Hayes Advisers, Inc. and former CEO of Conley Investment Counsel, parallels ethics to the golden rule: do unto others what you would want done unto you. He finds that this model has worked well for him while rendering financial services to his clients. “The client always comes first,” Conley says which builds into Smith Hayes core value of trust.
Conley developed his definition of ethics through his parents, which he believes is where most children begin to learn ethics. Furthermore, he believes that ethics is learned through the parents of friends and neighbors within communities. Conley further developed his early lessons in ethics through his teachers and pastors, as well. Through his relationships within his community, he learned proper behavior.
When asked how children are able to develop proper behavior, Conley states that a child learns proper behavior by testing limits and boundaries. Through testing these limits, the community either encourages or discourages a child’s behavior, which helps define a child’s scope of ethics for the future.
PRINCIPLES IN A TOUGH SITUATION
In regards to business ethics, Conley believes that individual experiences help shape values; however, he emphasizes the importance of understand one’s principles before conducting business.
To enforce this concept, Conley recommends reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey because the principles in this text helped him make challenging ethical decisions with ease. Establishing and understanding his principles before conducting business prepared Conley for ethical dilemmas.
For example, Mr. Conley sits on various nonprofit boards, and on one of these boards Conley faced a conflict of removing an individual in leadership due to a lack of confidence expressed by others. However, the larger conflict was that the individual in question was also a client of Conley Investment Counsel.
To Conley, the decision of what to do in this situation was easy because he established his core principles long before this situation: always do what is right. And right in this situation was to dismiss the leader in question, even though it could have an adverse effect on Conley Investment Counsel.
Conley explained that in this situation, he needed to understand that at this moment he was a member of the board, not just the CEO of Conley Investment Counsel. Understanding his principles ahead of time helped him identify the board member he wanted to become.
By understanding the different roles he needed to balance, Conley was able to do what was right and serve his board justly with his decision to relieve the individual in question, even if that meant a potential expense to his own company. This required a great ethical fitness on Conley’s behalf, and by practicing ethical behavior regularly, Conley was able to make the decision with ease.
ETHICAL BUSINESS LEADERS
Many situations like the one Mr. Conley faced are not represented in media outlets, so when individuals are looking for ethical guidance, Conley suggests looking at the example set by Warren Buffett. Conley states that Buffett has demonstrated a high level of ethics during the course of his career. Because of Buffett’s actions, he gives people confidence since he has such high ethical standards, which is why people want to do business with him.
Conley emphasizes the importance of ethical behavior by stating that if an individual exudes an ethical confidence that people can believe, more people will want to do business with them.
Furthermore, if individuals are looking for community leaders promoting an ethical culture, Conley suggests looking at the Business Ethics Alliance where he is a trustee. Conley finds that the Business Ethics Alliance is a great forum that creates necessary dialogue about ethics. Because of the dialogue created by Omaha business leaders, ethics becomes the forefront of a positive discussion versus becoming a discussion about unethical behavior.
Conley also states that it can be easy for business leaders to fall into the trap of believing that employees act ethically all of the time because people generally have good intentions. To prevent this blind spot, Conley acknowledges that the open dialogue in the Business Ethics Alliance helps business leaders promote and encourage the awareness of ethics in the business community.
THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE FOR COMMUNITY AND JUSTICE
Conley served as the treasurer for the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), and their purpose is to fight bias, bigotry, and to promote equality for all. During this opportunity, Conley interacted with influential leaders such as Andrew Young, Richard Grasso, Bill Summers, and Sanford Cloud, Jr.
Conley claims that Cloud, Jr. demonstrated an incredibly high level of ethical knowledge and patience. If someone in a meeting misspoke about bigotry, race, or religion, Cloud Jr. was quick to seize these situations as educational moments to promote ethics and the values of equality.
The NCCJ banner has dissembled nationally, but Conley believes that this experience of working with a vast array of different individuals from diverse backgrounds has broadened his scope of ethics and encourages others to seek out similar opportunities for personal and professional growth.
THOUGHTS ON GOVERNMENT REGULATION
Conley was quick to acknowledge that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was developed to better protect the public; however, the legislation did not affect his work directly because his principles always valued his customers’ financial well-being first. Regardless, Conley recognizes implementing new policy is challenging because most players will follow the rules, but there will always be some players that find ways to evade particular laws. Conley states that those individuals that pick and choose which laws to follow need to abide government policy. If they are unhappy, they should seek the appropriate channels to encourage reform rather than defying laws.
Sarbanes-Oxley exemplifies how some players may be affected and while others remained unaffected. Conley was quick to admit that Sarbanes-Oxley did not directly affect his work, but the act did affect others. For those that were affected, Conley encourages those to seek change because government policy is challenging to draft and perfect. If regulators are not careful, they can hurt small businesses. However, the smaller players should seek reform if they disagree with regulations.
When further pressed if there was any conflict of interest in the drafting of Sarbanes-Oxley due to the role of accountants in the draft, Conley deferred the question to the college classroom and considered that a course covering conflicts of interest may be a good addition to a MBA program.
Conley sees that government regulation is inherently good, even though the government will struggle to create a big enough box to hold all players from going out of bounds because there will always be individuals trying to seek an advantage, even if government employees are working hard to protect the public.
CONLEY INVESTMENT COUNSEL JOINS SMITH HAYES
In early 2014, Conley Investment Counsel joined forces with Smith Hayes. When asked if there were any differences in ethical values and codes of ethics between the two organizations, Conley admitted that each organization had very similar views on ethics, which made for a very easy partnership.
Conley has known Tom Hayes and Tom Smith since Smith Hayes started in 1985; Conley Investment Counsel began in 1986. Because of the history between the two organizations and their shared values, the partnership was an easy decision.
Conley Investment Group and Smith Hayes both believe that the customer comes first and that if the short-term needs are taken care of in the most ethical manner, then the long term will have a strong ethical foundation.
Conley is aware of the growing disparity between the highest paid employee versus the lowest paid in many organizations, and he acknowledges that the growing separation is incredibly unfortunate because he hopes that all employees are being compensated fairly. With that being said, he believes that CEOs do deserve compensation based on market valuation because of the CEOs ability to grow value to shareholders and their responsibility to managing employees and resources. However, Conley states that the “golden parachutes” some CEOs earn while managing a company in decline is completely unacceptable.
A WORD OF CAUTION FOR YOUNG PROFESSIONALS
John Conley sees that the biggest challenge for young professionals is the development and omnipresence of technology. Conley fully supports technology, but admits that there will be reasons to be skeptical of it because technology allows more opportunities for individuals to make poor choices and to collude in unethical acts.
If future generations overcome the risks of these complications, then their ability to work with technology could be their greatest asset.