December 7, 2007 marked the second annual J.J. Millican Ethics Symposium hosted by Oklahoma Christian University. This year’s guest speaker was Sherron Watkins, the former vice president of corporate development at Enron Corporation and known worldwide as the “Enron Whistleblower”. Watkins gave students, faculty, administrators, alumni and CPAs valuable insight to the causes and process of the downfall of the company once named for six consecutive years as “America’s Most Innovative Company” by Fortune Magazine.
The theme for the evening was Moral Courage: The Ethical Lessons of Enron. Watkins stated that “white collar criminals rarely intend to break the law”. This was just the case with Enron Corporation. Watkins likened the situation at Enron to Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes. In her rendition, Ken Lay, the former Chief Executive Officer, was the Emperor and Jeffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer, respectively, were the swindlers who convinced the Emperor of the beauty and splendor of his “clothes”.
Through her presentation at the ethics symposium, Watkins covered three key ethical lessons from Enron – the warning signs that were present at Enron Corporation, how to protect yourself should you find yourself in her shoes, and how to safeguard an organization from ending up like Enron. At the heart of her message was “All you need is love (and courage)”. According to Watkins, when leaders love the organization, self-interest is in last place.
Following her presentation, audience members were encouraged to ask Watkins specific questions about her experiences and her thoughts. When asked by an OC student what role intuition plays in a situation like Enron, she responded with the “Three M test”. The three Ms are: Would you want your mentor to find about your actions (or inaction)? Would you want the media to uncover your actions? How would you feel if your mother were to find out? According to Ms Watkins, when someone is placed in a difficult situation you must assess your response and if you do not feel good about it after taking this test, then you need to get out.
The event was offered free-of-charge to attendees courtesy of the generosity of the J.J. Millican Endowment at OC. Other sponsors included Devon Energy Corporation; Murrell, Hall, McIntosh & Co., PLLP; Grant Thornton; Chesapeake Energy Corporation; and the OC Accounting Club in the School of Business Administration. Additionally, CPAs in attendance were given one hour of continuing professional education in the area of ethics.
Despite the professional fallout caused by the downfall of Enron Corporation, Watkins is pleased with the way her life has turned out. Since 2001, she has co-authored a book, Power Failure, the Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron (Doubleday, 2003), become active on the international lecture circuit speaking to audiences in North America, India, and Europe, and been honored with various awards including TIME Magazine’s 2002 Person of the year, along with fellow whistleblowers Coleen Rowley of the FBI and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom. Her new career allows her to spend more time with her family and pursue many interests related to corporate governance.