Aligning business resources with great market opportunities can sometimes lead to some tough ethical situations. The world is a complicated place and enterprises can find it is difficult to choose with whom to do business. We don’t always get it right. Even with the best of intentions companies can find themselves associated with countries or political leaders widely perceived to be on the wrong side of the ethical line. Working with them doesn’t mean you condone their behaviour. It does mean you watch your step, stay true to the values you stand for and do good work in your chosen communities. That can also mean exerting pressure on questionable partners to clean up their act and in extreme cases, having an exit plan if things go awry. This all takes a well thought out strategy and a good communication plan with your team. Clearly, this wasn’t the case with Greg Norman’s new golf league sponsored by the Saudi’s state controlled Sovereign Wealth Fund.
Phil Mickelson should have left his golf clubs to do the talking because what came out of his mouth would have made a triple bogey look good. Pro golf sponsors KPMG, Heineken / Amstel, Callaway Golf, Workday and tournament sponsor, American Express were operating in crisis mode last week after their star golfer spectacularly imploded forcing them to drop him as a spokesperson. Here’s what happens when negative geopolitical events, money, greed, and poor training collide and why this is important to you.
Greg Norman has been promoting a new golf league that would compete with the PGA tour. It’s financed by the Saudi’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi is well known story. The prince considered responsible is the head of that fund which is widely seen as way of using business people (and in this case athletes) “to help launder this country’s heinous reputation”. 1
Enter three times PGA Masters Golf Champion Phil Mickelson, recruited by Mr. Norman to join the new golf league. However, Mr. Mickelson’s motivation for considering joining the new golf league is multi-faceted and includes putting pressure on the PGA to fatten tournament prize money.
In an interview with golf reporter Alan Shipnuck2, Mr. Michelson is speaking about his potential new employer. He states, “they are scary (expletive) to be involved with. We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. Knowing all this why would I even consider it?”
That’s a really good question…what is it that would motivate someone as successful and rich as Mr. Mickelson to align himself with people he describes as “scary to be involved with”? His answer? “Because it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA tour operates”. And with that statement, Mr. Mickelson sinks his career, his brand and likely Mr. Norman’s new golf league like an errant shot into a water trap.
Pro golf sponsors have abandoned Mr. Mickelson. The same will likely be said for any golfers thinking of joining Norman’s new league. What can we learn from Phil Mickelson’s triple bogie?
- Vet your opportunities: Association with negative geopolitical events can give the impression you condone them – tread carefully.
- Vet your team members: Be sure of team buy-in to the company vision and be aware of possible conflicting motivations.
- Vet your strategy: When working in questionable geopolitical environments it’s important to have your corporate ethics woven deep into your strategy and well communicated to your team: If Phil Mickelson had said, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to champion human rights in the middle east by leveraging the global exposure that golf brings, the outcome would likely have been very different.
Operating in environments where negative geopolitical events are unfolding is dicey. Ignoring them or trying to sidestep them when developing your business strategy is naïve. Norman and his team’s strategy was obviously lacking.
Mickelson’s comments have left him with no sponsors, made him “persona non grata” at golf tournaments, and has likely dealt a death blow to Greg Norman’s new golf league…..a true triple bogie.
1. Globe and Mail “Mickelson has become golf’s unlikely pariah” March 1 2022