Former Enron executive to speak on ethical corporate leadership at Kirkwood

Kirkwood Community College
Published: January 28 2013 | 8:14 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:37 am in
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The woman who brought to light accounting irregularities at Enron Corporation, which led to the company’s bankruptcy and ultimate demise, will share her story and advice at Kirkwood Community College. Sherron Watkins was a vice president at Enron who, in August 2001, alerted then-CEO Ken Lay to the accounting irregularities within the company, warning him about the impending scandal.

Watkins, who was touted as the “whistle blower,” brings her keynote presentation, “The Courage of Your Convictions: Lessons of Enron and Ethical Corporate Leadership,” to Kirkwood Community College’s Beyond Rubies conference, on Wednesday, March 27, from 1-2:15 p.m., at The Kirkwood Center.

After discovering Enron’s “off the books arrangements,” Watkins sounded the alarm that marked the beginning of the end for the company.

“We had a lot of pressure to meet certain earnings targets,” said Watkins. “When employees have that kind of pressure, they can start to twist some of the rules. In the case of Enron, some employees were comforting themselves, telling themselves they were applying accounting procedures aggressively, but not really breaking the law.”

In her keynote, Watkins will share how small steps led to fraud and ethical issues at Enron, and what individual employees can do to avoid a slippery slope. She’ll discuss what she would have done differently if she had a chance to do it all again. She’ll share her views on how to spot the warning signs of an erosion in values and how, from her experience, she would advise others on the issues of ethics and governance in the context of the current climate of distrust in corporate America.

“Most people think they’ll do the right thing,” said Watkins. “If you see unethical practices at your company, your career is forever changed. You’re either going along with it, or on the flipside, protesting, and labeled a troublemaker.”

At the March 27 event, Watkins will reveal what made her decide to speak up about the accounting irregularities at Enron, and how she felt about Ken Lay’s response to the information. She’ll share suggestions on how people can speak up and hopefully rectify a situation they see as unethical.

“We don’t know about all the times when situations are rectified. There are thousands of cases across the country we don’t hear about, where employees bring up dilemmas to the more powerful people at companies, and a resolution is found. Other times you may need to leave the company and leave on your own terms.

“I want the audience to be empowered and forewarned that ethical dilemmas will happen. It’s a rare circumstance they won’t. Have a plan… And have a backup plan.”

Watkins was named a Time Magazine Person of the Year and one of Barbara Walters Ten Most Fascinating People. She has received numerous honors in recognition of her outstanding demonstration of ethics in the workplace and has co-authored, The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron.

Beyond Rubies is a conference for women of all generations and backgrounds. This year, for the first time, Kirkwood has opened both keynote addresses to men as well. Sherron Watkins presents on March 27 and Kelly Swanson on March 28. For more information on Beyond Rubies, to register for the event, or reserve a company table at a keynote address, visit www.kirkwood.edu/rubies or call 319-398-1022.

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