Robert Zafft's introduction to business ethics came during Russia's wild 1990s, when bankers were getting blown up on Main Street at rush hour.

A Harvard Law graduate and former McKinsey consultant, Zafft delivers fresh and engaging insight through audience interaction, compelling case studies, and concrete takeaways.

His keynotes target audiences excited about ideas and eager to grasp proven tools and techniques for making business ethics work in the real world.

Most Requested Presentation Topics

Keynote #1

Decision-making Frameworks: Finding Ethics in an Overcrowded Lifeboat

Audiences love this interactive approach to discovering and applying the basic frameworks that drive ethical business conduct.

From a list of 10 colorful passengers in an overcrowded lifeboat (think Mrs. Peacock, Col. Mustard, etc., from Clue), audience members vote via smart-phone app on which four people to throw overboard – and why.

The Lifeboat Game vividly and unforgettably demonstrates the strengths, limitations and key challenges arising from each framework (Cost/Benefit, Golden Rule, Blind Bargaining, Virtue).

The Game also builds participants' confidence by showing how they already apply these frameworks in their everyday lives.

Keynote #2

The Ethical Business and Other Fantastic Beasts.

Robert challenges the audience with the simplest -- and hardest to answer -- questions of business ethics. Can a business entity be ethical? What should we demand of business owners, directors, and managers? Whose business is it, anyway?

Hard-hitting insights strip away the posturing and platitudes that typify most ethics presentations. Drawing across a range of real-world and hypothetical cases, the keynote arms leaders, managers, and your entire team with the tools and rules to make ethical decisions for companies which they do not also own.

Keynote #3

"You Deal, You Die," the Godfather and Warren Buffett on Reputation

Many people dismiss business ethics as a crunchy-toasty topic with little real-world application. "The real world," these people say, "is pure Machiavelli: dog eat dog. You have to recognize and accept that fact if you want to get ahead and stay there."

Robert rebuts this argument by comparing what appear to be business-world polar opposites: the world's most feared mobster, Carlo Gambino, and its most successful investor, Warren Buffett.

The keynote not only recounts their common fixation on protecting reputation, but the shared challenge they faced as bosses whose subordinates have a perverse incentive to "bet with house chips."

Audience members gain insight into why, in Buffett's words, businesses "cannot afford to lose…even a shred of reputation," as well as reputation-guarding rules owners and managers need to lay down for all employees.

Keynote #4

The Hazards of Lumpy Risk: Life Lessons from the Death of Arthur Andersen

Why is reputational risk so hazardous?

What must your business do about it to survive and thrive?

Using insight from former Andersen partners, Robert challenges the conventional wisdom of what brought Andersen down and, consequently, what lessons its demise holds for the audience.

This keynote traces the long rise and rapid fall of Arthur Andersen, LLP, the world's wealthiest and most prestigious public-accounting firm.

Participants come away with a clear understanding of why the unpredictable lumpiness of reputational risk makes it uniquely hazardous and, consequently, why ethical conduct is essential to long-term prosperity and survival.

Participants also discover how stealthily and seductively corruption worked its way into Andersen, a firm of the best and the brightest, as well as what participants must do to avoid that firm's fate.

Keynote #5

Managing for Ethical Behavior: The Who, What, and How of Individual Accountability

This keynote presentation targets audiences hungry for an all-meat, no-bun helping of business ethics essentials.

Using the hypothetical case of WidgetCo, Robert shows how managers can define and enforce ethical behavior within their enterprise by fixing individual accountability through organizational design and key performance indicators. The Who and What.

Next comes the How. Audiences explore process control and its role in fixing accountability among the interdependent parts of an organization. Participants then discover how process control could have easily prevented or caught cheating by Wells Fargo employees, fund manager Bernie Madoff, and baseball pitcher Roger Clemens.

Keynote #6

Why We Must Have Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

Some balloons just beg to be popped.

To the delight of audiences, Robert takes deadly aim at “zero tolerance” policies and the silliness and harm they produce. Participants discover instead the keys to a sensible, fair, and proven alternative based on a culture of continuous improvement.

The keynote opens with several laughable examples of zero tolerance run amok.

Participants then explore the darker size of “zero-tolerance follies,” namely how these misguided policies corrode integrity, eat away at morale, and degrade decision making.

Drawing on principles from Total Quality Management and Lean Thinking, Robert lays out the steps participants must take to drive out rigidity and fear and to replace it with a continuous-improvement culture that is both fact based and humane.

Keynote #7

Company Culture: The Acid Test of Leadership

How can your organization tap into “the ultimate energy available on this planet” ?

The answer is culture.

Successful cultures make employees feel that doing a good job is about more than a paycheck; it's about expressing who they are as individuals. It’s about building and enjoying self-esteem.

This keynote explores the unique role of culture in business ethics by looking at three widely different, but wildly successful, organizations: Steve Wynn's gaming resorts, Admiral Hyman Rickover's Naval Reactors Group, and Google during Marissa Mayer's tenure.

Participants come away understanding the concrete methods Wynn, Rickover, and Mayer used to build and maintain ethical culture, as well as how participants can use these methods drive ethics and success in both their careers and personal lives.

[RJZ1] Quote is from billionaire Steve Wynn, former CEO of Mirage Resorts and Wynn Resorts. List discuss whether, how to cite.

Keynote #8

Weathering the Storm: Ethical Crises and Cross-fires

Nothing kills a company -- or a career -- quicker than an ethical crisis or cross-fire.

Robert relates from first-hand experience in 1990s Russia how the possibility of quick riches, combined with great uncertainty over the future, produces a perfect storm of unethical behavior.

Audiences discover concretely why crises and cross-fires distort normal ethical calculus. Drawing insights from the examples of Walmart, Target, and the Federal Trade Commission, participants review the structures, processes, and alliances that build social capital and defend reputation.

Takeaways include rules of thumb for managing crises/cross-fires, as well as for handling situations so new or so fast-changing that the ethics have yet to be worked out.

About Robert

Robert Zafft’s introduction to business ethics came during Russia's wild 1990s, when bankers were getting blown up on Main Street at rush hour. A Harvard Law graduate, Zafft has worked as a McKinsey & Company consultant, global-law-firm partner, private-equity Principal, and public-policy expert. He has advised governments, international organizations, and Fortune Global 1000 companies across North America, Europe, and Asia. He teaches business ethics at Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis.

robert zafft photo

Client Reviews

Ranks up there with the best of Dale Carnegie.
Steven Hellman,  serial entrepreneur and retired Chairman & CEO of TALX Corporation

Zafft persuasively links how a business behaves with how it performs. His real-world perspective and light, conversational style prove both insightful and entertaining.
John M. Howell,  Vice President, CX & Marketing at Centene Corporation

Robert attracted an overflow crowd.  He delivered a two-hour ethics CLE presentation that was creative, practical, and engaging.  A truly great job!
David A. Lander,  Professor of Practice, St. Louis University School of Law

Robert's presentation was interactive, informative, and fun. Our colleagues paid him the highest compliment they could: they asked the firm to invite Robert back for more.
Angela Dorn,   Partner, Hochschild, Bloom & Company LLP

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