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Becky Norman


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Post Office: Was Paula Vennells the unluckiest CEO in the UK?

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells has done a good job of showing leaders how to dish out a terrible apology, pass blame and NOT take accountability for organisational wrongdoings. In response, we ask three experts to tell us how CEOs should respond to organisational failings.
Post Office Horizon scandal, Paula Vennells inquiry

During the Horizon scandal inquiry, Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells was asked if she was the unluckiest CEO in the UK, in light of the documents and information she claimed not to have been given in her witness statement.

Vennells responded “I was too trusting” and that she “did ask, did probe” and is “Disappointed where information wasn’t shared”.

The testimony, in which she apologised, has largely been met with frustration and disbelief. In response to Vennells saying: “I worked as hard as I possibly could to deliver the best Post Office for the UK,’ on her final day of testimony, Sam Stein KC responded: ‘That’s absolute rubbish.’ Following the testimony, in an LBC interview, Post Office scandal campaigner Alan Bates said her ‘performance’ was ‘well rehearsed’

Vennell’s has done a good job of showing leaders how to dish out a terrible apology, pass blame and NOT take accountability for organisational wrongdoings. 

In response, HRZone asks three experts to share their views on the ‘unluckiest CEO in the UK’ and answer the question: When an organisation is outed for its failures, how should a CEO respond? 

‘When you’re in a hole, stop digging’

Organisational leaders must take responsibility for wrongdoings no matter what, says Andrew Loveless, Co-founder of Pecan Partnership: “When you’re in a hole stop digging. As a leader of an organisation, the buck stops with you. You have to take responsibility for what happened on your watch.”  

Any hint of blame means true responsibility is not being taken and an apology won’t be accepted, Loveless also says. “Because Paula Vennells has not moved into a state of responsibility, she sounds defensive, evasive, incompetent and ultimately remains in some state of blame. Which is why, no matter how many times she says she is sorry, people don’t believe her. They just hear insincerity.”

“The 900+ employees who were prosecuted plus all the people associated with them want someone to take responsibility, they have not experienced it yet and so their frustration grows. This is a cornerstone of their emotional and psychological closure. “

Lack of accountability perpetuates a self-preservation culture

Lack of ownership among leaders not only amounts to terrible apologies, it also permits others in the organisation to follow suit, says thought Leader in HR & Culture Deborah Hartung: “Deflecting blame, as Vennells did by claiming she was “too trusting,” is not only disingenuous, it perpetuates the toxic culture that likely contributed to the failure in the first place.”

Through their own behaviours, actions and decisions, leaders signal to the wider workforce how to behave, act and make decisions. “These processes trickle down through the hierarchy, shaping the actions of employees at every level,” says Hartung. “When a CEO prioritises self-preservation over accountability, it fosters an environment where dishonesty and omission thrive. It’s no coincidence that Paula Vennells surrounded herself with individuals who mirrored her own behaviour.”

“The Post Office scandal serves as a cautionary tale for all leaders: your actions, both in times of success and crisis, define the culture of your organisation,” Hartung concludes.

Always seek bad news first 

How, then, should leaders respond to internal scandals? Thom Dennis, CEO of culture and leadership specialists, Serenity in Leadership believes it starts with being open and willing to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and negative realities. With pressure to please stakeholders, all too often this bad news is suppressed or ignored by CEOs to “create an environment where only selective information reaches them, distorting reality and delaying necessary interventions.”

While we may not advocate certain leadership approaches adopted by Lord Alan Sugar, Dennis suggests we learn from his desire to keep abreast of the tough stuff. “Alan Sugar’s approach—’Bring me the bad news first; that way we can do something about it’—emphasises the need for a culture of openness and transparency and an ability to address issues promptly where ethics and integrity are paramount,” says Dennis. 

How else should leaders proceed when confronted with a scandal? Dennis presents both short-term and longer-term strategies for navigating through uncomfortable realities.

Short-term response to scandals

Dennis says: “The first step is to rigorously seek the facts, and quickly acknowledge the issue publicly without downplaying its significance, coupled with a sincere apology to those affected. Immediate actions should include halting questionable practices and initiating thorough systemic investigations. Maintaining open communication with stakeholders and cooperating fully with authorities is essential to restoring trust. Providing timely compensation and support to victims showing a higher concern for people than the bottom line demonstrates genuine concern and responsibility.”

Long-term response to scandals

“Long-term responses involve leadership accountability and stepping down if necessary. Reforming organisational culture to prioritise ethics and compliance is also crucial,” Dennis says. “Ultimately, leaders must address the crisis effectively, restore confidence, and ensure the organisation emerges stronger, more transparent, and more ethically developed.”

Interested in this topic? Read Post Office Horizon scandal: How to ensure your organisation isn’t in the next ITV drama series

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Becky Norman

Managing Editor

Read more from Becky Norman

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