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February 14, 2014

Samoas, Thin Mints and business ethics

Crisp Thin Mints, peanut butter Tagalongs and coconutty Samoas are everywhere - it must be Girl Scout Cookie season.

Done right, cookie-selling can pack as many business lessons as calories. As the Girl Scouts website argues: "Every time you buy a box of cookies, you help girls learn 5 essential skills - goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics. . . . They learn and they earn, all thanks to you!"

But these lessons aren't learned when Scouts sell outside grocery stores or via mobile app, or, even worse, when parents ask their colleagues to purchase Girl Scout cookies, a query I recently received at a casual work lunch. My friend wasn't prepared for the lecture that followed. I'd be more than happy to buy cookies from his daughter, I said, but only if she called me on the phone to personally ask for the sale.

This goes beyond helicopter parenting. Ensuring that kids sell their own cookies is responsible parenting.

When I was a Scout, I remember getting my order form and sitting down with my mom and dad to ask them which of their friends I might approach for sales. There were long weekends of walking door to door with my parents, working on my "cookie elevator pitch" in between houses. I knew which houses were easy sells and which were tougher. I didn't realize at the time that I was learning marketing strategy in addition to sales.

When I returned to the office after that recent lunch, I began reviewing a forensic interview for a documentary I am working on called "All the Queen's Horses," about Rita Crundwell, a former comptroller of Dixon, Ill., who is serving 19 1/2 years in federal prison for embezzlement.

As a comptroller - and very similar to my duties as a cookie-peddling Scout - Crundwell collected checks from residents. But after collecting these checks and depositing them in city bank accounts, she transferred the money to a secret bank account and purchased horses, jewelry ad real estate for more than 20 years without her Dixon neighbors suspecting a thing.

As a 10-year-old Scout, I remember almost having a Crundwell moment when I asked my mother one day if I could "borrow" from my cookie-sale stash when I needed lunch money - as long as I put it back in time to turn the money in to our Scout leader. My mother looked at me sternly and explained that the money did not belong to me - taking it wouldn't be right. Our neighbors trusted me because I was a Girl Scout, she said, and it would be unethical to borrow the money, even if I intended to pay it back.

 Twenty-five years later, I'm interviewing business professionals who rationalized their behavior as "borrowing" money from their companies and planning to return it at some later date.

I've seen good people commit extraordinary crimes. Specifically, I think back to my interview with Diann Cattani, who said she "borrowed" almost $500,000 from her company over a period of two years. I believe she intended to pay the funds back later. Unfortunately, they were never repaid, and she spent 18 months in a federal prison. Now Cattani spends much of her time lecturing business students about avoiding fraud.

Selling cookies, I learned more than how to resist the temptation to embezzle. Since my parents were not involved in the process, other than walking me around the neighborhood, the buck stopped with me. I was in charge of all orders and counted my money every night. I learned never to set unrealistic sales goals; to always take responsibility for my work; and that if someone says "no," have confidence, because another will say "yes."

A few weeks ago, I received a phone call. It was my friend's 7-year-old daughter with her Girl Scout Cookie sales pitch. Not only was she poised and professional, she closed the deal by asking for the names of friends who might be interested in purchasing cookies. I was impressed - and ordered three boxes of Thin Mints.

 If she follows my old-school approach to Girl Scout Cookie sales, she may not be the sales leader in her troop, but she could be the next Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sandra Day O'Connor, Sally Ride, Barbara Walters or Gloria Steinem - all legendary Girl Scouts. I trust that they sold cookies themselves, learning about accountability along the way.

I am raising a future Girl Scout in my house, and I look forward to our cookie-season chats as chances to teach her that there are no shortcuts in business - or in life.

 

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