Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Students at Harvard Business School Take an Oath to Serve with Integrity

On June 3rd, just a few miles up the Charles River from where I sit in my office in Kendall Square, Harvard Business School graduated its latest class of MBA graduates. These women and men enter the business world in a time of tumult - with a global economy that resembles a piñata more than it does a pot of gold. And many of those who punctured the piñata – investment bankers, hedge fund managers, directors of corporations that have lost billions of dollars of stockholders investments – boast MBA degrees from the top business schools. Yet, during much of the economic meltdown, the business schools and their graduates have been eerily silent about the issues of culpability and responsibility for the mess that has been wrought on their watch.

The silence has been broken by a courageous group of men and women who feel that the time is ripe for a threshold of integrity to be installed for those who enter the world of business to cross. Here, in their own words, is the description of how these new MBA’s hope to interject character into their chosen profession.

Students at Harvard Take an Oath to Serve with Integrity

As the financial crisis began to unfold, much of the blame for the recent era of “greed” has been placed on business and finance executives and professionals. Graduates of business schools have been attacked for conducting business unethically and with little, if any, regard for the long term good of society. While business professionals may not be the only contributors to the current financial crisis, a group of students at Harvard Business School have recognized the greater responsibilities that business leaders have to society and are taking steps to ensure that MBA graduates are held more accountable in their professional and personal lives.

Founded in May 2009 by 30 Harvard Business School graduating students, the MBA Oath is a grassroots, opt-in effort aimed at setting a higher bar for conduct and behavior among business management professionals. The oath is a voluntary public pledge for graduating MBA students “to create value responsibly and ethically”. Like the Hippocratic Oath made by doctors, the MBA Oath outlines the values and ideals to which managers should commit and is designed to serve as a credo for MBA graduates as they embark on their careers.

While it is not an entirely novel idea or concept, the MBA Oath aims to help fulfill one of the original objectives of management education: to educate managers who lead in the interests of society. The organizing team has worked closely with two HBS Professors, Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana who have been working with the World Economic Forum and the Aspen Institute, to professionalize the MBA degree.

Detailed information on the MBA Oath can be found on www.mbaoath.org.

Several of the Harvard MBA students behind this movement are friends of mine who have served with distinction in the military before entering business school. I have asked two of those friends to give their own reasons for signing the oath.

Before coming to Harvard, Rye Barcott served with the United States Marines.

“I'm taking the oath because I believe we need more accountability in business and it's our responsibility as business leaders to hold ourselves to higher standards. It's also important that we further professionalize the MBA. This isn't the final solution, but it's a step in the right direction. The fact that this emerged as a grassroots, student-led initiative is particularly motivating.”

After graduating from West Point, Ryan Beltramini was awarded the Bronze Star for his leadership and service in Afghanistan. He writes as a member of Harvard Business School’s Class of 2009.

“I want to be a part of this movement more for what it allows me to offer than for what it offers for me. Consider the frequently mentioned parallel: the Hippocratic Oath for medical doctors. In my interactions with MDs, they often say they wanted to join the profession not because it would allow them to feel well respected but because they wanted to be able to add to the esteem of the profession – a selfless perspective. Similarly, I want to be a part of this MBA Oath movement not because I assume it will bestow on me any additional credibility but because I believe it will allow me to be part of building something larger than myself, for the benefit of the future of the management profession and for those who interact with it.

Taking the oath helps to establish a foundation for what I and other managers want management to be. The reality is that management is complex and people have several different, often proprietary and often conflicting goals for their work. Signing an oath is far from a panacea for those who might otherwise sacrifice ideals of management behavior for personal gain, but it does establish a benchmark from which practitioners can measure their beliefs and standards in comparison to (those who have signed it in) the profession. Such a benchmark also helps create substance around which to build relationships with accountability partners. The narrow road is the one we should strive to follow, but as good as our individual intentions may be, the chance of veering off this path is significantly reduced when we can call on others to ask them to analyze our decision processes based on a standard to which the profession is held.

Signing the oath helps constituents to know more explicitly what they should be able to expect from me. Again, while signing an oath does not confirm any specific behavior, it helps me know that there are specific things that people expect of me. It also helps delineate the complexities of interactions between my constituents and myself. Management (in business and elsewhere) can be and is a driver of change – both good and bad – in societies everywhere. While managers in business have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders of an organization, I do not feel that gives them the right to blind themselves to the consequences their actions have on society at large. The oath highlights this delicate point.

One hope I have is that the oath promotes, as its subtitle suggests, responsible value creation. Money can be a great motivator, and the benefits it can provide have played a crucial part in fueling the innovation that in many ways continues to make this world better. However, its unbridled pursuit as the sole end goal can be quite dangerous. Lest we, in the heat of the moment, begin to forget that there might be other things to consider beyond how much we could benefit from a certain outcome, I think the oath might, if not provide a more tenable solution for all constituents, at least remind us that management decisions we wrestle with are indeed difficult and perhaps worthy of further individual thought or outside input.

Another hope is that it will cause people to think harder about what their goals as managers are, and why. While the past several months have been difficult for soon-to-be-minted MBAs, I think that in the long run, the events of the past year or so will turn out to have been invaluable for my classmates and me in forcing us to think excruciatingly hard about what we value in careers and life. These adverse economic conditions are likely a once in a lifetime occurrence, which in most ways is good. However, bullish economic times can lure MBAs to jobs for the wrong reasons. When we do not have to think as much about and work as hard for jobs, we find it easier to convince ourselves that short term motivators such as compensation are what lead us to be the best managers we can be. I think such logic is faulty. To be the best managers, for ourselves and for all other constituents that count on us, we ought to thoroughly examine what motivates us, what we are good at, and what we like. At the intersection of these three considerations lie opportunities where we can be our best. I think that reflecting on this oath at all times but especially when times are more prosperous might help people more deeply consider what their management career ought to be and help them embark on a career path which will allow them to perform their best both for themselves and for others to whom they have duties.”

It is encouraging to see the emerging generation of business leaders stepping forward in raising the bar for ethical practice. They deserve our admiration, our thanks and our support.


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