On the anniversary of the events that plunged world markets into turmoil, ethics, it seems, is curiously back on the corporate agenda. This will doubtless come as a shock to the many thousands of employees who have had their career expectations re-structured for them by the economic crisis, and those who are keeping their heads down, grateful to be in a job.
Of course, we’re not suggesting that the HR renaissance has advanced so far that many organisations are breaking out of the shareholder-first focus of their people strategies. We’re talking about UK business schools such as Cass, Manchester and Nottingham that have recognised that the way leaders have been educated in the past may well have had some bearing on the way they behaved in the run up to the economic meltdown in 2008.
In a direct response to global economic problems, rather than up the ante on recession-busting short-termism, all three of the seats of learning cited above have re-focused their MBAs to feature business ethics and philosophy as “must have” rather than optional modules. They are employing techniques from experiential learning and role play to role model engagement. They are encouraging their students to work with not-for-profit organisations to develop their people skills, empathy levels and social responsibility sensibilities. They are using case studies like the Shuttle Challenger disaster and banking collapse to illustrate what happens when organisations fail to communicate or develop requisite culture.
In summary, they are attempting to expand the focus of their students away from the obsession with shareholder value, balance sheet management and short-termism.
This is a very encouraging development – although ethics, engagement and sustainability are not, in our view, soft skills modules to be bolted onto the superstructure of so-called core business essentials for elite leaders. They are core business essentials for all leaders.
Corporate social responsibility has very little to do with benevolence, and employee engagement should not be seen as a discretionary activity. Relationship skills are as applicable to business partners and colleagues as they are to customers – true sustainability can only come from adopting a joined up approach to stakeholder management both internally and externally.
We would like to see the business schools go several steps further and place at least as much emphasis on sustainable relationship management as they place on accounting and technical skills development. Who knows, perhaps if enough of the reputable seats of learning lead the way, it may make a few senior leaders expand their engagement and leadership development horizons, recognising the link between culture management, boom and bust. And who knows where that may lead?