Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Discretionary Morality in a Competitive World?

In the heady days of younger years I thought and felt strongly that I could chart my own path through this world of ours without compromising what I intrinsically believed to be “right” or “wrong”. As you might expect, this belief turned out to be rooted more in naivetĂ© than reality, and latest upon entering the corporate world did reality bite back. Let me give you one particularly illustrative example.
In charge of developing the overseas markets for a US manufacturer in the apparel industry, I was evaluating potential business partners in numerous countries to distribute, install and service our products. Due to the high labor costs in the US or Western Europe, the fabrication of clothing was rapidly shifting to areas of the world in which labor was still affordable enough so as to allow a reasonable profit margin in an increasingly competitive industry. A country of interest was then for us Tunisia, which promised to have the right mix of low labor costs with a reasonably reliable legal framework so as to make doing business there a relatively low risk venture.

I had singled out two companies in Tunisia which seemed promising business partners. The first was a start-up led by an enthusiastic and eager young woman having just returned from Canada where she had done her studies in the design and production of apparel. The latter was a large manufacturing company from the Netherlands which had been established in the Tunisian market for the better part of three decades. Meeting first with the young woman entrepreneur (in a male-dominated society!), I was immediately invited to her home to share a dinner with the entire family. It not only turned out that her business “headquarters” was the house’s basement, but that the entire family was poised to participate – as deeply vested stakeholders – in the venture. The mother, working at a local bank, was to be in charge of finances, the brother in sales, the father figured as the presidential formal “figure head” of the company (important in a patriarchic society), and the young, female entrepreneur was the effective Chief Executive Officer.
The following day I met with the director of the Dutch company and was shown around an expansive manufacturing plant which included several hundred workers busily hunched over sewing machines, churning out mounds of pants. He outlined for me the various sales channels they had throughout the country, and I was shown a well-equipped repair shop for technical support. In as much as servicing a sophisticated technical product as was ours is at least as important as just selling it, I was duly reassured.

That night at the hotel, however, the moral dilemma which I faced struck me with full poignancy. From a business perspective, the choice was as simple as could be: the established Dutch company disposed of vastly more resources, experience and connections to make our market entry in Tunisia a profitable and smooth one. By contrast, the small start-up lacked all of these crucial elements necessary for fast and profitable market development.
From a sustainable, human perspective, however, the choice was also as simple as could be: the established Dutch company lacked the heart-felt enthusiasm and commitment of the small venture and could readily do well without the benefit of adding our product to their already extensive product mix. But giving it our business would do little to nothing for developing the sprouting, indigenous economy in this area, and most of the profits would be ciphered off to the Netherlands. If I gave this business opportunity to the small start-up, however, I would be able to nurture the local, grass-roots economy, transferring not only financial resources to the locals, but also valuable know-how, so as to provide for the emancipation not only of the local economy from the dominance of the wealthy West, but, in this particular case, also of women in a still conservative, patriarchic Muslim society.

It was, however, equally apparent that it would be nothing but impossible (and virtual professional suicide) to justify going with the small start-up from a business point of view: I already pictured myself explaining my decision to my boss, the company’s CEO  - and then, following the food-chain upwards – him to the board of directors and the investors: “well, I know that we are rapidly losing market share in this highly competitive industry and our sales are imploding, but take a look at how much grass-roots, sustainable nurturing we are able to do in poor countries, taking heed of all the involved stakeholders!”
In essence, I was damned if I do, and damned if I did not. So what was the solution, and how would you choose if you were faced with such a decision?

For me, the solution was to leave the business world for the academic one, where I hoped to at least find an intellectual microcosm where I could align what I believed in with what I worked on and actually practiced. Moral of the story: I capitulated not by becoming entrenched in a system that was profoundly out of sync with what I believed to be “right”, but by stepping out of – or, if you like – fleeing a system I felt I simply could not change from the inside out. But capitulating will certainly will not change matters for the better…
The above account raises many questions about to what extent leaders should – and in a certain manner are even at a liberty to – live by what they believe is “right” or “wrong”. It also raises many questions about our social and economic system as a whole. In particular, how can leaders walk the moral high ground in an increasingly competitive, globalized world that so often punishes those who seek a more long-term perspective?

We shall take a closer look at this in a subsequent post. Stay tuned.

Manuel Heer Dawson

No comments:

Post a Comment