Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dare to be ethical?

Reading the book “Giving Voice to Values” by Mary Gentile corroborated a longstanding assumption of mine that acting out our sense of right and wrong is something that can be directly promoted by rehearsal. Her observation is that most “business ethics” courses tend to focus either on abstract ethical theory or then the analysis of specific cases, but neglect any sort of concrete training as to how, precisely, we would like to behave and what we should say in a specific situation where we intuitively feel that something is amiss. Knowing does not automatically lead to doing, much less to effective doing. And knowing without conviction can even lead to misuse and skillful self-justification. Indeed, she gives examples where managers whom she had interviewed expertly elaborated and adroitly rationalized their morally questionable behavior on the basis of ethical theories that they had previously been taught at University. Thus they simply picked and chose the ethical theory that best supported their particular behavior and prerogatives at that time and context, no matter how self-serving or cynical.

By rehearsing just how we would – in words and deeds – respond to something amiss, we simply do what any athlete does when training for the time when it really matters: flex the muscles and hone in their coordination in such a way so as to make their execution all but automatic during an athletic event. As to how to convince highly competitive individuals of the merits of revisiting their basic moral assumptions, she proposes that even they can be brought into the fold by a re-framing of their objectives as being “daring to be ethical”.
I am inspired by Ms. Gentile’s approach because I have personally witnessed with myself that I have on a good number of occasions failed to uphold my own deeper convictions when it mattered. Looking back, my failures had their root less in my believing myself to be powerless to change things on my own, than in having to decide on the spot and being unable to come up with a suitable alternative fast enough or being so caught up by my own social and cultural conditioning, that it was very difficult to change my “bad habits”. As individuals, organization and as a civilization we are all captive to some extent to the ingrained routines, traditions and culture we have been part of since childhood. Consequently, even if we rebelled on a number of occasions, we often find ourselves back in our previous, familiar path-dependent behavioral track, especially when we are intricately embedded in this social status-quo with all its rules, assumptions and subtle (or not so subtle!) peer pressure. We yearn for our place in this social context and thus we often inadvertently undermine our own best efforts at reform.

Concretely, what is to be done then? Whereas there is certainly some validity to the bromides that one can only change oneself or that all change begins with ourselves, the above analysis makes it clear that more is required. Individuals need to be supported in their efforts for change and this support includes creating concrete training grounds to hone in our abilities to deal with the wider social challenges we all face. Business Schools, as the premier forging grounds for future leaders in our economic institutions, are clearly indispensible in this respect.

Manuel Heer Dawson

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Sustainability Reporting Today

Sustainability Reporting Today:

 With the advent of sustainability reporting, various indicators and standards have been developed to measure and evaluate sustainability and to anchor it in corporate reporting on value creation. A sustainable commitment to stakeholder relations on an economic, social and ecological level has a proven positive impact on value creation and ultimately also on the strategic success of a company. To make this transparent, the following principles for an integrated sustainability reporting - which are to a certain degree also part of standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative, Integrated Reporting and the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) - can lead the way:
-         Strategic Focus: Sustainability should be embedded in a company’s purpose, in its derived vision and in its strategic objectives. This forms an essential basis for a periodic corporate sustainability reporting at a strategic level.

-         Embeddedness: Not only singular projects, but the entire strategy development and revision should be communicated comprehensively to make the company’s attractiveness visible for current and future partners. It is deliberately not about retaining information to calm down stakeholders and to secure competitive advantages over competitors, but about gaining strategic stakeholders for a mutual corporate value creation process.

-         Inclusion: When different stakeholders contribute to value creation, it is crucial to also recognize these stakeholders as owners of their contributed values. This is based on an extended understanding of ownership. Here, the concept of ownership refers not only to material goods or financial resources, but also to intangible issues such as knowledge and experience. With their knowledge and experience, stakeholders provide property for a company in a broader sense. Like the financial owners, they have therefore the right to be adequately involved in processes regarding their property and to be informed accordingly.

-         Commitment: In a purely economic view, profit distribution (residual profit) primarily targets shareholders. This is also predominantly reported on. Especially because the management has to make discretionary decisions about the shareholders’ compensations, e.g. how much of the profit is being distributed and how much is being retained (pay-out-ratio). When other stakeholders, in the sense of a broader concept of ownership, contribute significantly to the corporate value creation process, these stakeholders should also be a compulsory part of the distribution of tangible and intangible values as well as receive information accordingly.

 A sustainability reporting based on these principles suggests that companies can create more values with and for stakeholders.

 Sybille Sachs