Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Contributions to society’s well-being

I recently spent some time in the US to attend a conference. I was reading the daily newspaper and an article caught my attention. It reported on a representative study by the Pew Research Center asking adults about which profession they thought was the one contributing the most to society’s well being and the least respectively.
On the top of the list were the military (78%), teachers (72%) and then medical doctors (66%). This makes sense due to the fact that since 9/11 the Americans have a higher need for security and hold the importance of the military very high. Also, the average citizen can experience the positive impact of education and health firsthand. As a lecturer on strategic management I found the low ranking of business executives (24%) who made it second to last on the list, just behind journalists (28%) and above lawyers (18%) quite worrisome. Therefore teachers were rated three times higher than managers. But they are not paid three times as much as managers, but rather 30 times less! Once again, this study shows that the reputation of business leaders has dropped to a very low level. The survey confirms the outcome of a plebiscite in Switzerland (a sample survey of a special kind). It was a proposal that translates into “the fat cat initiative” which was widely accepted, showing that many managers were in fact not.
Many causes for this negative sentiment toward managers can be discussed. For example the double reward for strategic misperformance of top managers: Before 2007 managers of major Swiss banks were rewarded with big bonuses for risky growth (investment banking) and acquisitions of financial institutions of all kinds. Today these bankers are rewarded even more for reversing the strategy of their predecessors, selling supposedly unprofitable and risky parts of business. Despite the fact that either the one or the other strategy must be wrong, high “performance” bonuses where paid in both cases. It could also be discussed that citizens increasingly tend to disapprove of valuating firms on the grounds of their short-term success. It doesn’t seem to impress them that speculators at the stock market think otherwise.
As a lecturer of strategic management I think about what I could do to improve the standing of leaders in business. I think that on the one hand educators should regularly draw attention to the issue (e.g. in case studies) that when decisions in business are made not to solely consider monetary results but to also assess the effects the decision has on society. Value creation for all stakeholders is the issue! Further, in my opinion educators in management studies should apply this socially responsible strategy to their research projects and particularly to the evaluation of research results.
It should be noted that the renowned Academy of Management aspires “to inspire and enable a better world” in their vision statement (and not a higher income for managers!). This undoubtedly means not to propagate the short-term shareholder value thinking in research and teaching but to rise to the challenge to “contribute to society’s well-being”. If business leaders perform convincingly in this aspect their reputation in society ought to improve in the future.

Edwin Rühli

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