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Professor Bruce Kogut speaks on a panel about 'America’s New Moral Leadership' at The Atlantic’s Power of Purpose Summit in NYC.
by Bruce Kogut, Director, The Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics
Recently, Professor Geoff Heal and I discovered that we had both accepted an invitation from the Atlantic to participate in their Power of Purpose Summit held in New York City. Geoff and I are good friends and colleagues, and we looked forward to hearing each other respond publically to questions about purpose and values. This was a conversation that we had not had yet.
The event turned out to be very interesting, largely because they had great moderators and an impressive lineup of speakers. I was asked to join the panel on ‘America’s New Moral Leadership’ — no lack of material to discuss here! The moderator, Alison Stewart, a contributing editor for the Atlantic, surprised me with the question, “what do our millennial students expect to learn about corporate social responsibility and ethics in business school curricula?”
For a few years now at CBS, I’ve been teaching a class on governance, which includes open discussions on hot-button issues, e.g. should there be a mandated quota for female directors, should prisons be private, should CEOs speak up on events such as Charlottesville, and should firms make political donations. What I’ve learned is that students want to know more about what the professor personally thinks in regards to these societal questions.
“What I’ve learned is that students want to know more about what the professor personally thinks in regards to these societal questions.”
I stated, along these lines, that just like our students now want more ‘authentic’ beer and experiences, they also want us faculty to be more authentic in stating our opinions on these big issues. “We don’t have to agree,” students promise, “but we would like to know your views.” Essentially, if we are going to talk about ethics in practice, they want us to have more authentic teaching practices as well. The usual faculty response at that point is “Gulp!”
Geoff, who is a first-rate academic and expert on environmental economics, is an environmental activist too. After all, he co-founded and chairs the advisory board of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, among many other social causes to which he contributes. He spoke on a later panel on ‘What Consumers Want,’ also moderated by Alison Stewart. And I just wondered what he was going to say.
“Values have grown in importance a lot over the past 20 years,” Geoff said and added “and there is a big difference between students of my generation and the students I teach today.” When he was a student, people segregated their ethical values from their economic life, only taking their values with them to church on Sunday. In today’s world, however, individuals are increasingly making decisions about their consumption habits and place of employment based upon their aligned values. He concluded by saying he thinks this is healthy and more holistic.
“Values have grown in importance a lot over the past 20 years and there is a big difference between students of my generation and the students I teach today.”
The trend has been noted by corporate recruiters, who have had to craft new pitches that go beyond generous compensation and promotional opportunities. Instead, they must “espouse values, quite openly, that the [students] feel open to. And that makes a big difference.” Students, I added to my comments, not only want to work for authentic companies, they also seek to craft their own businesses with deep moral commitments.
These commitments often extend well beyond simple Corporate Social Responsibility. “The cynical view is that CSR had been used to counter-balance bad practices,” I suggested. What we’re seeing now on the other hand is a generation of companies with ethical purposes “baked into the entirety of a company’s way of operating.” And just as consumers have become savvy to bad business practices, e.g. Uber and Wells Fargo, so have the new generation of future business leaders emerging from business schools.
In seeking jobs that are more aligned with their values, students have created a demand for more transparent dialogue, starting in the classroom. And that excites me, because it’s only through emotional and personal commitments that people believe you. Geoff also agreed.
Afterwards, we took the subway back to campus, stopping off for a Shake-Shack milkshake. All in all, a perfect day. And many thanks to the Atlantic and Alison Stewart for allowing us to speak to these important issues at this pertinent event.
Professors Bruce Kogut and Geoff Heal are Faculty Leaders for The Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics. To find out more about our thought leadership and programming, please visit our website.