In the fourth instalment of an occasional series featuring two experts debating a hot topic for students, Enase Okonedo, dean of Lagos Business School in Nigeria and Judy Samuelson, founder of the Business and Society Programme at The Aspen Institute, share their views on the value of the MBA oath.

Ms Okonedo and Ms Samuelson also answered questions in a live Q&A on Thursday, 28th May 2015.

Enase Okonedo
Enase Okonedo: In my view, pledges such as the MBA oath are ineffective because they do not necessarily lead to the desired change in behaviour. While I agree that some measures need to be taken to make managers more accountable, I doubt that a pledge at the time of graduation is the best way of achieving this. Proponents of the oath themselves admit that prospective MBAs begin their journey to business school thinking about maximising the return on their investment.

So, long before the oath is taken, an attitude is formed which will be hard to change. Perhaps this is why not all MBA graduates are willing to take the oath.

To start with, the application process to business school favours the ambitious individual. Schools want to admit students who have the best chances of landing high-paying jobs, because it makes their programmes more attractive in the long run. It also improves the school’s rankings.

The culture of the business school further contributes to this go-getter attitude. Prestigious schools encourage students to believe they have the magic solution to business problems. Employers at the end of the tunnel endorse this attitude. They seek to employ graduates whom they believe are best prepared to manage the business in a way that delivers the most value to shareholders. While MBA graduates seek employment in sectors that pay high salaries.

Employment statistics from business school websites show that more than 25 per cent of graduates go to work in consulting or financial services respectively, compared to just about 3 per cent in non-profit or social enterprises. It is a viscous cycle.

To exacerbate the problem, the very content of a management curriculum is believed by some scholars to have a harmful effect on students. When not properly guided to see a broader view of human nature, MBA students are likely to graduate believing that the model of economic man (rational and self-interested) adequately describes everyone.

Business schools must strive instead to instil in their students a sense of social responsibility. A course in managerial anthropology, for example, would set the foundation for moral intelligence. This is what we have at LBS.

I fear the MBA oath might become a badge of prestige, rather than a badge of honour. A public declaration may attempt to keep managers bound to its principles, but if those principles are not ingrained, it is unlikely that managers will remember them when faced with critical decisions.

Judy Samuelson
Judy Samuelson: I say, yes. Like a marriage vow or Girl Scout pledge, the MBA oath invites the participants to set good intentions. It can’t be bad, even if the execution is imperfect or the promise unfulfilled. The real challenge now is how to make the MBA oath useful. Like resisting that carton of half-eaten ice-cream, it requires will power and practice.

The oath is a good idea in principle. It even has the potential to be life changing. However, without a clear regimen of habits, incentives and protocols to enliven it and convert good intentions to better behaviours, it becomes the stuff of talk shows — fun to think about, but mostly an object of ridicule.

Business schools are masterful at creating networks to sustain connections to their alma mater and set their graduates up for successful careers. What if these networks were tweaked to sustain the intentions of the MBA oath? What if every graduate were to sign it with his or her best friend or study partner — someone they might use as a lifeline in moments of uncertainty?

In the real world, ethical decisions aren’t coded black or white — they come in shades of grey. Serve the client or serve the planet? Swing for a home run to secure my children’s future or stay within safer conventions of risk? A trusted partner who helps you parse the pros and cons at moments of uncertainty or temptation would help put real meat on the bones of the oath.

Special opportunities to reinforce the oath could also exist at class reunions or other markers of time. What if, each year, every MBA was expected to post an ethical dilemma he or she faced over the past 12 months? As we have learnt from 12-step programmes that help alcoholics stay sober, regular habits of reflection build the ethical muscle.

A structured programme to promote habits like these would support continuous learning and send the message that the oath is an important part of being an MBA graduate. It would remind us that thoughtful consideration of the complex dilemmas that lie at the heart of business and finance are part of the new normal in a world that expects much from organisations.

We need a set of habits that will keep the oath alive over a career. But it would also be good if the key takeaways from the classroom laid the groundwork. To set the conditions of success for graduates destined for a complicated world, we need to integrate the elements of the oath into smart, strategic, high quality decision-making — a new “bottom line” for the finance and strategy classroom.

Live Q&A excerpt

Judith: One of the tenants of the oath is “strive to create sustainable economic, social and environmental prosperity worldwide.” It’s not always clear the best way to do that within the confines of a business. I think having partners to help sort through the complexity is potentially powerful.

Enase: Accountability partners could be helpful if we reach out to them in moments of crucial decision-making but only to the extent that we call on them; what’s going to make us call on them if in our minds we still believe the maximisation of shareholder value, for instance, is really the way to go? There’s no dilemma if so…

Judith: I think you and I agree more than disagree! Teaching within the confines of traditional law and economic thinking – the rational actor and shareholder primacy is a significant problem. I just left a meeting at Seattle U. where other disciplines, from anthropology to sociology to economics, came together to look at the forces that shape decision making in business and finance.

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