Analyzing the Idea Behind the MBA Oath


Connecting the dots (image: Netream)

Last week I gave my opinion on the importance of the MBA Oath. Now, let’s see what BusinessWeek’s Anne VanderMey reports.

Harvard’s MBA Oath Goes Viral

What started as a pledge to do no harm by 2009 graduates of the elite business school has quickly gone global, but not everybody’s on board

by: Anne VanderMey

When most people think of professionals whose “purpose is to serve the greater good,” MBAs don’t leap to mind. That’s probably part of the reason authors of a new oath for MBAs, which uses those words in the opening sentence, set such modest goals for the project. Started by 33 second-year MBA students at Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile) as a way to bolster B-school ethics, the group originally hoped 100 of their classmates in the Harvard class of 2009 would sign up to “act with utmost integrity.” At the time, it seemed like a stretch.

But something about the project struck a chord. Maybe it was the desire to distance themselves from B-school villains of the financial crisis, or an effort to get a head start on their future careers in the nonprofit world, or maybe it was genuine idealism. But whatever the cause, the oath has quickly taken on a life of its own. Within weeks, more than half of Harvard’s class of 2009 had signed. Perhaps more interestingly, it didn’t stop at Harvard Yard. MBAs around the world forwarded the oath to friends, gathering nearly 800 signatures to date. Max Anderson, the 2009 Harvard graduate who came up with the idea, said he received requests from people at more than 25 schools around the world about bringing it to their campuses. He still sounds a little awed: “Our inbox has just exploded.”

So far, people from 115 countries representing 49 languages have visited the MBA Oath Web site, where visitors can also find links to some of the articles that helped to spread the word. While some campuses have asked for help adapting it, e-mails have been circulating independently at others. About 40 students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management (Kellogg Full-Time MBA Profile) have signed on, along with more than 30 students at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School (Saïd Full-Time MBA Profile). Anderson says the group plans to translate the code into German, French, and Spanish because of multiple requests. And representatives of schools in Iceland and Norway have expressed interest in adapting it.

This isn’t the first time the MBA industry has made a stab at establishing a code of morality, but it does seem to be the first effort that has the potential to catch on with a broader audience. Critics of the movement say that the oath is simply an effort by students to shield themselves from the populist rage at the role MBAs played in the current financial crisis and that the ethics push will fade once the economy stabilizes. But some B-school leaders caution that such a conclusion underestimates the younger generation. There’s a possibility, they say, the oath is only the tip of the iceberg, and that a bigger change—in student sentiment, business school programs, and what it means to be an MBA—is poised to hit the business education world.

Management as a Vocation

Despite their modest short-term goals, the oath’s creators have big plans for the future of the project. In addition to eventually having hundreds of thousands of MBAs sign the pledge, they want it to be part of a much more ambitious agenda to professionalize the occupation of management, transforming it into a vocation much like medicine or law. The idea was proposed by Harvard professors Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria in a paper last year that called for a “rigorous code of ethics” for managers. Anderson and his teammates worked with them and used some of their analytical framework while developing the text of the oath.

As Khurana says, there was “nothing novel” about the idea of management as a profession. A moral compass was built into the original proposals for business schools more than a century ago, though it has rarely been fully fleshed out. Other programs and organizations have some existing form of the MBA oath. The University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business (Ivey Full-Time MBA Profile) has a class ring that graduates wear to remind them of their commitment to honesty. And at the Thunderbird School of Global Management (Thunderbird Full-Time MBA Profile), graduating MBAs have recited a moral pledge at commencement since 2006.

But the idea of a code wasn’t always noncontroversial. Three years ago, when the economy was booming, Thunderbird President Ángel Cabrera said instituting the pledge drew harsh criticism. One journalist, he recalls, called the practice “positively cretinous.”

That was then. Now that the nation has lived through Bernie Madoff and AIG (AIG) bonuses, prevailing opinion seems largely to have come around to Cabrera’s point of view. Ethics classes are filling up, campuses are starting to consider their carbon footprint, and there has been a proliferation of conferences and clubs devoted to corporate social responsibility. Much of this, Cabrera says, is in answer to growing student demand that was present even before the meltdown. One big reason: an influx into business school by members of the Millennial Generation, whose youthful idealism has already begun affecting a shift in B-school priorties from high finance to higher purpose.

“It’s not just a temporary thing,” Cabrera says. “I really think there’s also a generational shift.…There is a demand, a thirst for this type of value-based ideology.” He sees the events of the last month as setting the stage for a larger overhaul of what he has often said is a failed system of management. Business education, he says, has reached a “tipping point.”

Just Words

It does seem like the rush to the oath was waiting to happen. Scott Osman, an executive MBA student at New York University’s Stern School of Business (Stern Full-Time MBA Profile) said his class had been working on drawing up something similar when he got wind of Harvard’s project. He said he sent an e-mail to his class, and within six hours, about 70% of the students had taken the Harvard pledge. Osman credited his class’s enthusiasm to a “growing desire among MBAs that we want to do more than just make money.”

At Northwestern, where the oath also went viral, graduating MBA David Hobbet says he was impressed by the large number of Kellogg grads who signed up, given the “minor effort” he and others put in. “Just a couple e-mails to friends,” he says, generated dozens of Kellogg signatures.

But part of the worry surrounding the oath’s popularity is just how easy it is to sign on. And how, once the pledge has been taken, there’s no mechanism for enforcement. Even some MBAs who signed admit they won’t hark back to the pledge religiously when confronted with ethical dilemmas as managers. “There’s no cost,” says Scott Holley, a 2009 Harvard grad who is both an oath signer and skeptic. “You say the oath, and you’re done.” He doesn’t see the code having “any type of an impact on people’s behavior.”

Holley also worries that the oath could become another symbol of MBA hypocrisy if one of the signers turns out to be a bad egg—which he sees as a distinct possibility. The only people likely to sign the oath, he says, are those with no intention of complying, or those who don’t need an oath to make them honest.

Another criticism is that the oath’s broad scope makes it almost impossible to fulfill. What business leader can serve the interests of shareholders, while at the same time “strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide”? It’s easy to envision a situation in which shareholder interests and the environment would be at odds.

Most critics, Holley among them, cede that the oath is a first step in the right direction. Even its proponents recognize that the project has a long way to go if it’s not to be easily forgotten. “Just like in the post-Enron environment these things become fads and then quickly fade away,” says Harvard’s Khurana. To make sure that doesn’t happen, he’s working with Cabrera, the Aspen Institute, the World Economic Forum, and other organizations to develop a form of the oath. As for the restructuring of B-schools, that fight is a “multiyear effort,” he says.

Like Khurana, the oath’s founders seem committed to continuing the larger effort. “I’d hate for this to be a flash in the pan,” says Adam Heltzer, who worked with Anderson to develop the MBA Oath site. “I’d hate for it to be like: ‘This is a great publicity stunt. Way to go HBS, that was a funny joke.’ I think whatever form it takes I want it to be meaningful and lasting. And I’m going to work hard to make sure that happens.”

For now, the number of signatures on the site continues to grow—even if it does represent only a small percentage of business grads globally. As for the rest, including the half of Harvard’s Class of 2009 who didn’t take the oath, they could conceivably find themselves at a competitive disadvantage as the nation turns its collective attention to MBA ethics, for better or for worse. Says Khurana: “All things being equal, I prefer going to the surgeon who took the Hippocratic Oath vs. the one who didn’t.”

Anne VanderMey is a B-schools writer at BusinessWeek.

I’m curious about international opinion on the MBA Oath. Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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Author: Grayson Leverenz

Grayson Leverenz founded MBA in the USA® to help international students build networks, find jobs, and have fun in the USA. Hundreds of global professionals have benefited from Grayson’s intercultural workshops, and she has worked with people from Brazil, China, India, South Africa, South Korea, the UK, and the USA to build effective virtual teams and craft brilliant careers.

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