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Friday, June 5, 2009

MBA Oath: Solemnly Swear to or Just Swear at?

I opened up my issue of the Economist to find an article on "A Hippocratic Oath for Management". A group of 2nd year Harvard Business Students started a campaign for MBA's to sign an oath to "create value responsibly and ethically" or basically not be stereotypical MBA's. MBA's have done harm in the business world and this is a pledge to do no more harm and prevent others from doing harm.

When I first read about the oath on the student's website, I had some of the reactions that one would expect. I stuck my finger in my mouth in mock vomit motion and rolled my eyes. I took my laptop and pantomimed wiping my posterior with it. I raised my leg in mock- OK you get the idea. This is what the Economist so elegantly described as "You may snigger." When read in a British accent, how could I compete with the phrase?

Now that I've gotten that out of my system, I am ready to give some serious thought to this project. Like many others, I am not surprised that this started at Harvard Business School (HBS). HBS has always been known as an incredible place to pursue an MBA in non-profit management due to resources such as the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative. There are non-profit management concentrations, summer internship fellowships, and post-graduation leadership fellowships to work at non-profits. With students who are attracted to those resources and HBS's dedication, I would expect HBS to have more students open to social responsibility and the oath.

Getting back to the oath, my favorite response vehicle is always a bullet pointed good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good:
  • The MBA Oath website is slick and shows thought and dedication. Blogs, twitter feeds, and Facebook profile are all set up. Websites have been described as a company's public business card or their public face. You can tell from the website that the Founding Oathers (or Oathians perhaps?) are serious.
  • There is potential with the oath to help further the licensing of the MBA degree. The Economist had this view point and I've blogged before about how the MBA is a non-licensed trade degree. A code of conduct or this oath could be part of the licensing process which would go a long way towards establishing more trust and confidence in the MBA degree.
  • Again, potential, which is both the strength and curse of this endeavor. If McKinsey or other blue chip firms required MBA's to sign this oath before being extended an offer, that would send a message. If the Founding Oathians' employers did something similar, that could create change. Or if this doesn't happen, that transitions to my points below:
The Bad:
  • You don't really need to read the oath. It is overly flowery prose that reminds me of bad MBA essays. A better written oath would be more clear, simple, and specific.
  • I am not impressed with the current 648 signatures (or however many they have). In fact, I think that's really low. In today's hyperconnected MBA world where every MBA student is Facebook friends with half their class, every school has 10 bloggers, and every conjoint marketing analysis survey gets spread virally, the oath should have thousands of signatures. There is no reason for anyone not to sign it. For guys, it is an easy way to impress that nursing student you've been working (or veterinarian student if you're really slick and followed my advice). For women, well they tend to be naturally more attentive to the needs of society, and if not, they can impress the art student that they picked up in a bar. If there are not 2500 signatures by the end of the summer, I will be disappointed.
  • MBA applicants that I work with rarely struggle with the ethical dilemma essay. It's an easy straight-forward essay unlike the the Why do you want an MBA or Why this school essays. Therefore, it's not really an issue of understanding ethics but application. The oath does not address the application which is the real issue. With the media attention, this is a missed opportunity. A phrase like "Just because your competitor is doing it is not a reason to change underwriting" would help with application. Instead the oath has a line about vague "sustainable practice".
The Ugly:
  • Recently, the health care industry pledged to save the US $2 trillion dollars over 10 years. After the initial euphoria faded, it became apparent that this was more of a marketing tactic than anything of real substance. With that back drop, I have concerns that this oath could have the same fate. Once the blog posts, interviews, and articles stop, the website could cease to be active and this initiative would fade, leaving everyone even a little more cynical. I hope that I am wrong, but it does have to be the potential to be just a marketing strategy.
Even though, I have pretty much described the oath as a nice website with vague flowery language that I would purge off applicants essays and a real danger for overhyping, I am signing the oath. While the Founding Oathian urges me to do more and spread the word, I'm not ready for that level of commitment.

I am being harsh with this post because I don't want anyone to start the victory lap yet. There is national attention but I want to see if the Founding Oathians have the commitment for change before I commit more. I don't want to get fooled again by a good marketing campaign. Media attention is a limited resource that should be used wisely. Now is the time for responsibility. I hope that that the current momentum is channeled, the oath is continued and long-term goals remain the driving force. This could feed into the next transformation of the MBA program complete with a working ethical framework that candidates must study to achieve an MBA license. That is exciting.

Or it could be used as an example of how MBA students are not really serious about ethics if these efforts don't continue. Founding Oathians, you have seized the mantle of leadership. I have no doubt that many of you have a long track of social commitment. I am sure that you have the capabilities and there is a clear market need, no- a clear hunger for this kind of change. I hope that when I revisit this in 3 months, I will compliment more than your website. I hope that you move beyond media attention and short-term signatures and focus on a 3 years vision. Congrats on starting the project but by reaping the media focus, recognize the responsibility that comes with it.

Make us proud.

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