The Business of Business

Well folks – I’m all done with business school!

Ashley Graduates

After a whirlwind week of celebrations – and just a little pomp and circumstance – the dust is finally settling and life is returning to normal (although, one quick plug, I'm still looking for a job!)

But before we close this chapter completely, I wanted to share a quick story.

My mom was in town for graduation, and practically as soon as her plane touched down, she told me she needed to go to a book store. She wouldn’t tell me why.

After a day or two of being reminded regularly of her need to get to a book store, I finally gave in and took her to the closest one I could find. Once there, she bolted away on her quest – leaving me to hang out in the New Releases section and wait for her.


A few minutes later she came bounding back toward me with a bright red book in her hand. In big black letters, striking on the red background, it read: The MBA Oath.

“This,” she said, “is what I wanted to get you.”

The MBA Class of 2010 was just beginning its first year of school when the Financial Crisis really started to accelerate in September 2008.

I remember sitting in finance class when, in the throes of the biggest crash since the Great Depression, my professor decided to skip the theory and formulas and instead devote big blocks of time to breaking down what exactly had happened. It was an engrossing and overwhelming conversation, to say the least.

As the magnitude of the Crisis became clearer, my classmates and I found ourselves faced with an uncomfortable truth: many of the people responsible for this financial collapse were also MBAs.   

Suddenly, everywhere I turned there seemed to be a debate over whether the MBA curriculum had anything to do with this. What role did business education play, people wondered, in churning out managers whose only motive was short-term (and short-sighted) gain?

And, by extension, many asked: Is the MBA a degree to be trusted?

As a fresh-faced first year student, this was a tough pill to swallow. I came to business school to put new tools in my tool kit, to strengthen my analytical and leadership skills – not so I could follow in the footsteps of those irresponsible managers. We all know the saying, “one bad apple spoils the bunch” – and I felt like a handful of bad apples had spoiled it for all of us.

Throughout that first year of school, the question of ethics in business decision making was a constant theme. As students we were challenged by our professors, and by each other, to consider what steps we could and would take to ensure we did not follow the example set by those “bad apples.”

Around the same time, Harvard Business School student Max Anderson and his classmates launched what they called the MBA Oath, a “voluntary pledge for graduating MBAs and current MBAs to create value responsibly and ethically.”

Considered “a Hippocratic oath for business,” the MBA Oath outlines principles and actions each signer must uphold, from accurate reporting to ensuring the health and dignity of employees. You can read the full language of the Oath here.

mba_oath2While it was originally started as a Harvard campus initiative, the MBA Oath has now reached students worldwide and claims over 3,000 signatures from schools and students. Which brings us back to my mom and the book store.

Max and co-author Peter Escher have just released an accompanying book – a guide that not only tells the story of the Oath, but that also takes a look at classic MBA case studies through the lens of business ethics.

It looks like a fascinating read, and you can bet it’s at the top of my summer reading list.

When I reflect back on the education I received over the last two years, I can see now to what extent my thinking and learning has been framed by the Financial Crisis – and ultimately by the short-sighted and dangerous decisions made by people who chose to put profit above all else.

As this year's class of MBA graduates enters the workforce, we must prepare ourselves to face choices, scenarios and decisions that may seem to pull us in opposite directions. Charged with balancing short-term gain and long-term thinking, we’ll continually be asked to make tough decisions and weigh the conflicting interests of multiple stakeholders.

Tools like the MBA Oath can help guide us in our choices – but in the end I believe they are only tools. Ultimately the decision to use both our heads and our hearts is ours alone.

As you go out in to the professional world – whether you’re a newly-minted MBA or a “gray-haired” professional – I ask you to remember to always pack your moral compass with you.

Milton Friedman might have said “the business of business is business” – but I argue it’s about much more than that.

Yes, the goal of business is to make money. But at what cost?