The Value of Values: The New Business Education

The Value of Values: The New Business Education

Some things are worth waiting for…                                                                                  

The Values & Business Roundtable  event held in New York last week with authors Mary Gentile, Rabbi Alan Lurie and Peter Ressler was one of them.

The occasion was hosted by Sam Simon and Bob Chase of Intersections, a maverick organization in the fields of cross-cultural dialog and values-based leadership. The evening centered on the recently published book, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (Yale University Press, 2010)  and its innovative author, renowned business ethics expert Mary C. Gentile.

Ms. Gentile spent several years at Harvard Business School as one of the innovators of the Leadership, Ethics and Corporate Responsibility program. The Harvard initiative incorporated business ethics into the graduate management curriculum. Currently, she is the Director of the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) curriculum at Babson College.

There is no doubt that Ms.Gentile is on the cutting edge of a new paradigm for business education. Hopefully, her brilliant and pioneering work will find its way into the mainstream business world as well. As she trains future leaders at Babson and other schools, Mary Gentile’s innovative approach just might be the thing to make a difference in ways that other ethics programs do not. Hers is not theoretical. The GVV curriculum is action oriented and translates to real life.

So how does it work?

The GVV program prepares “managers for action,” says Gentile. The program does not presume to teach students and future leaders “right and wrong.” It assumes that by the time students reach business school, their moral code is already established. Accepting that most individuals have a clear sense of right and wrong, how to respond to that code under challenging circumstances is the key to the GVV curriculum. Ms. Gentile’s research shows that if students are practiced and prepared for ethical dilemmas that inevitably arise, they are better equipped to resolve these in values-based ways.

Collecting student experiences of conflicts between individual values and work demands, Ms. Gentile discovered a minefield of information. Most surprisingly, was her discovery that a majority of surveyed students relayed experiences where they refused to act against their principles despite pressures at work.

Ethical conflicts in the course of doing business are to be expected. The GVV program asks students to imagine themselves in a myriad of common business situations where the values conflicts are clear. Students then establish a plan of action.  How would they respond to the circumstances? What are the risks and rewards at stake? GVV arms future managers with concrete tools for resolving inevitable moral dilemmas.

How is the Academic Community Responding?

Ms. Gentile’s innovative research has birthed pilot programs at some of the top  business schools. Among the dozens of universities who have piloted the program are MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Yale, and Berkeley. The program is dubbed, “an innovative curriculum for developing the skills, knowledge and commitment required to implement values-based leadership.”

According to the program’s co-sponsor, the Aspen Institute’s Center for Business Education: 

“Rather than the usual focus on ethical analysis, the GVV curriculum focuses on ethical implementation and asks the question: What would I say and do if I were going to act on my values? Aspen CBE was incubator and, along with the Yale School of Management, founding partner for the project; GVV is now based at and funded by Babson College.

GVV addresses a long-standing and critical gap in business education by helping students identify the many ways that individuals can—and do—voice their values in the workplace. And it provides the opportunity to script and practice this voice in front of peers.”

Carolyn Woo, Dean of Mendoza Business School at Notre Dame says, “Giving Voice to Values is exactly what we need to help our students take action. Most ethics courses focus on hypothetical decision-making and determining what is the right thing to do. We know that ‘knowing’ does not lead to ‘doing.’This initiative empowers students to speak through their actions.”

 A Rabbi and a Businessman 

Peter Ressler, values-based leadership expert and my co-author of Spiritual Capitalism  (and an upcoming book on the role Wall Street ethics played in the financial crisis), spoke first of the effectiveness of GVV in the financial markets. A 30-year Wall Street veteran, Mr. Ressler revealed true stories of top finance professionals who were at a loss for how to voice their values in the recent subprime mortgage crisis. Some voiced their objection to flawed market practices and were dismissed, while others were simply ignored. Still others chose to sublimate their moral code to meet job demands and experienced deep bouts of conscience. Cornell graduate Peter Ressler pointed out that the failure of business schools to train future leaders on ethical action contributed in large part to the economic collapse. He expressed his belief that Ms. Gentile’s work will have a real impact on graduates entering the workforce by asking the important questions of how to apply values to practical situations.

Rabbi Alan Lurie, author of Five Minutes on Mondays  and a recurring blog on the Huffington Post, injected Talmudic wisdom and wit into the conversation. Mr. Lurie, an ordained rabbi performing faith-based functions such as officiating weddings, also acts as Managing Director of Grubb-Ellis, a large New York based commercial real-estate company. His unique blend of spiritual insights and three decades of business experience rounded out the conversation in measurable ways. Rabbi Lurie stressed that we are not separate people in business and our personal lives. We are one and the same and should function on a shared set of values. Therein lay the myth that many business people rely on – that our business selves and spiritual selves are disconnected. The Rabbi used an example of a baby trapped on a railroad track and stated that we would not question saving the baby. Yet in our business dealings we often question or completely ignore taking action that we know is the “right” thing. His compelling words revealed the dual morality within one’s self that is the cause of so many business failings.

The Whiff of Progress

Some of the more innovative and progressive higher learning institutions are catching on to the urgent need for values-based leadership. At a recent talk on ethical leadership, financial historian and Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson said good behavior can’t be regulated. Only an “ethical core” can replace what is missing in business management.

Schools that are increasingly driving the change are Cornell, Harvard, Babson, Bentley, Presidio, Berkeley, Stanford, Notre Dame, University of Arkansas, University of Michigan, NYU, Princeton and Yale under their innovative leadership. Many others are jumping on board as well, while some business schools are slow to catch up.

The absence of ethical behavior across all sectors of the banking system that was revealed in the financial crisis has pushed the need for new ethical standards to the fore.  In our post crisis era, we can no longer look the other way. The conversation for values-based leadership is getting louder and more persistant in this new decade. Enlightened business minds recognize that our economic survival depends on it.

With all the  shockingly ignorant  ”what’s in for me” views from our political and economic leaders that continue, thought leaders in the mainstream worlds of academia, faith and business like Gentile, Lurie and Ressler give us hope for better days to come.


Monika Mitchell
Executive Director,  Good-B 

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