When I was a practitioner leading “CSR Integration” at a Big 4 accounting firm, we frequently asked the question, “had our Andersen colleagues applied a CSR perspective to their day jobs would we have remained the Big 5?” Today, within a business school context, I’m being asked a similar question: If business schools did a better job of graduating responsible business leaders, might we have avoided the financial meltdown?
The similarities between my corporate role and academic role are considerable. As a CSR professional, despite being quoted in The Wall Street Journal as having landed my “dream job,” I was committed to making it go away. My goal was to so fully integrate social and environmental responsibility into the way the business was run that my job would become obsolete.
Now, within a business school setting, I face the same challenge. I envision a day when CSR will not be handled by separate centers of excellence focused on business responsibility and sustainability but instead will be integrated throughout the curriculum and research programs.
Modifying the Framework
In short, what I argued for in a corporate setting is what I’m still advocating for today’s business schools: Integration.
Sounds easy enough, but in fact, integration of social and environmental factors into business represents a fundamental shift in the way companies are run and what students are taught. Neither companies nor MBA courses focus on long-run value of the firm; strategy and finance courses assume the goal is to maximize shareholder value and companies get rewarded for quarterly performance.
So I ask: is it fair to expect MBAs to create this change without company executives and business school faculty modifying the framework from which they respectively lead and teach? Similarly, is it realistic to think that a small group of CSR professionals sitting in “corporate headquarters” can really change the way employees think and business gets done?
Today’s students are already instigating changes. Indeed, almost 40% of incoming full-time MBAs indicate that they chose to attend Haas based at least in part upon its focus on “social impact.” And for this group we offer our student the opportunity to engage with leading companies that are making the fundamental shift toward integration. We want our students to experience what it feels like firsthand, to be a part of that change, so that they can go do it in their own companies upon graduation.
Here at the Center, we’re adamant that they not become Chief Sustainability Officers or CSR managers, but instead integrate sustainable thinking and action into their day jobs as consultants, product managers, financial analysts, etc. This semester, our MBAs have helped WalMart determine the ROI on its employee sustainability program, worked with eBay to identify business opportunities to reduce the shipping and packaging impacts of the millions of eBay transaction each day, and pitched to Gap Inc. how it might extend its successful social media presence to encompass its leadership in CSR. Not to be outdone, our undergrads are helping Disney Consumer Products understand how to reduce the environmental impact of the division’s paper usage.
Graduating Conscientious Leaders
But to fully realize the goal of integrating CSR we must reach the other 60%, connecting with them on their own (non-CSR-related) turf. In the last three years the Center has successfully engaged some of the future financial and software “wizards” of Wall Street to become principals in a $1.3 million investment fund managed with an eye to both financial and social returns. In fact, applications to become managers of the fund—the only one of its kind run by a top business school—were up 50% this year.
Our Dean Rich Lyons emphasizes that we “prepare leaders who define what’s next for our markets and our societies,” and through our courses and corporate engagement, the Center for Responsible Business is helping our students do just that. But undoubtedly there is more to be done. We continue to work with faculty throughout Haas to integrate a broader stakeholder perspective into teaching and research. I am heartened by the willingness of faculty members whose research is often grounded in maximizing shareholder value and market fundamentalism, to engage in debate on the role of business in society. Together we are committed to finding a common framework where we teach and research what we want our students to care about most.
The financial meltdown, acceleration of climate change and global inequity of social welfare compel us to reconsider how our corporate actions impact the people and world around us. Graduating fully informed and conscientious leaders in every business discipline is the first step in changing the way business gets done and creating a more sustainable world.
Campus Photo: yanec, courtesy of Flickr