by Gael O’Brien

In July 1976, a 32-year old untenured, philosophy department chair launched a center for business ethics with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The grant supported teaching three inter-disciplinary courses. The NEH had rejected the proposal the year before, sending a note saying they hadn’t heard of business ethics. Undeterred, the department chair met with NEH staff and reapplied: a win for business ethics and the dawning of adventure for one of North America’s oldest centers for business ethics.

W. Michael Hoffman

W. Michael Hoffman

The center’s Founding Executive Director, W. Michael Hoffman, is now also the Hieken Professor of Business and Professional Ethics at Bentley University. Last month, the center was renamed  the W. Michael Hoffman Center for Business Ethics (CBE) in honor of its leader. In the last 40 years, many milestones in the business ethics movement involve Hoffman’s leadership — including  founding director at CBE of the Ethics Officers Associationnow the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI); co-founder of the Society for Business Ethics; and member of the advisory board of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations.

CBE’s first 40 years were celebrated July 2016 with an anniversary conference that put the focus on the ideas and research of 35 conference presenters from 13 countries, selected from alumni of two CBE programs — Visiting Scholars  and Verizon Visiting Professors of Business Ethics. At the event, Hoffman spoke about the “the great mission of business ethics which is to create a more ethical environment within which to do business.”

My conference takeaway was how CBE uses servant leadership  to create the literal and figurative space to advance the mission by nurturing knowledge, research, inspiration, collaboration and catalytic energy. At CBE, space becomes a metaphor for finding one’s place in the mission of business ethics. I need to acknowledge here I wasn’t a detached onlooker. I’m among the more than 1000 people in the last 21 years who’ve taken the executive education course Managing Ethics in Organizations, offered by CBE and ECI.

Some examples of CBE’s first 40 years promoting conditions that drive the “great mission:”

“What CBE did was provide a space where the profession was shaped,” Keith Darcy, wrote in an email exchange about the creation of Ethics Officers Association, “enabling ethics officers to share best practices for this nascent field that resulted in findings supported by research.” Darcy, currently Independent Senior Advisor at Deloitte and Touche, became executive director of EOA (now ECI) 14 years after Hoffman co-founded it and was master of ceremonies for CBE’s gala after the conference.

Conference presenter Lucely Vargas, an industrial engineer, was a CBE Visiting Scholar in 2009 completing her PhD dissertation on CSR and finance  and again in 2013. In a follow-up email exchange, she wrote that CBE’s greatest impact on her research and teaching (she’s currently a lecturer in corporate finance as well as industrial and organizational psychology at Johannes Kepler University) was creating an international community where values and ethical frameworks in business are discussed in a multi- and inter-disciplinary way which encourages collaboration. She said Hoffman’s sharing at the conference the story of CBE’s challenges in the early years reminded her about “perseverance and the premise of never giving up your dreams, which inspires me to keep going with my own resolutions.”

At the conference, I asked former President of Mitsubishi Oil America Inc. Takaji (Ted) Hishiyama how he’d become involved with CBE. He’d wanted to ensure his life after retirement would have a sense of purpose, he replied, and involve business ethics initiatives. Having heard about CBE, he returned to the U.S. to meet Hoffman – a meeting which resulted in his being accepted  as a Visiting Executive Scholar for 1999-2000. Hoffman was a mentor and catalyst, Hishiyama said, as he immersed himself reading and attending classes, professional meetings and ethics conferences. On his return to Tokyo, he was involved in founding and developing the non-profit Business Ethics Research Center (BERC). BERC’s corporate membership, he said has grown to more than 150 with about 4,500 executives and employees responsible for ethics and corporate social responsibility. Currently, he is teaching 50 managers “The Most Recent Global Trends of Environmental, Society and Governance,” a course he developed. “Being a Visiting Scholar of BERC has given me a new life full of mission,” said Hishiyama, a principal of the Center for Corporate Behavior. Asked why he and his wife traveled from Tokyo to attend the 40 anniversary conference, he replied, “just to say ‘thank you, Dr. Hoffman.”

The “great mission of business ethics” continues toward its destination. Partnership accelerates the journey, like the one CBE has with the Institute of Business Ethics in London to offer in September 2017 an executive education course with a European focus; and collaborations forged by CBE participants, other centers and institutions and individual efforts of faculty, CEOs, executives and practitioners in the field.

Legacy goes beyond a name on a building – it’s the sustained passion that connects with and energizes the passion of others sharing a mission. Persevering. Renewed by achievements along the way.

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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