An oath for MBAs to be better leaders

Partial cover of "The MBA Oath: Setting a Higher Standard for Business Leaders"

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: After two-plus years of a Wall Street-induced financial crisis, Masters of Business Administration are under more of a microscope than they used to be -- especially the ones that might wind up working in high finance. Before they get to Wall Street, though, some new business school graduates are signing onto a new professional code of conduct called the MBA Oath.

Peter Escher, Harvard Business School class of '09, helped write the MBA Oath and the new book of the same title. Peter, it's good to have you with us.

Peter Escher: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

Ryssdal: Last May, when you guys were sitting around up at the Harvard Business School, about to graduate into an environment where business professionals and Wall Street were not held in the highest regard -- Were you driven to this a little bit out of a sense of embarrassment and "Oh man, we have to do something to rehabilitate the reputation here?"

Escher: Certainly, the financial crisis framed the MBA Oath in our mind. You heard terms like MBA standing for "Mediocre But Arrogant."

Ryssdal: I hadn't heard that actually.

Escher: I think there was a degree of saying, "We want this MBA degree to mean something important to us." We thought to ourselves, "What would it look like if we created a code of conduct that we wanted to live by as business practitioners?"

Ryssdal: And basically, what is the version you came up with say?

Escher: The MBA Oath is similar to the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take -- which is, first, do no harm. The MBA Oath speaks to the idea of acting with integrity, following the law and this idea that to do what's in the best interest of shareholders, you need to take a long-term perspective and balance a lot of different stakeholders, such as your customers, your employees and even society at large.

Ryssdal: Picking up again on that idea of the Hippocratic Oath, the oath that doctors take when they graduate. If doctors get something wrong, people get sick, they are grievously injured or they die. When MBAs and business professionals get something wrong, the effect is attenuated through space, right? I mean, if somebody's gets foreclosed upon, because the bank made a bad mortgage decision, that's sort of at a remove from the person who actually made that decision to issue that mortgage. Do you see my sensibility there?

Escher: I think that certainly as a business practitioner operates, he or she may not readily see the responsibility that he or she has to society at large. But if anything has surfaced over the last couple of years, in terms of the $50 trillion bailout, or assets that were lost, it's that business decisions do matter. They do affect a lot of people.

Ryssdal: Now what about yourself? You've got a job in finance up in Boston some place, right?

Escher: That's right. I work at Liberty Mutual, making venture capital and private equity investments.

Ryssdal: Living and breathing the MBA Oath everyday, right?

Escher: You know, it's interesting that one of the first things I did was take a look at our company's value statements, and I was impressed. It speaks to the idea of integrity, but specifically through the lens of the customer, that the customer is the most important thing -- that's framed next to my computer at my desk.

Ryssdal: I'm going to be overtly cynical and say here, I bet if you go to Goldman Sachs and read their mission and value statement, same kind of thing is going to be in there some place.

Escher: Every company has a value statement, and it's words on a page. The challenge for any company and the challenge for the MBA Oath is making those words come off the page and making those words influence behavior down the line.

Ryssdal: Peter Escher, Harvard Business School MBA class of 2009. Also the author of "The MBA Oath." Peter, thanks a lot.

Escher: Kai, thank you.

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