On business ethics, from a voice of experience

My grandfather turned 100 years old earlier this year. Tomorrow I'll see him at the Thanksgiving table again.

We often talk about current affairs. As an old Rockefeller Republican, over the years, he's  been more conservative than I; but that has changed over the last few years. Last year he supported Obama when I was still pulling for John Edwards (cue groan); sometimes someone just shows a spark, he said. He was right.

Earlier this year, I remember talking to my grandfather about the financial crisis, specifically bond rating agencies. Isn't there an inherent conflict of interest in an organization paying a ratings agency to rate its own bonds? “Sure there is,” he said; “but what the agencies forgot is that their honesty and independence were worth money.”

So there's that. But last night watching Frontline's show on credit cards, I was reminded of the tension between the demands of market economics and “rational action”, and a personal ethical baseline, a sense that “I won't do it simply and only because it's wrong.” I don't disagree with my grandfather: I agree that trust is like oil in the engine of an economy; trust is an assumption of your partner's integrity. But integrity and self-interest are not always mutually supportive, particularly when there's an imbalance of power and information. And we need to admit that. Sometimes your smarts and skill in playing the incentives leads you to do wrong … just plain wrong.

Anyway, my grandfather is an early 1930's graduate of Harvard Business School. Late last year the HBS alumni received a letter from the Dean regarding the school's response to the financial crisis: It counted the new ways in which the school was instructing its students (e.g. adding Bear Stearns to its case studies) and helping alumni ride out the crisis. It was all rather technical, analytical, self-congratulatory … and strangely cold-blooded, in that familiar Harvard way. For example:

Developing an understanding of the crisis touches virtually everything we teach in the MBA program, and will permeate our curriculum for years to come. The beauty of the case method and our classroom is that we can incorporate new materials extremely quickly, allowing learning to happen in real-time. [etc.]

… The months ahead will bring many challenges. The School's operating philosophy will be one of caution and prudence; in all our efforts, we must focus on the core and distinguishing elements of the School: delivering outstanding educational programs, developing path breaking research that is close to practice, and communicating important ideas worldwide.

Got all that? You'll have to trust me that the rest wasn't all that much more specific or enlightening.

My grandfather wrote this letter in reply. I hope the moral note is not missed:

December 20, 2008

Jay O. Light
Dean of the Faculty
[address @ HBS]

Dear Dean Light,

Thank you for your letter of December 1, 2008. I have read it over carefully three times. It is good to have your update on what you feel are the School's problems and the proposed efforts you and the faculty will undertake in making improvements.

But you have, in my opinion, completely missed two critical areas of management and scholarship that also need attention from you and your faculty.

Item 1: If, as we all assume, the Harvard Business School is the principal leader in the nation in scholarship and teaching in the field of business, and an integral part of the team of graduate schools at Harvard University, then the Harvard Business School must also recognize that the enormous source of failures that have created the recent financial crises may also be the partial fault of the school, due to lack of oversight and critical thinking. 

In hindsight, we wonder how anyone, with a good understanding of banking, could think that an agent of the bank could bundle together weak home mortgages and thereby create a reliable investment. The fact is that the sales agent got immediate pay, with no responsibility, and then rode on the trust and favorable reputation of the issuing company, violating two basic principles of banking. 

Where was the management course of our Business school? What do we teach differently in the future? 

Item 2: I have just finished listening to the 17 audio discs of Thomas Friedman's book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. The main thrust of the book is to identify the global hazard we all face because of our dependence on oil, gas, and coal. For many overwhelming reasons, the world needs a new source of energy. Friedman also points out, and this is where you come in, that all this also creates great business opportunities. His example is a company in Ohio that for many years has been trying to produce and sell a solar energy system for domestic use. They had little success in getting enough volume to make it all work in this country. Then they discovered a market in Germany for their product and last year did a BILLION dollars of business. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are now customers. Someone on your staff might want to research this and write a case on it. The automobile business is crying out for a new approach with a new product. 

[...] I am sorry this letter is so long but thought it was important to reply to your letter.

Sincerely Yours,

… and I should note that other alumni had similar, but more pointed reactions to HBS's role:

Timing is everything. Light, “an expert on finance,” had his chance to call together these panels years ago, to research the “new, but untested, financial system,” unregulated as all get-out, filled with “trust me” and “I don’t really understand the math.” Light and his experts seem to understand it now. What new information did they get that was unavailable to HBS before?

Anyway, I'll be thankful for a return to honest business, if that's ever in the cards. And I'm thankful for my grandfather, still around, and still making sense.

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7 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. God Bless Your Grandfather and,...

    may we all, including HBS, learn from him.

  2. Thanks for sharing Charley

    It is awesome that your grandfather is so with it at 100. I think it is also terrific he decided to reply with honesty instead of deference. The country needs to hear the truth, instead of the contant drumbeat that all is well. Please thank your grandfather for me. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving day.

  3. If you happen to be talking about the economy

    tomorrow, would you ask your grandfather why he thinks the stock market continues to rise in spite of constant bad news.  It would be interesting to hear his take on it.

  4. Thanks for sharing this

    What a blessing for your family and friends to have someone close to you who has lived as long as he has and so capable of sharing his wisdom and experiences so clearly.

  5. What about Madoff

    Your grandfather might ask, if HBS is so smart then how did the endowment get taken for a disastrous ride by Bernie Madoff?

  6. a few notes on the story

       He told me that Obama had a dream, and that we needed someone with a dream.

      He wrote another letter this fall to HBS in response to their latest fund raising letter. He said that since they had not bothered to answer nor even acknowledge his letter, he felt no need to support the school. There has been no answer to that note either.

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Mon 24 Nov 7:05 AM