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Jan. 11 2010 - 12:28 pm | 62 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Re-Thinking Business: Multicultural And Moral

Thinking about business in a new way? Radical.

Yesterday’s New York Times looked at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, whose dean Roger Martin thinks MBAs need to think differently about the world.

A DECADE ago, Roger Martin, the new dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, had an epiphany. The leadership at his son’s elementary school had asked him to meet with its retiring principal to figure out how it could replicate her success.

He discovered that the principal thrived by thinking through clashing priorities and potential options, rather than hewing to any pre-planned strategy — the same approach taken by the managing partner of a successful international law firm in town.

“The ‘Eureka’ moment was when I could draw a data point between a hotshot, investment bank-oriented star lawyer and an elementary school principal,” Mr. Martin recalls. “I thought: ‘Holy smokes. In completely different situations, these people are thinking in very similar ways, and there may be something special about this pattern of thinking.’ ”

That insight led Mr. Martin to begin advocating what was then a radical idea in business education: that students needed to learn how to think critically and creatively every bit as much as they needed to learn finance or accounting. More specifically, they needed to learn how to approach problems from many perspectives and to combine various approaches to find innovative solutions.

Seems obvious to me that, in a global economy, anyone hoping to manage or sell or influence others needs to appreciate how differently we view the world, and behave accordingly. In the most simplistic of terms, a negotiation between natives of two different countries, however highly educated, can quickly derail when underlying assumptions or cultural norms and values clash.

What struck me about this story — talk about cultural differences — was the piece’s final quote:

Mr. Martin agrees that the problems that led to the crisis are bigger than business schools alone can address. But he’s still optimistic. “The vast majority of our students want to be a positive influence on the world,” he says. “And if you give them ways of thinking that help them with these complicated dilemmas, they’ll make choices that are in some sense more worthy and have a higher moral quality.”

The very idea of a business person stopping to consider any moral quality is appealing to me, if a little quixotic. It’s all about profit, growth, earnings. The idea now that CEOs earn more than 200 times the wages of their lowest-paid employees is banal. As Yale School of Management professor Bruce Judson, author of a new book, said recently on the Leonard Lopate show, 20 years ago any CEO would be ashamed by that discrepancy; today s/he would be ashamed if this were not the case.

Contrast this with the Times’ piece about the — ho-um, here we go again — obscene banking bonuses being handed out right now. The average wage, before a six, seven or eight-figure bonus for Goldman Sachs employees is $595,000.

Though Wall Street bankers and traders earn six-figure base salaries, they generally receive most of their pay as a bonus based on the previous year’s performance. While average bonuses are expected to hover around half a million dollars, they will not be evenly distributed. Senior banking executives and top Wall Street producers expect to reap millions. Last year, the big winners were bond and currency traders, as well as investment bankers specializing in health care.

Even some industry veterans warn that such paydays could further tarnish the financial industry’s sullied reputation. John S. Reed, a founder of Citigroup, said Wall Street would not fully regain the public’s trust until banks scaled back bonuses for good — something that, to many, seems a distant prospect.

“There is nothing I’ve seen that gives me the slightest feeling that these people have learned anything from the crisis,” Mr. Reed said. “They just don’t get it. They are off in a different world.”

Where does morality fit here?


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    Former reporter and feature writer for the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News. Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award (humor) about -- what else -- my divorce. I've been writing frequently for The New York Times since 1990 on almost any subject you can think of -- yup, I'm a generalist. Author of "Blown Away: American Women and Guns" (Pocket Books 2004). Canadian born, raised and formally educated, I've lived in New York since 1989.

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