Earlier this month at the 2011 Burkenroad Symposium, speakers with various backgrounds in the business world (energy, consulting, and speech communications) lectured a packed audience of undergraduates and graduates on transforming adversity into competitive advantage.
As a member of Tulane Net Impact, a group concerned with promoting responsible and ethical business practices, I was particularly interested in seeing how the speakers would use examples like Hurricane Katrina and the Macondo Oil Spill to highlight both failures and triumphs in crisis communication. Sometimes, I feel like in class we hopscotch from discipline to discipline—finance, marketing, accounting—without really stepping back to look at the larger picture that surrounds us when we do business. Long-term value creation vs. your short-term bonus, for instance. Personal integrity, and how to respond when conventional rules of business tell you to button yours up in a pocket. The what-exactly-are-we-really-doing-here questions that rarely make it to the top of our busy to-do lists.
Anyway, I was excited by the chance to see these speakers talk about what happens when a self-created crisis forces businesses to confront their decision-making and look at themselves in the mirror. The speakers offered some valuable insights. “Give ethical considerations the same weight as you give legal considerations when making business decisions,” said Gael O’Brien, former Mitsubishi executive and business writer. She also quoted Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, as citing “principles, values and the reservoir of trust amongst employees” as business assets, which I thought was original but legitimate accounting. “Crises do not build character—they expose character,” said Anjali Sheffrin, the whistle-blower in the California electricity market manipulation and gaming crisis of the early 2000s.
It was great to spend a bit of time leaving our respective academic silos to convene and consider these essential, if existential, aspects of business. Let’s hope more discussions like these percolate into the curriculum. As BP, Enron or the California Energy Board learned rather painfully, doing so might be a way to save major expense later down the line.