Edition: September / November 2016 Edition


Ethics to the fore

A unique initiative is underway at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. TT caught up with Gideon Pogrund, director of the Ethics & Governance Think Tank.

TT: Why have an ethics think-tank, and why now?

Pogrund: Globally, there has been a quiet yet dramatic transformation in how the purpose and role of the corporation have been perceived; from an amoral entity exclusively focused on maximising shareholder wealth within the parameters of the law, to a moral protagonist with a wider set of responsibilities. This has resulted in a growing emphasis on ethics in business schools. GIBS wants to position itself in the forefront of this process.

SA is facing enormous ethical problems and social challenges. Transformation in the expectations of the corporation has become especially pertinent. Conditions for the success of businesses are under threat. Companies can’t afford to be myopically focused on short-term profits. The purpose of the Ethics & Governance Think Tank is to explore, influence and determine how SA business can follow a more ethical approach and, in so doing, help secure a more successful, sustainable future for itself and the country.

Any particular reason that a business school, namely GIBS, has been selected for it?

GIBS is one of Africa’s leading business schools. It provides academic rigour. At the same time, it deeply engages with SA business and society. It is known as the “business school for business” and has close relationships with many of SA’s leading companies. The GIBS campus, visited by over 3 500 people each week, is extraordinarily vibrant. So we have the capacity to generate thought leadership and then disseminate it to a wide audience.

Your events have attracted packed houses. But aren’t the impacts diminished by the audience profiles suggesting a preach to the converted?

Our aim is to reach as broad an audience as possible, not merely those working in the areas of compliance, ethics and sustainability. The audiences at our public forums have comprised a wide range of people, including managers from diverse departments in leading corporations, with whom interaction is encouraged.

We also aim to reach students. We’d like to help ensure that they emerge with a deeper sensitivity to and understanding of ethics, vital to the future development of ethical business leadership in SA.

What exactly should be embraced by the concept of ethics in business? Surely there is already sufficient emphasis – through the King code and the like – on such “sustainability” factors as environmental, social and governance issues that companies and retirement funds are duty-bound to advance? Are such initiatives inadequate?

It goes without saying that King’s contribution has been ground breaking. Other organisations and initiatives also play an important role. We look for opportunities to collaborate.

Part of our value proposition comes in response to a difficult paradox. You can have the best legislation and corporate governance reports in the world. But if people don’t buy into their underlying values, the impact is limited. At best, people will comply in a ‘tickbox’ fashion. At worst, there will be circumventions and even violations.

For many, there might be a grudging acceptance of compliance as a necessary cost for doing business. But the ethical principles underpinning it are not necessarily treated as integral to business success. Our contribution is to help shift ethics from the periphery to the centre.

We need to persuade business leaders that ethics is not only a risk-management tool but also a source of competitive advantage. In turn, this depends on transforming our understanding of the relationship between ethics and compliance. It’s about working to make values-based behaviours an inherent part of our business models, with regulatory compliance being an outcome rather than a goal.

You’ve mentioned at the GIBS public forums that there’s a need to “rebrand” ethics. What do you mean?

There is substantial work to be done in terms of changing perceptions, getting senior business leaders to talk about how implementation of a values-based approach is vital for business success. When an executive with the record of Imperial’s Mark Lamberti emphasises this point at a forum, for example, it helps to shift how people view ethics. That’s the sort of thought leadership we’re attempting to stimulate.

So far your functions have focused on the private sector. Can’t you get the public sector involved too? Perhaps a few people tainted by corruption scandals?

We have begun dialogue sessions between leaders from various societal stakeholders including the public sector, labour, students and the media. There are tough issues that need to be discussed, and we feel that it is better to do so not in a public forum but in an environment where people can speak with more candour and directness.

The purpose of these sessions is to promote understanding and trust as an antidote to the dangerous polarisation that exists in SA society. It is also to gather insights and recommendations which, in due course, we intend to share with wider audiences.

GIBS is uniquely placed to organise and host these sessions because of its remarkable convening power. Many people from across the societal spectrum regard it as a trusted space and are willing to participate in our programmes.

Not yet a year into the programme, how would you say that it’s been received and what are your hopes for its future?

Getting the think tank up and running has been demanding. Perhaps inevitably, we have encountered some scepticism and indifference. But overall, the response has been really positive.

A key outcome is to develop an ethical framework – made up of a series of a practical insights and specific recommendations – for SA business. Leveraging GIBS’ brand and infrastructure, we intend then that key business constituencies will buy into this framework.

I’m not suggesting that that it will offer a magical panacea. But it is wrong to think that if you can’t do everything, you should do nothing. We believe that the programme can make a significant contribution.