Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ask Mr. Dealmaker

EDITOR'S NOTE: In our neverending quest to inform, entertain, and titillate our Devoted Readership, the editors of this publication have decided to inaugurate an exciting new series on this site, entitled "Ask Mr. Dealmaker." Designed to encompass the educational brilliance of Ask Mr. Wizard, the career savvy of Lucy Kellaway, and the psychological sensitivity of Dear Abby, this new feature will appear at irregular intervals according to the unpredictable whims of our senior writer and the volume of interesting mail in our mailbag.

Should you have a question about the nature of today's global capital markets, the real, unvarnished life of a practicing investment banker, or just exactly how tall Steve Schwarzman really is, please send a stamped, self-addressed e-mail to epicureandealmaker [at] hushmail [dot] com. Should our columnist detect any redeeming value whatsoever in your query, he will respond to it in these pages as soon as he wipes the tears of laughter off his face. Unless you have a burning wish to see your identity splashed all over the worldwide interweb, the Editors strongly recommend that you use an alias in your correspondence.1

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Well, I can't believe those bastards in the Editorial Office have pushed yet another harebrained scheme onto Your Hardworking and Underappreciated Correspondent. I guess the publisher is getting a little freaked out by the relentless approach of The Permanent and Irrevocable Death of Journalism As We Know It.

He's such a pussy.

Anyway, we found one dusty letter at the bottom of the mailbag, so let's go.


Dear Mr. Dealmaker —

I am an MBA student who is graduating from [redacted] Business School this year.

I am concerned that the recent financial crisis and turmoil in the global economy has tarnished the perception of an MBA degree in the eyes of the public. I have worked hard to complete my degree, and I want to make sure that people view my accomplishment in the proper light.

As you may know, some of my colleagues here at [redacted] have published a code of business ethics for managers under the title "The MBA Oath." Several commentators I respect have written favorably about it.

Do you think it would be a good idea for me to sign the Oath to show my allegiance to proper business conduct principles?


Confused on the Charles
Cambridge, MA

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Dear Confused on the Charles

Don't bullshit me, son. You're not worried about your reputation; you're worried about getting a job.

And given that MBAs are about as welcome in corporate America as an international tax audit, you should be. You and your MBA peers are struggling desperately to come up with some gimmick that will make the thirteen firms across the country who are still hiring trust you enough to offer a second round interview. So some cleverboots at HBS came up with the MBA Oath and stole somebody else's lunch money to print up a bunch of laminated cards for your wallets. Good luck, I say.

Here's the deal: as a marketing gimmick, the Oath is pretty slick, but as a way to generate trust among others, it sucks. For one thing, it is voluntary and self-selected. Attila the Hun, Joseph Goebbels, and Caligula could all have signed the Oath, and for all anyone knows their modern-day MBA equivalents did, too. In fact, bad guys with zero ethics have the greatest incentive to sign up to such schemes, because they hope whatever good juju accrues to the thing will rub off on them and blind victims to their misdeeds until it is too late. Everyone pays lip service to good ethics, you know, especially the bad guys. Just wait until a signatory blows up the next Enron or Madoff Securities, and then see what your precious honor code is worth.

For another thing, it suffers from the drawback that it was written by MBA students. These, as everyone knows, are formerly intelligent individuals who have been exhaustively retrained to generate clotted, jargon-ridden bureaucratese in place of straightforward, honest prose whenever possible. The thing sounds like a Fortune 100 company mission statement. (That, if you need to ask, is very low praise indeed.)

I am not opposed to public codes of behavior for functional elites. I think they can be useful reminders to their members of shared principles and values that should be cultivated. But the shorter and more general they are, the more powerful they become. Semper Fidelis, Ars Gratia Artis, and "Eat at Joe's" are good examples of this. Reconstituted along these lines, the MBA Oath would probably sound a lot like "Don't do bad things," or "Be good."

Put this way, you can see just how empty and/or disingenuous such pablum really is. Be good to whom? When? How? Under what circumstances? To whose detriment? Unlike loyalty to your comrades, artistic integrity, or even devotion to your neighborhood beanery, ethical behavior in a business context is never straightforward or simple. A businessman constantly makes decisions which harm some real or potential stakeholders, because business is composed of and affects a staggering number of people who have different and often competing interests. Business ethics are situational, which is merely to say that they depend most heavily on the particular set of circumstances and decisions at hand, rather than on some inflexible itemization of principles printed on a playing card. Often, a business decision which triggers ethical thinking is a choice among lesser evils, or one which minimizes harm, rather than maximizing good. And you have to pick and choose which oxen are going to get gored—shareholders, employees, taxpayers, etc.—because somebody has to take it in the neck.

There are no cookbook approaches to this kind of stuff. You either have ethical principles and try to apply them to the best of your ability, or you don't. If you do, the most important resources you will need are integrity and courage. If you don't, then, well, we'll probably see you on the cover of Fortune magazine one of these years.2

Sadly, for your purposes, integrity and courage are not attributes that translate well to a resumé or a job interview. But realizing that they are what matter, and saying so honestly to whomever asks, will generate a hell of a lot more credibility than reciting a laundry list of politically correct business ethics bromides. It will be up to you to prove you have the stuff—both to yourself and others—when circumstances dictate.

In the meantime, if you want my advice, here it is: Leave the Oath, take the cannoli.

Ta for now,


1 Incoming letters will be edited for length, content, style, and in any other way TED feels would contribute most to general hilarity and malicious ridicule. You have been warned.
2 Whether as a hero or a goat (or both), I will leave as an exercise for my readers.

© 2009 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.