Bridging Business And Social Responsibility

By: Lorna Christoff Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Inspiration

Leeds Curriculum Emphasis on Social Responsibility

Bridging Business The University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business launches its students on a journey that few other business undergraduates are privileged to take. Through the generosity and vision of the Leeds family (for whom the school is named), Leeds School of Business undergraduates have the benefit of a curriculum initiative called Curriculum Emphasis on Social Responsibility (CESR). The Leeds family long has placed enormous value on students thinking about social responsibility and the kind of leaders they seek to become. Through required and elective CESR courses, students learn business methods that do more than just maintain a black bottom line – they also explore strategic advantage of sustainability and corporate social responsibility, more generally, and the necessity of thinking about values and ethics in business and in life. The CESR program is directed by Dr. Donna Sockell.

In the current highly competitive, globally-connected business world, Leeds graduates are prepared to become outstanding business leaders of tomorrow, ready to meet any ethical challenges.

CESR helps students to achieve this by overseeing the infusion of values discussions in classes throughout the undergraduate and graduate curricula at the Leeds School of Business.

The business world presents many opportunities or temptations for college graduates to make their marks in either socially positive or negative ways. We need to look no further than the last decade of accounting scandals, misuses of executive authority, abuse of labor abroad, an indiscriminate use of natural resources, the threats of global warming to know that issues to be confronted by our graduates are global and complex. By sensitizing students to these issues, by exposing them to different approaches to a business’ social responsibility, Leeds is investing in a future generation of business leaders who will make us proud - leaders who will choose to operate their companies in not only a profitable but an ethical manner.

Leadership Challenges: Exercises in Moral Courage

Twenty-four undergraduate students. One high-level executive. A personal drama unfolds and questions pepper the air. At the University of Colorado, the Leeds School of Business offers one of the most fulfilling, exciting, and unique experiences available to executives and students. This is CESR’s’ year-long course, “Leadership Challenges: Exercises in Moral Courage”, where junior- and senior–level students must compete for limited places.

And compete they do. After the course’s inaugural year of 2007-08, students who took the class began recommending it to other students and referring exceptional peers to the instructors, Dr. Donna Sockell (who created the course) and Michael Leeds (the eldest son of the family for whom the business school is named). The 24 places in the 2008-09 course filled within days, and numerous high-performing students will have to wait until the following year. Past students have described the class as the most meaningful course to their business careers - the course they work the hardest at in order to excel. Graduating students have stated it was their favorite course in their entire business school education.

Like the CESR initiative generally, this course has grown from the School’s strategic commitment to help students become outstanding business leaders of tomorrow by preparing them to meet the ethical challenges posed by a highly competitive, global business world. It is the view of Sockell and Leeds that having students interact with talented and successful executives, who are willing to share “real life” stories they viewed as life-defining challenges in their careers, will provide outstanding preparation for students to succeed when they assume business roles in the future.

Why all the compliments for a course at which students have worked the hardest? Imagine yourself in the classroom, but this isn’t just any class. The instructors, instead of beginning an hour-long lecture to hundreds, introduce an executive like Michael Francis, Chief Marketing Officer for Target Corp., Aaron Kennedy, the former CEO and founder of Noodles & Co, Larissa Herda, CEO of tw telecom, or Rob Katz, the CEO of Vail Resorts to you and 23 other students. You already know some key facts about the executive from materials the instructors provided during the previous class. You know even more about the dilemma the executive has struggled with in his or her career, one that troubled her personal morality in addition to being a business problem. You know this because you received the executive’s written description of the dilemma in the prior class session. You have worked for two weeks with a group of other students in the class to determine the executive’s best course of action.

Your group presents recommendations to the executive while he or she is there in class. After the executive discusses the presentations with Sockell and Leeds, he or she gives your group feedback about your presentation style and the content of your recommendations. This evaluation process might sometimes occur in MBA programs, but it is virtually unheard-of at the undergraduate level.

Once the executive has discussed his/her evaluations with you, she further describes the dilemma and its actual resolution. (Two of the past executive visitors told the students they wished they would have thought of the solutions the students suggested!) The executive also outlines other personal struggles with business issues he/she has faced in a long and extremely successful business career and how these dilemmas were resolved. You have nearly an hour left of class time to ask her/him any questions that come to your mind not only about the situations described in class, but also any questions about the executive’s company, career, work-life balance, etc. With only a handful of students, you can have a true face-to-face interaction with an executive of a major corporation.

Students enthusiastically praise Leadership Challenges because of these opportunities for direct contact with high-level executives: six per year. It is a rare occasion for an undergraduate’s presentation skills to be evaluated by a businessperson at such a high managerial level. Previous executive visitors also included Liam Killeen, CEO of Storck USA (one of the 2007-08 students began an informal mentoring relationship with him), Barbara Mowry, CEO of Silver Creek Systems, Peter Meola, former CEO of BP Lubricants, and Lynn Utter, former Chief Strategy Officer of Molson Coors Brewing Company.

But the enthusiasm about Leadership Challenges is not confined to the students. A recent executive visitor to the class who expressed surprise at how much work he had to do to prepare for class described the classroom experience as “fantastic.” Because Leadership Challenges is based on an interactive model, it builds a special connection between the executive visitor and the students that is not generated by an executive speech to hundreds of students. This model, which creates a genuine dialogue, excites executives who continue to sign up to visit the class, in spite of the work they must do to prepare for class! In fact, Larissa Herda was so taken with her experience and the students’ presentation styles that she showed their PowerPoint slides to her own management team the very next day. Describing her experience, she said,

“I’ve had the opportunity to speak to hundreds of college students at numerous universities over the years as part of their curriculum. Leadership Challenges was by far the most relevant, engaging, and clever class I have experienced. The combination of student - professor - executive interaction, coupled with examples of real life drama and dilemmas, gives students an incredible insider’s view to the difficult decision-making that goes on every day in business.”

Leadership Challenges affords Leeds School of Business students extraordinary opportunities for professional growth, meaningful coursework and networking. Executive visitors enjoy a one-of-a-kind encounter with exceptional future business leaders, sharing in the molding of students just before they begin their impact upon the business world.

In addition to providing unique treatment of business ethics in the “Leadership Challenges” elective, the Leeds School of Business is one of the only public schools in the country that has a substantial and enduring commitment to the infusion of values throughout all years of the undergraduate curriculum. Over 9,000 credit hours currently reflect that commitment, which begins at the freshman level. The required freshman course, “Introduction to Business”, maintains an important component of ethics and values as students learn the basics of business. From day one, students are exposed to ideas of how personal values relate to business decisions. They see these decisions and business behavior play out in the Wall Street Journal and other publications, which provide ample fodder for essays and assignments.

At the sophomore level, Leeds students take required courses in the foundations of their major. CESR encourages and offers support for the development of values-oriented materials in these required classes and provides counsel to faculty teaching any courses in the school who request such materials.

Nearly 1,000 students per year take CESR’s challenging, required junior-level course (“Business Applications of Social Responsibility”), which is a rigorous exploration of values in corporate social responsibility. In this flagship CESR course, student discussion and participation in smaller classes are integral to the learning environment of this course, enabling students to “give voice to their values” and evaluate the role of business in society.

As well, students must learn to articulate the theory(ies) behind their views, recognize the shortcomings of their stances, and defend their positions across many up-to-date case studies and practical applications.

At the senior level, CESR assists business school divisions in the offering of capstone experiences, enabling students to identify and address values in the context of complex issues within their majors. These capstone courses enable students to apply their personal values and decision-making frameworks to find profitable resolutions to the most common and troublesome ethical issues they will face in their chosen careers.

MBA Coursework

Similar to the junior-level required course, CESR offers an inter-disciplinary MBA course (“Business & Society”) suited to students with greater business and leadership experience. The course is a stakeholder-focused discussion of business obligations.

“Topics in Sustainable Business”, to be offered in fall 2009, will provide an overview of the core concepts, strategies, and practice of sustainable business, with an emphasis on entrepreneurial opportunities and development of a personalized sustainability action plan.

CESR, in partnership with the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship and the Sustainable Growth Initiative, has produced a 3-course sequence for MBAs who wish to focus on the critical issue of sustainability. The track will help students develop and discover successful business opportunities that will improve the future of our world.

Elective Undergraduate Courses

More than merely business ethics, the course forces students to consider their view of how businesses should and should not act based on their personal values.

CESR also offers creative, out-of-the-box elective classes that address cutting edge issues and challenge students to grow in their self-awareness, their experiences, and their understanding of the role of business in society.

In “Global Small Business: Learning Through Service”, upperclassmen work with Peace Corps volunteers and Friendship Bridge (a microcredit organization), gaining “hands on” experience and focused academic research. Through the coursework, students address the real-world needs of small business entrepreneurs in developing countries by assisting in the development and implementation of business plans and codes of conduct in organizations.

“Finding Business Opportunities in a Resource-Constrained World” is another of CESR’s electives for upperclassmen. The course examines a number of business dilemmas directly related to today’s environmental challenges and allows students to learn from real-world businesses that are not only are finding solutions to these challenges, but are extremely profitable in doing so!

“Leadership Challenges: Exercises in Moral Courage”, as highlighted earlier, is a year-long, highly selective course, based on an interactive model that creates a genuine dialogue between executives and students. Six high-level executives visit the classroom, share their experiences and present an ethical dilemma, to which students present a solution for the executive to evaluate and critique. Bridging Business

Moral of the Story

All Leeds graduates, year after year, will have been exposed by CESR to principles of corporate social responsibility and the practical applications of these principles. Leeds graduates are up-to-date on social responsibility challenges that businesses face and can be active in creating profitable solutions. Businesses will be able to place greater trust in the fact that the value-add of a Leeds graduate will not only be to enhance firm performance, but will be done so in an ethical way that is mindful of the impact of decisions on stakeholders.