We’ve been so rude as to say so before, but business – and social attitudes – are not immune to the whims of passing fashion – different tools and techniques come and go (though some remain eternal). The social aspects of business move to a slower rhythm, but there are still fashions. The respectability and social desirability of different jobs come and go: just as golf club membership may now seem a pursuit of the (cough) mature – personal trainers are so much more now – I would imagine that introducing yourself as a ‘bank manager’ at parties in 2009 carries less cachet than it may have done a few years ago. But status matters – not just in and of itself, but because in a world that remains so acutely aware of it, our working status says something important to us in terms of our self-esteem. And if our self-esteem suffers, our work tends to suffer too. So both employees and employers should be paying attention. It seems Harvard’s MBA students are paying attention too.

The standing of the traditional ‘professions’ – lawyers, doctors, professors, the kind of people you’re asked to get to sign your passport photos – seems to be more ambivalent that it used to be. Although Ipsos-MORI’s indices of public willingness to believe different professions to tell the truth still shows them carrying ‘weight’ (92% of us trust our doctors, 88% our teachers, 80% our professors and judges), there are other voices that are questioning the standing of the ‘professions’. Back in 2000, New Statesman published an article, Professionals who lost their virtue, that looked at the social changes that can serve (and, indeed, often have done) to undermine their repute. For those of us who follow the news headlines, the opening paragraph could have been written at any time since:

The professions have become increasingly prone to professional fouls. Trust, competence and moral integrity – the conventional trademarks of “the professions” – have evaporated. Hardly a day goes by without horror stories involving doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, even members of the clergy. We are beginning to realise that George Bernard Shaw was not just joking when, in The Doctor’s Dilemma, he declared: “All professions are conspiracies against the laity.”

Dear old GBS was, perhaps, playing Devil’s Advocate (or perhaps submitting a new entry for the Devil’s Dictionary), and horror stories can arise in any job: Typhoid Mary was not a professional, but created not just history but quite a body count. (Reassuringly, a professional – one George Soper, a sanitation engineer – played a key role in helping to limit the death toll). But the generation of trust – and its retention – is dependant on a profession taking steps to ensure it meets the demands of those it wants to hold it in admiration.

There are widely recognised steps in establishing a profession – become a full-time occupation, establish training colleges and/or university schools, established local and national (and international) organisations, publish codes of ethics – and an equally wide range of identifying characteristics. This ethical component is critical – a code of ethics is also a code of honour. It is essential in establishing something that (to use a word that has also perhaps had its day) is best described as ‘superiority’. Abiding by codes of ethical conduct while delivering expert knowledge is the route to establishing not just moral but social superiority. (Which probably takes us back to those passport photos: the signatories are meant to be ‘professionals’, as professionals can – and I’m carefully not typing ‘by definition’ – be trusted.)

As The New Statesman article goes on, it travels through the social changes (the impact of war, the rise of the middle-classes etc) that transformed the social landscape – and the professionals position within it. It arrives – baring in mind that the publication has its own agenda, and journalists are the least trusted ‘profession’ in the UK in 2008 – at two conclusions. Firstly, that self-regulation is (or will be) the downfall of the professions, and is incompatible with upholding ethics. (Bankers again, anyone?) And secondly, that ‘qualification’ can’t mean what it used to: the world is too complex and too rapidly changing for a once-off never-to-be-repeated process to be enough.

So I was surprised to find myself reading The Economist and discover an article about Harvard MBA students leading a campaign to ‘turn management into a formal profession’. Max Anderson, one of the students behind the initiative, had hoped that 100 classmates might sign up – yet more than 400 did so. And surprisingly – and perhaps encouragingly – his motives, reported in an interview with Harvard Business Publishing’s blog, seem both laudable and well informed:

I am part of a team of 25 graduating Harvard MBAs who created the MBA Oath, pledging to lead professional careers marked with integrity and ethics. My classmates and I are aware of the low opinion many people have of MBAs, especially in the wake of the financial crisis. We don’t want to be known as the least respected profession in America (though some polls say MBAs hold that distinction). We want to be known as professionals, who look after the best interests of their clients, customers, employees and shareholders.”

The oath (read more here) is quite some ‘stretch challenge’ project, and it’s certain to be a worthwhile debate: it’s a project that deserves applause. That poll link – to CNN – is instructive too: have a read. In Feb 2009, considerably more of the US public had greater faith in their politicians and (remarkably?) in trade union leaders than in their business leaders. (Recent UK polls show very similar results.) It may be a secular form of it, but faith is a powerful commodity. And its message has not been lost on Max and his fellow students, who appear to recognise that managerial credibility needs to be restored. To quote him further:

The oath is a voluntary pledge for graduating MBAs to create value responsibly and ethically. The oath begins with the following premise and conclusion:

“As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can build alone. Therefore I will seek a course that enhances the value my enterprise can create for society over the long term.”

We hope the Oath will accomplish three things: a) make a difference in the lives of the students who take the oath, b) challenge other classmates to work with a higher professional standard, whether they sign the oath or not and c) create a public conversation in the press about professionalizing and improving management.”

But as The Economist points out, there are barriers to the establishment of a formal profession beyond the tendency of some observers laughing up their sleeves at what some will interpret as youthful idealism. Some slightly more mature practitioners in the traditional professions might also be sighing at the naïveté: a New York Times article from January 2008 – The Falling-Down Professions – profiles lawyers and doctors who find work ever harder in a climate where their status (by which they don’t just mean the money) is in decline, while rates of associate haemorrhage and employee depression climb.

[…] in the days when a successful career was built on a number of tacitly recognized pillars — outsize pay, long-term security, impressive schooling and authority over grave matters — doctors and lawyers were perched atop them all.

Now, those pillars have started to wobble.”

The Harvard students have, however, done their sociology homework. In looking to establish management as a profession, that desire to enhance “the value my enterprise can create for society over the long term” is more crucial than it might appear. To quote from Peter Morrell’s Some Notes on the Sociology of Professions:

  • Primary professions include, for example: Judges, Doctors, Surgeons, top Police Officers, top Military Officers, Professors, higher ranking Lawyers and Bishops
  • Secondary professions include, for example: Dentists, Architects, Civil Engineers, Surveyors, Accountants, Lawyers and all other specialised technical occupations [Scientists, Educators, Nurses, etc]
  • While all professions enjoy high social status, primary professions have the highest status, regard and esteem conferred upon them by society at large.
  • This high esteem arises primarily from the wider, deeper and higher social function of their work as compared with other lower ranking professions. Their work is regarded as more vital to society as a whole and thus of having a special and very valuable nature.”

But if Mr Anderson and his fellow oath-takers do succeed, they may have battle of values on their hands. Business schools have traditionally taught that the purpose of managers is to increase shareholder value. Full stop. While seeking to counter short-termism may be laudable, it will need to be done against the probable wishes of owners let alone the grain of fashion (recessionary times notwithstanding). The question of enforcement is yet thornier. While some of the ‘few faculty members’ to support the oath have reportedly discussed ways of developing a professional licence, who will issue it? How will inappropriate behaviour be sanctioned – especially when much of it is already punishable through the courts? And can self-regulation – one of the time-honoured pillars of the professions, but one that appears to be digging under its own foundations – be the way forward?

Thinking more widely, what would be the impact on organisations? How would existing areas that have professional status – legal departments, accountants – respond to ‘management’ acquiring a similar professional status, as well as maintaining an organisationally superior one? What would it mean for managerial development within organisations, and accreditation of training? And who will referee disputes between newly ethical professional, oath-swearing managers and shareholders and other stakeholders with opposing opinions? Stakeholders who may forsake the oaths, but may not hold back on the swearing.

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