Tag Archives: Andreas Widmer

The futility of business ethics

Andreas Widmer writes that business ethics without a clear understanding of the meaning and significance of work is a bit like playing ball without any rules. He suggests a shift from a focus on rules and regulations, from a focus on business ethics as a separate topic, to an integrated focus on teaching young entrepreneurs about business as a vocation . . .

Andreas Widmer

Andreas Widmer

Imagine you were leading a large sports team without being told exactly what game you’re playing. Someone places a nondescript ball in front of you and says: “Play!” So you start. Every so often when you touch the ball, the ref’s whistle admonishes you.

You stop, are told that this is not allowed, you shrug your shoulders and play on. The referee’s calls are mystifying, even arbitrary, and for you the game’s objective becomes simply to circumvent or avoid the ref all together.

Business ethics without a clear understanding of the meaning and significance of work is a bit like playing ball without any rules. When we think of business ethics, we think of regulations, laws and codes of behaviors: basically a litany of don’ts.

The list multiplies rapidly. After every scandal, there is a call for more regulation. After any new regulations, businesses devise new strategies to deal with these regulations — in essence, to figure out how to have them affect their business as little as possible. It seems a reasonable enough response if seen from the perspective of “avoiding the ref.” Except that this, of course, is the recipe for the next scandal, and the cycle begins anew.

It’s no wonder that popular opinion condemns business as selfish, corrupt and damaging to society. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. In reality, most businesses are run in a very different way than what I just described. Not because of any industry regulation or government law, but because they act out of their leaders’ fundamental understanding of what business is all about. This view is often informed by their faith.

God is a worker. The first thing we learn about God in the Bible is that he is creative: He conceived of and formed the world out of nothing. Then he made humans. He says that he wanted to make them in his image: a subject, immortal, a worker. This is where we find the primary purpose of business: God invited us to participate in his creative power. Every time we go to work, every time we engage in business, we accept that invitation and in fact, imitate God.

This is why Blessed John Paul II says that when we work, we don’t just “make more,” but we “become more.” Work is a path to holiness.

The ethics of any specific action finds its foundation and purpose in the intrinsic meaning and significance of that very action. This is why any kind of ethics in a relativistic society is at best transient and at worst completely incompatible with the common good. If I cannot ascertain the Truth, how will I know how to produce goods that are truly good and services that truly serve?

When approached from the deep meaning and significance of human work, however, business ethics becomes an instinctive exercise in excellence. It’s not how well I know the rules that makes me a better athlete, it’s that I’ve effectively internalized the game. That’s how an athlete gets what’s called “in the zone,” and it’s what happens when an athlete achieves perfection in his game.

And so it goes with business: If I internalize the very essence of business, it’s no longer about rules or regulations, but about perfection and excellence. It’s not about short-term or long-term, but about transcendence; not about profit and loss, but about sustainability; and not about me, but about others.

John Mackey of Whole Foods didn’t create his store to meet rules or regulations, but he offered products aimed at perfection and excellence. It’s the reputation of that excellence which made Whole Foods into the icon of healthy groceries.

Tom Monaghan didn’t focus as much on short-term performance as he did on making Domino’s a permanent and rewarding presence for his customers and employees.  His approach allowed Domino’s to become one of the most positively recognized companies in the world. François Michelin didn’t set out to create a profit, but harmony between his company and the consumer, work force, investors and society. He credits this harmony with the immense success during his tenure.

Any business that can compete and has a positive impact in the long run is inherently other-directed. It is in giving that we receive. That holds true in business as well as in one’s personal life. Think of your last interaction with any company: Customers reward good products and positive service with loyalty — the critical ingredient in any company’s successful future.

What I propose then is to shift from a focus on rules and regulations, from a focus on business ethics as a separate topic, to an integrated focus on teaching young entrepreneurs about business as a vocation. Let’s teach the next generation that business is about more than making a living. Let’s teach them to make a meaningful and fulfilling life. The results will speak for themselves.

ANDREAS WIDMER is director of entrepreneurship programs at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of “The Pope & The CEO: Pope John Paul II’s Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard.”

Reinventing business education

Catholic University of America launches new School of Business and Economics . . .

Whenever financial scandals make the news, business schools typically respond by adding more ethics courses to the curriculum.

But a new School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America is taking a different approach to instilling ethics into future business leaders by seeking to integrate morality, virtue and service into every aspect of its teaching and research.

Rethinking ethics

Dr. Andrew Abela

Dr. Andrew Abela

“It’s more than adding courses or chapters in textbooks,” said Andrew Abela, who was named dean of the school on Jan. 18, “but making sure that when you learn finance, you learn how to do finance well. That means being both effective and ethical.”

A member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter, Abela said the challenge in creating such a program is that business disciplines traditionally have been designed to be ethically neutral. Added Catholic University President John Garvey: “It’s a popular and common way of thinking about business problems that we can separate our deliberations about business issues from our moral deliberations, that business education will give you the tools to be successful at finance, marketing, accounting, whatever, and you employ that in service to whatever your ideals happen to be.”

Nonetheless, he continued, business is inextricably intertwined with moral questions. For example, he said, the current debt crisis is tied to our duties to the aged and future generations, and the last financial crisis dealt with disclosure, honesty and self-restraint.

“To think back to old-fashioned terms,” Garvey explained, “if you list the capital sins we were taught to recite as children in our catechism  class, the majority deal with these kinds of problems: covetousness, envy, gluttony, lust for goods as well as people. The virtues we want to teach people in the marketplace are a welcome antidote for that.”

Since the university announced on Jan. 8 that it was turning its existing business and economics department into a school, Garvey  said he has been struck by how new and surprising people find the idea of incorporating ethics and morality into a business program.

John Garvey

John Garvey

“I wish that there were more examples of this kind of full integration of ethical and moral thought in business and professional schools, but it’s relatively unusual,” Garvey said.

Neil Watson, a student in the school’s Master of Science in Business Analysis program, said he was drawn to Catholic University precisely because of the way the business school integrates faith, virtues, morals and ethics into every course.

“It wasn’t going to be a one-time course where I signed a paper saying, ‘I promise to be an ethical business person.’” Instead, he said, in every class, he is learning not just finance and accounting, for example, but how to do them for the purpose of doing good.

“It’s one thing to be a good business person and another to be a good business person doing good,” he explained.

Business and economics

Watson said the new business school’s approach is especially important for his generation, which has seen business portrayed as separate from a person’s spiritual life.

“We’ve seen the results and harm that are done to society if you try to practice business that way,” he explained. “We grew up with Enron and the financial crisis with AIG because it became all about money. My generation in particular is hungering for that integration.”

Although Abela believes there is a demand for business programs like Catholic University’s, he said most students searching for a business school might not be looking specifically for a virtues-based approach. However, when they learn about it, they say that is what they want.

Catholic University’s school also differs from other business programs around the country in that it combines business and economics, two disciplines Abela said are closely related. “We realize that the project of reinventing the theory of business so that it can have morality integrated into it also needs a reinvention of economics.”

As plans to expand the former department into a school became known over the last few years, CUA’s School of Business and Economics has attracted new students and faculty members.

Undergraduate enrollment has gone from 300 three years ago to 421 — in addition to 36 graduate students. Although no enrollment target has been set, Abela said applications for the next academic year are already up significantly.

Over the last five years, the full-time faculty has doubled in size to 14, with another 50 teaching part-time. The school plans to hire three more faculty members for the next academic year.

Andreas Widmer

Andreas Widmer

Among recent additions to the faculty are Andreas Widmer, a CEO and former member of the Vatican Swiss Guard who is serving as director of entrepreneurship programs; Dr. Frederic Sautet, a noted French economist who will be a visiting professor of entrepreneurship; and Dr. Ava Cas, a development economist who is assistant professor of economics.

Besides undergraduate degrees in accounting, economics, finance, international business, international economics and finance, management, and marketing, the new school offers graduate degrees in accounting, business analysis, and integral economic development management.

The one-year business analysis program is designed mainly for liberal arts students without a business background and employs an advisory board whose members provide one-on-one mentorships  to students. The integral economic development program is for students who want to work in a nongovernmental organization and is based on the understanding that economic development cannot occur unless the core institutions of society are strong.

Legatus connections

Abela said an MBA program is a possibility for the future, but with the current glut of MBAs in the U.S., there is a declining demand. “We will eventually do one,” he said, “but when we do, it will be something distinctive.”

In its quest to instill Catholic values in the business leaders of the future, the school has also employed Legates as speakers and mentors. The advisory board of the master’s program in business analysis is made up of many Legates from the Northern Virginia and Seattle chapters. Other members have visited the school as guest speakers.

“We always welcome more,” Abela said. “Our students love meeting successful Catholic business people. We want to show them examples of good, upstanding moral leaders who are also successful.”

Asked whether ethical business people are more likely to succeed, Abela was unequivocal.

“In the long term — and most Legates know this — if you treat people with respect, you will have a more sustainable and successful business over the long term. There’s no guarantee that by being moral, you will be successful. There are all sorts of temptations, but if you are trustworthy, chances are you will be more successful.”

JUDY ROBERTS is Legatus magazine’s staff writer.

Building a culture of positive ethics

Andreas Widmer writes that practicing business virtue might be as simple as increasing communications with employees or providing a forum for suggestions and complaints. He provides some ideas and questions to help you sharpen your focus on your most critical virtues. Leaders, he writes, must strive to train their will and build their own virtues first . . . 

Andreas Widmer

Have you ever wondered how a person loses control of their car and crashes into that one solitary tree along the street — not the 359 degrees around him that don’t have trees, but that one degree that does?

When I learned to drive in Switzerland, I trained on ice. What you learn is simple: When you think you’ve lost control of the car, you haven’t really. As the car seemingly spins out of control, don’t look at that tree. Instead, keep looking where you actually want to go and you won’t crash into the tree. You drive where you’re focused.

When pursuing goals, it’s better to aim for what you want to achieve than to focus on what you don’t want. In business ethics, the same principle applies: What behavior do you want? What are you aspiring to? What’s the virtue you want to pursue? These are much more effective and actionable questions than “What do you not want to do? What behavior do you want to avoid?” It’s more effective to focus on pursuing the virtue than avoiding the vice.

Saint John Cassian, who brought monastic spirituality to the West, learned from the Desert Fathers over 1,700 years ago that we have seven primary kinds of thoughts. We think about food, pleasure, possessions, emotions, moods, reputation and ourselves. They are ordered by increasing complexity and each thought is on a continuum with vice on one extreme (seven deadly sins) and virtue on the other (seven virtues).

The Desert Fathers’ advice is not to focus on avoiding vice, but rather to focus on practicing virtue. As leaders we must strive to train our will and build our own virtues first. Without mastering our own appetites, we cannot justly guide our company’s overall mastering of the various appetites we’re exposed to as a group.

Practicing business virtue might be as simple as increasing communications with employees or providing a forum for suggestions and complaints. Here are some ideas and questions to help you sharpen your focus on your most critical virtues:

Temperance: What appetites do you want your company to have? Does your company create products or provide services that allow customers to practice temperance? Do you celebrate both days of plenty and days of “fasting”? Do you encourage your employees to help feed the poor?

Wholesomeness: Does your company make its case to customers and employees by deploying positive advertising and communication — and portraying wholesomeness? Are people seen and treated as unique and irreplaceable? Do you pay just wages across the board?

Justice: Is it clear to people who deal with your firm that you value people more than material things? Do your actions reinforce that? How is success celebrated? Is your company culture “entitlement driven” or is it “gratitude driven”?

Good Naturedness: Is your company “reactive” or “proactive”? Does your culture promote coercion or conversion of its employees, customers and other participants? Do you provide a means for your employees, customers and shareholders to express their concerns and issues?

Confidence: Does your company promote egotism or a healthy self-confidence? Does your company flame up its audience’s envy or solidarity? Are your company communications truthful and constructive? Do you speak respectfully about your competitors?

Involvement: Does your company stand for something larger than itself? Does its culture promote nihilism or purpose? Does it believe in and affirm the human person?

Humility: What actions would communicate to your customers and employees that your company holds itself to the same standards as everyone else? Has your company ever admitted a fault or mistake and made up for it?

In many years running a strategy consulting firm, I have learned that it’s hard for a company to achieve something if everyone on the team doesn’t precisely know what that goal is. Successful goals are defined in the positive: Tell me where you want me to go, what you want me to do, not the opposite.

In the next two weeks, take five specific, visible and consequential actions in your company or your team to exemplify one of the virtues you aspire to promote. The results will amaze you. Save your company from crashing through vices, and aim at the virtues!

Andreas Widmer is director of entrepreneurship programs at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of “The Pope & The CEO: Pope John Paul II’s Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard,” and a frequent speaker on issues related to business ethics, entrepreneurship, and business leadership.

The Pope & The CEO

Before becoming a successful businessman, Widmer learned important lessons from JP2 . . .

The Pope & The CEO
Emmaus Road, 2011.
152 pages, $12.95 paperback

Widmer, the former Swiss Guard and accomplished CEO well-known to many Legatus members, reveals how the lessons learned while serving and protecting Pope John Paul II helped shape his later success as a corporate executive.

He calls the Pope “the most authentically human person I’ve ever met,” and goes on to impart practical and inspirational lessons learned at the feet of the Holy Father. Anyone looking for uplifting and edifying leadership advice will find this an educational and fascinating read!

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