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What does the “MBA Oath” mean for MBA admissions? Ways to broaden your ethical platform, for a start

There are many aspects of success in a competitive MBA admissions process that don’t change whether we are in a boom or a bust, whether Wall Street is loved or hated, whether globalization is in vogue or not. For example, evidence of senior leadership responsibility successfully handled will never go out of style in a MBA essay.

But there are also more transient social or business attitudes “in the air” in any year which the applicant should be aware of and ready to address in MBA application essays or interviews, in order to maximize chances of success. These may change every few years. In previous times times, key applicant success attributes have been pointers to future business success, or new venture creation, or raising shareholder value.

This year, in the wake of the financial meltdown and global recession, much of which (rightly or wrongly) is blamed on MBAs, the accent is squarely on business ethics and long-term sustainability of decisions. These issues have been on the rise for a while, but their sudden prominence is demonstrated in the emergence and rapid spread of the “MBA Oath.”

The oath is the brainchild of a few HBS students, but has since been pledged by current and graduating MBAs from most major institutions and has garnered heavy media exposure, for example this story in Business Week and this audio clip in the Economist.

What does it mean for this year’s applicant? First let’s look at the oath

THE MBA OATH http://mbaoath.org

“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 create alone. Therefore I will seek a course that enhances the value my enterprise can create for society over the long term. I recognize my decisions can have far-reaching consequences that affect the well-being of individuals inside and outside my enterprise, today and in the future. As I reconcile the interests of different constituencies, I will face choices that are not easy for me and others.

Therefore I promise:

  • I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner.
  • I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.
  • I will manage my enterprise in good faith, guarding against decisions and behavior that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.
  • I will understand and uphold, both in letter and in spirit, the laws and contracts governing my own conduct and that of my enterprise.
  • I will take responsibility for my actions, and I will represent the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.
  • I will develop both myself and other managers under my supervision so that the profession continues to grow and contribute to the well-being of society.
  • I will strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide.
  • I will be accountable to my peers and they will be accountable to me for living by this oath.

This oath I make freely, and upon my honor.”

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MBA applicants should take all this on board very carefully, and look for past experiences that resonate. Adcoms won’t be looking for these words and phrases exactly (to use them verbatim would be an amateurish mistake) but it’s certain that they closely agree with these statements in general, and will be looking harder than ever for people who appear to understand this side of business administration and who will stand up to ethical tests through their careers. Remember Adcoms have taken plenty of stick too for filling classes with greedy self-profiteers, and are under more pressure than ever to pick a better kind of person.

Some of the Oath is just the usual good-citizen catechism: serving the greater good, demonstrating integrity, pursuing work in an ethical manner, balancing interests of shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society (triple or quadruple bottom line), not advancing ones own narrow ambitions, upholding the law, reporting accurately, and being accountable.

At a minimum it is important for MBA applicants to endorse this framework, or not seem to run foul of it. But this is common stuff. Other attributes of business and management ethics are perhaps less well known or defined, and here an MBA applicant can really score using the principles revealed in the Oath. Note that the Oath also sets these ethical goals:

  • bringing people and resources together to create value no single individual can create alone
  • creating value for society (not just self or company)
  • developing other managers under your supervision
  • appreciating the far-reaching and long-term consequences of decisions, and acting accordingly
  • pursuing sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity (not just fast or big prosperity)
  • distributing benefits of prosperity worldwide

This is a good starter list of ethical attributes that many applicants will miss, but which provide subtlety and differentiation for applicants who understand them, and who can find evidence of them in their personal and professional history.