Peggy Cunningham had a ringside seat to watch the evolution of corporate morality in Canada. As a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, she was a pioneer in teaching responsible management. In 2009, she joined Dalhousie University in Halifax as director of the school of business administration, just as the recession took hold and the reputation of Big Business plunged. The following year, she was promoted to dean of management. Cunningham, 66, finished her five-year term last October.
Can you train managers to be ethical?
Surveys have shown that up to 50% of MBA students think they are going to have to compromise their values, and bow to pressure to do something they believe is wrong, in order to forward their business agenda. But most people know the difference between right and wrong. We can give them techniques and skills—just like tools in finance, accounting or marketing—that will help them behave.
Do business students choose Dalhousie because they want to be ethical leaders?
It draws conscientious achievers. In particular, we had a very high proportion of women coming into the program. Traditionally, MBA programs have hovered around 25% female enrolment. We were over 50%. We do entrance surveys, and for the women, some statements that came out very strongly were: "I didn't want to park my morals with my car," and "I never thought that I could be a person with high moral values and be a participant in business." We also drew a lot of people from sciences and the arts. They hadn't considered MBA school because of the image that business is evil.
Can you turn unethical people into decent executives?
I've always been convinced that you can't take pond scum and turn them into angels. There are people who will do anything for a buck. We've seen lots of those kinds of CEOs, and they drive everybody in their corporation down that path.
Are businesses actually behaving any better?
Public expectations are changing. A company needs a social licence to operate, so you can't isolate a business agenda from a social agenda, the way that business people could in the past. You ignore that social agenda at your peril, whether you are trying to build a pipeline or a condo building.
Do ethics pay off?
If you get that social licence, you get a lower cost of capital. You attract more motivated employees and ones who deal with people better. Churn rates in these companies tend to be lower. They attract more diverse workforces.
How important is money to MBA students these days?
They certainly want a good quality of life. They aren't willing to live in poverty. But they are also concerned about things like environmental sustainability and a balanced lifestyle.
What's the best thing about teaching them?
They come from such diverse backgrounds. When you see somebody who has studied music, somebody who has studied neuroscience, somebody who has studied business and a computer geek, and all of them try to solve a problem together, that is just so exciting.
Does Halifax have a comparative advantage in ethics?
Because of all the family-led companies, business is done differently here. People know each other well. You have to look your neighbour in the eye. I think that has a large impact.
So are you going to stay there and keep teaching courses?
Yes. You really feel part of the community.
This interview has been condensed and edited