Something in the Water: Founders look back on Business Ethics Alliance’s Success

During the formative years of the Business Ethics Alliance – a period when the organization was little more than a lofty idea – longtime business leader and early adopter Bob Bates coined a phrase that has stuck in the minds of the group’s founders ever since.

“Bob had recently retired from Lincoln Financial Group and made the comment, ‘There’s something in the water in Omaha. There’s just something different about the way we conduct business in Omaha. There’s a palpable moral compass in business practice in our community today and we should foster it and not lose it,’” said Dr. Anthony Hendrickson, dean of the Heider College of Business at Creighton University.

Product of the Times

Bates’ rallying cry was both an affirmation of current business culture and a warning for the future. The Business Ethics Alliance was conceived in an era of an unprecedented business scandal. Just a few years before, Enron became the poster child for corporate greed, its malfeasance enabled by the misdeeds of its accounting firm Arthur Andersen.

The two sat atop a long list of chicanery revealed in the early 2000s, from the well-recognized Adelphia and WorldCom to the more easily forgotten Bayou Hedge Fund Group and RefCo. And, true to Bates’ point, these only served as harbingers for even more catastrophic incidents ahead in the form of Lehman Brothers, AIG, Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual and one Bernard L. Madoff.

Troubled by the direction business interests in America and abroad appeared to be taking, Beverly Kracher, now chairholder and professor of Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University, decided to take bold action.

“I love to think, talk, read and write about business ethics,” Kracher said. “I liked teaching undergraduate and graduate students, but was yearning for a way to bring positive, practical ethics education to our greater Omaha business community. Our interim dean at the time, Dr. Debbie Wells, provided me with an opportunity to fulfill that desire. 

“For about a year, I met with and listened to business leaders. Enron and other corporate scandals had happened a couple of years before and were on everyone’s minds. Together with professionals like Butch Ethington at Union Pacific and Dennis O’Neal at First National Bank of Omaha, we created some initial ethics programming.”

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The idea struck a nerve with other leaders, recalled Hendrickson, who were eager to preserve the ethical culture of business in Omaha.

“As a Jesuit institution, we have championed a moral and ethical approach to business for decades,” he said. “In fact, we’ve had a required course in business ethics since the founding of our College of Business in 1920.  So it was natural for us to be part of this effort.

“Bob Bates helped to shape our founding by connecting us with the Better Business Bureau, led by Jim Hegarty, and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, led by David Brown. Together we formed a small nucleus of people to help champion the idea.”

Brown, now retired, agreed with the desire the founding members shared to help preserve Omaha as a haven for ethical business practice amid the sea of scandal.

“We were intrigued by the fact that we weren’t seeing those kinds of ethical issues displayed in companies that were in Omaha,” he said. “If Omaha can be a bit of an island, we thought, then maybe we should try and put a program in place that would provide resources to businesses to make that happen in their companies and show how important being ethical is to a profitable and successful business.”

Programming and Resources

The Business Ethics Alliance’s programming through the years has consistently reflected this goal. Since the very beginning, education and resources have been the group’s stock and trade, putting the tools for fostering an ethical workplace culture into the hands of businesses regardless of size.

“I think the products we put out there were really designed to provide an ethics toolbox to smaller and medium-sized companies,” Brown said. “These companies probably didn’t have the budget to create a whole ethics department like some of the larger companies did but they still needed some of that expertise in those tools so that they could make sure their culture was one of fostering ethical decision-making in the company.

“I think another big part was the lessons that we learned from challenges and the responses that we saw from around the country. When we instituted CEO breakfasts and lunches around the educational piece, a lot of that was geared around current events that were happening around the world. Having experts at the table who could walk people through that helped those company leaders think through how they would solve a similar problem.”

Kracher said in the early days, programming was more by feel, a process of “throwing programming at the wall to see what would stick,” but by gathering input and listening to the needs of the business community, presentations became more targeted and refined.

“Attendance grew and grew,” she said. “The Alliance always did surveys and we found the programming addressed the moral isolation that people felt when they were trying to do right and get their organizations to do right. These people were now sitting in a room where others felt the same way. As a result, public conversations about ethics in business were normalized.”

Another component of the group’s sustained popularity was the way it has deftly and consistently avoided certain pitfalls that might have derailed its status as a resource for companies.

“The community came to realize that the Alliance wasn’t trying to judge or cast blame. That wasn’t the tone,” Kracher said. “We talked about the fact that none of us were saints and we weren’t judge or jury. The Alliance is just a group of business people who strive to do less harm and do good in business. The Alliance provides tools and resources to be better ethical business leaders and run better, more ethical organizations.”

Staying Current

Most satisfying of all to the founders is the way the Business Ethics Alliance has evolved with the times, offering relevant training and programming without straying from its core mission.

“The establishment of the Business Ethics Alliance’s cadre, which has occurred over the last few years, is an effort to bring together experts in ethics and education and business from both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors from around the world,” said Jim Hegarty, president & CEO of the Better Business Bureau Midwest Plains.

“The purpose of the cadre is to utilize the members’ intelligence, their influence and their efforts and it creates synergies that we wouldn’t be able to create on our own. This is a group of people that are meeting consistently to be sure that the Alliance is addressing the most critical issues on the subject of ethics.”

Hegarty said the success of the organization is not just a source of personal and local pride but has also become widely recognized as a program in a class by itself.

“The international and the national recognition that the Alliance has garnered for its unique approach makes it a true one-of-a-kind organization,” he said. “Better Business Bureaus from all over America have come to Omaha to witness and participate in Business Ethics Alliance programming because they are so impressed with the partnership that has been created for the benefit of promoting business ethics and marketplace trust.”

As satisfied as he is about what the Alliance has accomplished thus far, Hegarty is even more excited about what the organization will do in the future. He said the Alliance has cast a mold for certain standards of behavior that have become even more deeply ingrained in the local business culture.

“I think every business should be taking the time to sit down and ask themselves, first of all, ‘have we been thoughtful about establishing core values for our business?’ ‘Are we setting the tone for those values at the top?’” he said.

“We’re in an incredibly competitive marketplace right now for employees and I think that employees want to know that they’re working for companies that have been thoughtful about the ways they approach the subject of ethics, the ways in which they embrace the core values of their company and how that results in the sort of culture those employees are embedded in.”

Looking Forward

Hendrickson said the future holds much of the same for the Business Ethics Alliance, as ethical issues are never going to go away.

“Ethical business practice is always in vogue for those of integrity,” he said. “Everyone wants to do business with people they can trust and be confident that their associates are being transparent and above-board. The relevance of this organization is always going to be present, primarily because we all need to be reminded that it truly is about ‘How you play the game.’”

Kracher agreed, saying the issue of ethics in the workplace is as important as ever, perhaps more so. 

“There have been different iterations with some different words, but the mission and vision have always been the same: Build leaders, strengthen organizations and elevate greater Omaha through positive, practical business ethics,” Kracher said. “Even with a global economy, we still do business with people down the street, so we need to ensure that our cities have strong ethical business climates.

“The way to do that is to make sure business communities identify and articulate their core values and keep them front of mind. Just like in individual companies, a business community can showcase its values and teach them over and over and over until they become second nature in that community.”