SUCCESSFUL ORGANIZATIONS DEFINE their
core values—and then make those values
an essential part of everything they
do. This is just as true for exemplary
leaders, who must be able to model their
values for others. In other words, to lead
well, “you must first be clear about your
own guiding principles. You must clarify
values by finding your voice,” as James
Kouzes and Barry Posner put it in their
2012 book The Leadership Challenge:
How to Make Extraordinary Things
Happen in Organizations.
Business schools do a great deal to
instill good values in students and graduate
ethical business professionals. But
I believe it’s critical that we do more. At
the University of Arkansas’ Walton College
of Business (WCOB), “more” starts
with the integration of the college’s
four core values across its campus and
curriculum. When schools embed their
values in every course and throughout
their cultures, they are far more likely to
educate value-driven leaders.
COMMITMENT, NOT COMPLIANCE
When I recently reviewed the websites of
the top 50 U.S. business schools, I found
that 80 percent had overt displays of
values—as part of their taglines, banners,
or vision and mission statements. Some
schools have created awards to recognize
those who uphold values such as
innovation or diversity; others showcase
stories of faculty and students enacting
the promoted values in various forums.
Here are just a few examples of value statements and associated graphics that are on display on business school websites:
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Lately, many of these schools are paying
special attention to two sets of values
in particular: integrity/honesty and
diversity/inclusion. To uphold integrity
and honesty, for instance, schools distinguish
between acceptable and unacceptable
behaviors, use plagiarism detection
software such as Turnitin, incorporate
ethics into standalone courses, and punish
violations of their codes of conduct.
To address diversity and inclusion, they
might offer a course, create an award,
open a dedicated office, offer grants to
support activities that promote diversity,
or plan activities tied to special days
such as Martin Luther King Day or the
Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Although such policies promote
appropriate behavior, they do not instill
values in our students in a deep way or
ask them to commit to upholding those
values. Instead, they only encourage
compliance, which is not the same thing.
That’s why the WCOB is working to
make its value-driven strategy more
effective. Only through systematic
integration can business schools instill
values into their cultures and students.
This process started at the WCOB
in the late 1990s, when the college
first established its four core values of
excellence, professionalism, innovation,
and collegiality. It wasn’t until 2015 that
a taskforce coined the acronym EPIC.
Today, we include the EPIC values in our
mission and highlight on our website
stories of faculty and students whose behaviors reflect those values. We display banners that encourage our community to “Be EPIC.” Our dean refers to them in various forums—from presentations to YouTube videos.
We ask our students and faculty members to adopt behaviors consistent with each value—that is, to strive for excellence, operate with integrity and humility, create an innovative environment and imagine new possibilities, and respect and value everyone’s differences.
I, too, strive to integrate EPIC values thoroughly into every course I teach. I describe the values in my syllabi and materials for classes that range from advanced multivariate and theory development at the doctoral level to systems analysis and design at the master’s level. I share with students not only the actions expected of them, but also those expected of me as their instructor. (See sidebar “Behavioral Rundown" below.)
To keep the values at the forefront, I take these five actions in my teaching:
Act as a role model. I make all course materials available in a timely manner and ensure these materials are carefully proofread. I provide timely feedback on deliverables, meet with students to support their learning, and always start class on time. I am always professionally dressed, even at weekend events. These actions are largely expected of a professor, but it’s critical to reinforce with my students what I am doing—and why—if I expect them to behave in the same way.
Revisit EPIC throughout the semester. I reiterate the importance of the values, so that they are more likely to take root in students’ mindsets.
Promote expected behaviors. When students produce exceptional work, present an innovative answer to a question, or adopt a collegial approach on their teams, I recognize it—sometimes privately, sometimes publicly—by noting that the work is “EPIC.” In addition, I encourage students to value learning learning and mastery, not merely outcome and performance. For example, in my doctoral course on theory development, students submit ten nongraded deliverables toward their final papers. I then provide feedback so they can produce higher quality graded products.
Connect reprimands to the values. Just as I recognize students who uphold the values, I speak—usually in private—to students who violate them. When a student’s pattern of behavior suggests a lack of commitment to the core values, I don’t just assess a penalty. I also highlight the value that they have not embraced. For instance, when I speak to a student who is regularly late to class, I will highlight the professionalism value.
Recap the values in the last class. At the end of the semester, I talk about behaviors I have observed that enact the values, such as exemplary performance on projects and papers, or violate the values, such as cell phone use or tardiness. This helps students leave with a better understanding of how these values led to outcomes.
Since I’ve incorporated these elements into my teaching, student feedback has noted everything from my kindness to the professional nature of the course itself, which indicates that they have noticed these efforts. I’ve also seen noticeable differences in my students’ behavior. Fewer students are tardy, even for an 8 a.m. meeting. There is less in-class use of cell phones, email, or social media. And almost all of my students wore professional attire for presentations, presented innovative solutions to challenging problems, engaged in constructive dialogue, and even discussed the EPIC values in casual conversations outside class.
Likewise, in all four of my courses, students have produced higher quality work for nongraded activities, as well as better master’s projects and doctoral papers than I’ve seen in the past. Several of my PhD students have indicated that they will use such a value-driven approach in their teaching in the future.
I use the following five slides, among others, to reinforce the college’s four core values in my courses:
Recently, I shared my EPIC slides and approach with other faculty members at a lunch-and-learn session at our Center for Teaching Effectiveness. Several professors said that they intended to adopt similar approaches in their courses. The center’s director has even changed her syllabus to include discussion of the school’s four core values and encouraged one of her thesis students “to use the EPIC framework to organize the implications section of her thesis.”
Throughout the semester, I behave in ways that uphold the Walton College of Business’ four core values: excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality. I want not only to show my students that I “practice what I preach,” but also to encourage them to do the same.
In addition, I share the outline below with my students. By presenting these expectations in this format, I create a kind of contract between my students and me in which we commit to making our classroom an environment of integrity and respect.
>Click for a larger version
WHEN VALUES ARE OVERLOOKED
After my presentation at the lunch-and-learn event, the faculty and PhD students in attendance discussed how we can take this approach forward. While they might need to promote different sets of behaviors depending on the course or students’ educational levels, they agreed that instilling values is a long-term process—and that implementing them programwide is essential for success.
As business educators, we know that if we produce leaders willing to compromise their values, it can lead to the downfall of entire organizations. Take, for example, Equifax. In 2017, the consumer credit reporting agency did not act on its core value of integrity when its leaders waited two months to report one of the worst data breaches in U.S. history—and worse, had known about the flaw in the system that allowed the breach to happen. Or United Airlines, which did not act on its core value of “respect for all” when its CEO Oscar Munoz offered only a weak apology after its employees had a passenger violently dragged off a flight. Or worse still, The Weinstein Company, an American film studio, whose leaders failed to uphold basic moral principles when they did nothing to address women’s reports of sexual harassment by co-founder Harvey Weinstein. Not surprisingly, the studio became defunct in July 2018.
These examples underscore why we must do everything possible to help future workers embrace and enact core values—and why we must lead by example.
By embedding values in every course and in our own behaviors, we make it more likely that our students’ sense of integrity, innovation, and excellence are deeply rooted and that the business leaders we educate will strive to do what’s right.
I encourage all faculty to incorporate school values into their syllabi, teaching, and class discussions. In doing so, we can leave an impression on students that they will carry into the next phases of their programs and into their careers.
Viswanath Venkatesh is a distinguished professor and the George and Boyce Billingsley Chair in Information Systems at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].