Ethics in the confluence of for-profit and non-profit

My future career in the social sector will undoubtedly provide me with frequent ethical dilemmas. Since a social enterprise’s goal is to promote social values, which are intrinsically rooted in ethics, every decision has direct ethical implications.

Even dry decisions on administration cost and advertisement spending can lead social enterprises to ethical breakdowns. For example, my nonprofit consulting venture’s fee is likely to be high by the sector’s standard. While it is necessary for the firm to be able to offer competitive compensation for first-class talents and thus to ensure the service quality, some may consider it as excessive and even unethical.

Balancing disparate stakeholders’ interests is more complicated for social enterprises than for for-profit businesses because there is no clear measure to evaluate and compare the social impacts of certain actions. It will be at the center of my moral challenges and require careful ethical judgment as well as practical reasoning.

I may sometimes find myself caught between nonprofit’s goals and donor interests, due to difference in, for example, preference for tangible or long-term impacts. My professional integrity may be challenged by public opinion since the urgency and gravity of social values do not necessarily correlate with their popularity or attractiveness. The wrong decision could result in erosion in nonprofit’s independence and neutrality, ineffectual strategy or public backlash.

The confluence of for-profit and nonprofit needs may be fertile ground for social innovations, but the less clear-cut legal environment and need for alignment between different value systems will result in ethical grey areas. The controversy over corporate social responsibility is a case in point. I will need to address concerns about diversion of corporate resources to advance social ends for which they are ill-suited, often to the detriment of shareholders.

There will be no easy formula to strike right balance between conflicting concerns. I need to internalize essential values, look at them from multiple viewpoints, and take concrete steps to ensure employees’ integrity.

Leadership experience in my first year as a business consultant

As a first-year consultant, I joined a project for an energy company that was already in progress. The energy company had an aggressive growth target of twenty percent per annum for the next four years. Our firm was working with company executives to prepare the optimal strategy for achieving this goal. More than halfway through the project, there remained unresolved issues with the feasibility of a new approach in gas station development, which was a critical area in our recommendations. I was excited when I was given the opportunity to lead the implementation of a pilot study to test the feasibility. Little did I know, though, just how hard the job would be and how vital my leadership skills would be to our eventual success.

As there was only one month until the final presentation, I did not have the luxury of time. Within a week, we managed to select a pilot branch office, get team members appointed, and organize a kickoff meeting. Unfortunately, the extremely tight time-frame did not allow for sufficient consensus building among the different stakeholders during the preparation. Hastily assembled, my team of five client staff and one associate consultant did not understand the context and objectives of the pilot study. Many were concerned about delays in their daily business as they considered the pilot an unnecessary burden. My greatest challenges were to align their varying interests and gain support on the run.

My first focus as leader was to gain support for the pilot from the client members’ bosses and colleagues at the branch office who thought the client members were “playing with consultants from Tokyo.“ I invested time upfront to meet all the relevant managers individually in order to explain our objectives and request their support. I then continued throughout the project to update key persons on our progress in quick meetings and e-mails. This inclusion of people outside of the project team generated enthusiasm and support for the pilot which in turn excited my team members about the project.

Believing in the long-term effectiveness of empowerment through participation, I focused a substantial part of my efforts on inspiring ownership and a sense of a shared goal in the team. While I provided the overall design for the pilot study, I used open discussions to solicit members’ ideas in deciding specific actions and improving the process. At first, they were reluctant to speak their minds and acted more like bystanders than active contributors, but I gradually succeeded in engaging them in constructive debates. Eventually, heated, yet productive discussions lasting until midnight became common.

One of the client members of my team was particularly hostile about the pilot study. He felt that its purpose was to discredit his work and to replace his approach with a new one dictated by executives at headquarters who did not understand the reality of the field. Understanding the critical importance of his endorsement and commitment in the success of the pilot study, I took every opportunity to have lunch and dinner with him and to accompany him on field visits. This allowed me to have one-on-one discussions with him, to hear his concerns about daily operations, office management, and the Company’s future direction, and to help him realize that the pilot study was an opportunity to make his voice heard and give input to the Company’s strategic decisions.

Though I was praised for successfully generating a convincing analysis of study outcomes before the deadline, I am most proud of the support the client members gave my work at the end of the project. They unanimously spoke up in favor of the pilot study during the final presentation and explained to senior executives how it changed their way of looking at business and cooperation across organizational lines. Because it was those client participants who would have to replicate the piloted approach in strategic focus areas all over the country, their whole-hearted approval was a real victory. This success proved that my leadership skills are applicable in a for-profit business environment and bolstered my self-confidence as a business consultant.