The View From Taft

I attended the Managing and Teaching Business Ethics conference at Lassalle-Haus, Bad Schönbrunn, Canton of Zug, Switzerland, from May 13 to 16, 2018. The conference aimed to strengthen both the theoretical discourse and the practice of corporate ethics. This conference is year two of a three-year event. The first was held here in the Philippines for the Asia-Pacific Region, and was hosted by Ateneo de Manila University. This year’s conference was hosted by Lassalle-Haus for the European and African region, and next year’s event will be at Sta. Clara University, California, for the Americas.
One of the guest speakers was Eva Häuselmann, the founder and managing partner of despite Ltd., a consulting company in Switzerland. She presented a conceptual framework used to measure integrity. It is used for assessing people for positions of trust and for designing leadership development programs that emphasize a culture of integrity.
The framework has three dimensions: 1) value compass; sensitivity to value conflicts; 2) judging and decision-making in line with company values; and 3) principled, courageous, and firm behavior. Each candidate is rated on a scale from 1 (low) to 4 (high). From 2012 to 2016, 108 applicants were rated, and 25% were rated top candidates (those who rated 4 in all three dimensions). Candidates (59%) garnering mostly 3’s and 4’s were rated as good candidates. Candidates who rated below 2 were classified as having risk areas.
The same framework is used in leadership training, with the goal of developing moral competencies. Training modules include Self-Awareness and Self-Reflection; Knowledge (code of conduct and behavioral ethics); Behavioral competencies; and Corporate Values (including responsibility, gratitude, and fairness).
Candidates who pass this test emerge as visionary leaders who are able to balance their moral values while focusing on pragmatic business solutions.
I thought it would be difficult to encounter a person who would embody these three dimensions, let alone be a true visionary leader. But just three days later, I would meet such a person.
On the last day of the conference, we left our wonderful mountaintop retreat to visit Victorinox. The company, founded by Karl Elsener in 1884, started as a knife cutler’s workshop in the village of Ibach in central Switzerland. In 1891, Karl Elsener supplied knives to the Swiss Army for the first time. He went on to develop the Swiss Officer’s and Sports Knife – now the iconic Swiss Army Knife – in 1897, creating the foundation for a flourishing company that would be able to hold its own on the world stage. The company is still family-owned, and its founding values of integrity, solidarity, deep roots in the region, openness, trust, gratefulness, risk-taking, and responsibility have shaped the Victorinox company philosophy.
We started with a factory tour, which showed the intricate steps of knife-making. I was very impressed by how their factory was run sustainably, using recycled steel and aluminum and energy-efficient machinery. Throughout the factory, large picture windows not only bring in natural sunlight, but also provide a breathtaking view of the beautiful Alps. We were introduced to their skilled technicians, local Swiss workers, most of whom have been with the company for over 20 years. We also saw apprentices, fresh from school, training to be the company’s future technicians and engineers. Because the work is tedious and repetitive, the workers are encouraged to be multi-skilled so they can rotate departments and tasks.
Our tour ended with a talk by Carl Elsener Jr, the current CEO and great-grandson of the founder. His presentation highlighted how his family’s ensuring values have resulted in their company’s continued success.
But what impressed me the most was the man himself. Using the above-mentioned framework, I realized that he was a true ethical leader. He has the moral compass that allowed him to be very vocal about his Christian values. He has aligned his judgment and decision-making with the company’s values by prioritizing long-term strategies over short-term profitability. Finally, he showed principled, courageous, and firm behavior when he steered the company through the post-9/11 crisis without having to let go of a single employee for economic reasons.
At the end of his talk, one of my co-participants from the Philippines asked about the risk of unstable workers running amok, given the presence of all the sharp instruments. However, based on his reply, he did not understand where she was coming from. He talked about how the company engages ergonomic experts to ensure the workers’ body integrity and how the company ensures continued job satisfaction.
I concluded that this modest, humble, and hardworking executive, who thinks in generations, cannot envision the possibility of havoc in his Swiss mountain paradise.
Pia T. Manalastas is the Graduate Program Coordinator of the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business, De La Salle University. She teaches Lasallian Business Leadership with CSR and Ethics and Business Communication.