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Talent, virtues and corporate responsibility
Smit, Arnold
2/1/2009
​In this article Dr Arnold Smit, a faculty member at USB Executive Development, raises the question: How does talent management relate to corporate responsibility and sustainable development?
 
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We indeed live in a very challenging time in history. In no period before have we experienced so much promise as far as development is concerned and yet been so threatened with regard to the sustainability of our planet, its natural resources, its living systems and ourselves as a species. While the earth can barely continue to sustain its current population of 6.8 billion, another 2 billion people are expected to be added by 2050. Resources are already under immense pressure, greenhouse gases continue to accumulate at an alarming rate, and global warming and climate change are showing their devastating impact. At the same time our world is characterised by inequities and disparities in wealth and power, and huge gaps between rich and poor. 

Our challenge, however, goes deeper than the availability of sufficient resources and the responsible use thereof. The real crisis is rooted in and caused by the economic model that shaped the world in which we live today. This model is driven by progress and profit, and the earth and its resources and human beings and their capacity to labour are largely disregarded and treated as means and not as ends. Much depletion and abuse have been committed in the name of development and progress. It has been calculated that it takes the earth one year and four months to regenerate what we as human beings use in a single year, or to put it in other words: at our current levels of extraction and consumption we need 1.3 planets to absorb the waste and regenerate the resources that we use in one year (King, 2009: 20). 

How does this predicament affect corporate agendas? For South African companies direction is offered by the now internationally renowned King Report on Corporate Governance of which the third version was published in 2009. King III regards companies as citizens with duties and rights in very much the same way that individual persons are. The report then defines corporate citizenship as follows: Responsible corporate citizenship implies an ethical relationship of responsibility between the company and the society in which it operates. As responsible corporate citizens of the societies in which they do business, companies have, apart from rights, also legal and moral obligations in respect of their economic, social and natural environments. As a responsible corporate citizen, the company should protect, enhance and invest in the wellbeing of the economy, society and the natural environment.

For companies the way towards becoming good corporate citizens are marked by three observations:

  • A company does not stand apart from society. It owes its very existence to society. It is nested in society. The kind of business it engages in will determine the nature of its interface and interaction with the society that it does business with. Although it has owners and/or shareholders it also has a broader circle of stakeholders and duties and responsibilities towards them to take care of. These stakeholders include employees, suppliers, customers, communities and others. This observation has in recent years led to a broader and more inclusive concept of ownership and governance.


  • A company needs to develop a corporate culture that facilitates and blends corporate responsibility and sustainable development. It has become characteristic of the discourse on the topic now that these two concepts, corporate responsibility and sustainable development, are used in combination. Corporate responsibility refers to the ethical obligations that business entities have towards society and the environment. Sustainability covers the imperative to design business processes and manufacture products that will do no harm to individuals, communities and/or the environment. Ethics and innovation always walk hand in hand. Or to say it in the words of Mervyn King: 'The business case requires companies to link opportunity with responsibility.'


  • A company needs talented leadership and staff who are committed to responsibility and sustainability. Blending ethics and innovation for the sake of sustainable development and dealing responsibly and sensitively with a company's array of multiple stakeholders requires leadership and staff of a very particular calibre. Companies are human communities brought together by common goals, working together to create wealth, held together by a commitment to a common set of values. The ability of a company to become responsibly competitive is a function of the character and skill of its human capital.


According to Peter Capelli 'talent management is the process through which employers anticipate and meet their needs for human capital... The decision you make about talent management will shape your organisation's competencies and its ultimate success.' This raises the question: How does talent management relate to corporate responsibility and sustainable development? One answer to the question is, of course, that talent acquisition and development should be aligned with corporate vision, mission and values. While this is an important consideration, it does not go deep enough. Values and value alignment are good for any business, but values can still remain surface phenomena that merely drive culture and direct behaviour. If values are not anchored in the attitudes and behaviours of virtuous individuals, they will stay superficial surface phenomena. Values are negotiated; virtues enter with the individuals in which they manifest. 

So what are virtues, then? According to Mintz 'virtues are acquired human qualities, the excellences of character, which enable a person to achieve the good life'. In the ancient Greek philosophy virtues hang together with an important question: What is the best sort of life for human beings to live? According to the psychologists, Seligman and Peterson, literature reveals a surprising similarity across cultures and religions, and strongly indicates a historical and cross-cultural convergence of six core virtues:

  • Wisdom and knowledge: cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge, e.g. curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective


  • Courage: emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal, e.g. bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality


  • Humanity: interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others, e.g. love, kindness, social intelligence


  • Justice: civic strengths that underlie healthy community life, e.g. citizenship, fairness and leadership


  • Temperance: strengths that protest against excess, e.g. forgiveness and mercy, humility/modesty, prudence, self-regulation


  • Transcendence: strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning, e.g. appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality.


This bodes well for the future especially if we want to apply the understanding of virtues to the field of talent management and build from there the bridge to responsible and sustainable organisations. If we apply these virtues to the notions of corporate responsibility and sustainable development, very powerful and promising perspectives come through:

  • Wisdom: Is it not a person with wisdom that will realise and understand that the current paradigm of economic activity is unsustainable and that a new approach has become necessary?


  • Courage: Is it not a person with courage that will be brave enough to break with existing patterns of production and consumption that will lead the way towards a new future?


  • Humanity: Is it not the person with a sense of empathy and humanity that will be sensitive to the impact of economic activity on the earth's tender social and ecological systems?


  • Justice: Is justice not the virtue of a person that will bring breakthroughs in the inequities that exist between rich and poor, between developed and developing economies?


  • Temperance: Is it not a person able to exercise temperance that will bring an end to the indulgence and over consumption that have put our planetary resources at risk?


  • Transcendence: Is it not the person that lives from a deeper sense of meaning and significance, and therefore appreciates all forms of life as precious, that will desire to restore our planet to its original beauty?


We need virtuous people if we need to turn the tide and safeguard life on earth. In finding them we cannot afford to continue with applying our conventional talent criteria. We need a different calibre of talent and for that we need to anchor our talent paradigm in virtues as much as we anchor it in knowledge, skills and values. Mintz argues that as 'virtues help employees carry out their roles in a way that is consistent with the goals of an organisation the first precept of business is to put good (virtuous) people in positions of responsibility'.

Where do companies get such virtuous talent from? There seem to be four sources of such talent to be considered.

  • Workplace: Companies need to take a fresh look at the talent they already have. Among them may be found the virtuous who are already doing the basics right and may contribute towards developing and implementing a company's responsibility and sustainability strategy. Among them there may also be the ones coming forward with ingenious proposals and inventions that contribute to the company's responsibility and sustainability reputation. And surely, if a company appreciates and values these virtuous and talented individuals that it already has on board, they in turn will bring a similar calibre of talent from their networks of friends and associates and introduce them to the company.


  • Marketplace: Companies need to source a different calibre of talent from their recruitment agencies and take them on board as they journey into this new paradigm of virtuous talent for corporate responsibility and sustainable development. This is the age in which companies without a sustainability agenda and reputation are not going to attract the best talent in the market or succeed in retaining the best talent that they have. We enter a future in which career advancement will be enhanced by working for a company with a good record in the responsibility and sustainability arena. Fewer and fewer people will be willing to associate with a company with a blotched corporate responsibility and sustainability reputation.


  • Social entrepreneurship organisations: These organisations are developed by individuals that have become tired of the greed, abuse and mismanagement that pervade many companies. They are built on responsibility and sustainability principles. They are not non-profits and they do not work for charity, but they are business entities designed to incorporate the triple bottom line agenda into their business philosophies and economic models. These companies may become a source of virtuous talent for companies that are serious about corporate responsibility and sustainable development.


  • Education and youth: If we want to have a sustainable future we have to invest in primary and secondary education and promote the kind of virtues and competencies that our companies may need for a responsible and sustainable future. Building a talent pool of virtuous citizens does not start with a recruitment interview.


  • * For the published version of this article, see Talent, Virtues and Corporate Responsibility.

    Bibliography
    Capelli, P. 2008. Talent on Demand: Managing Talent in an Age of Uncertainty. Harvard Business Press 
    Institute of Directors in Southern Africa, 2009. King Report on Governance for South Africa 2009
    M. & Lessidrenska, T. 2009. Transient Caretakers: Making Life on Earth Sustainable. Johannesburg: Macmillan
    Mintz S.M. 1996. Aristotelian Virtue and Business Ethics Education. Journal of Business Ethics, Vol 15, No. 8 (Aug., 1996), pp. 827-838. Published by: Springer.
    Seligman M.E.P. & Peterson, P. (eds) 2004. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Oxford: University Press

    Dr Arnold Smit
    Executive: USB-ED Centre for Business and Society
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