Good Business: A Conversation With Richard Shreve

Richard Shreve teaches MBA students about business ethics in his Ethics in Action course.

Q&A with Richard Shreve, adjunct professor of business ethics and associate faculty director for business ethics for the Center for Business & Society.

Professor Rick Shreve tells wonderful stories. A true Renaissance personality—the Harvard Business School graduate nearly became an Episcopal priest—Shreve has gone from Navy nuclear-submarine officer to Morgan Stanley managing director to Yale Divinity School graduate to ethics professor at Tuck. All of which informs how he teaches MBA students about business ethics in his Ethics in Action course.

You have a very interesting career path. How did you end up in divinity school, after all you’d previously done?

It really started when I came home from the Morgan Stanley partners meeting where we had decided to take the firm public [in 1986]. My wife, Shelly, and I were living with our five children in a big house in Greenwich, with a sizable mortgage. I knew that the vote to go public would give the family the flexibility to do something else (I tell my students that’s a good career move—be a partner in an investment bank when it goes public). Shelly said, “What would you do if you didn’t have to work?” I said, if it were just up to me, I’d go back to school, and I ended up going to seminary.

How did you start teaching ethics at Tuck?

After seminary, we had the wonderful experience of spending six months traveling around and figuring out where we wanted to raise our children. When we got to Hanover, Shelly said, this is it! I was spending three days a week as a volunteer chaplain at Mary Hitchcock Hospital and, through friends of friends, I was introduced to Tuck and asked to do an ethics presentation during Orientation Week. That presentation evolved into a nine-session minicourse. When Paul Danos arrived as dean, we combined my course with his idea of having guest lecturers and other professors teach in it, and that’s how it developed into today’s course.

When you teach ethics, what are you actually teaching?

My objective in teaching ethics is to give students a practical business skill—the ability to make a reasoned decision when faced with an ethical dilemma in business and the ability to defend that decision in language that is clear and persuasive. I work within a four-part framework, culled from classic moral philosophy, that addresses questions of consequence, duty, values, and caring.

Much of business relies on quantifying results to measure success. How do you teach something that is notoriously difficult to measure?

I primarily use the case method, and my course is really all about class participation, which really stimulates the conversation. By using the case method, students develop an understanding as they internalize the problem and talk about it—and then they’ve got it. It’s unusual that we come out of class with a consensus. I try to pick questions that are really tough, where legitimate ethical principles are in conflict, and the point is that there may not be a clear right answer, but you have to make a decision, and then you have to explain it. Furthermore, it is likely half of the world is going to think that you’re wrong.

How else is the idea of ethics incorporated in teaching at Tuck?

Tuck, because of its scale, provides an opportunity to affect the character formation of our students through mentor relationships and example. I would assert that that opportunity is a responsibility. Over the years, several Tuck professors have taught in the ethics course. As a consequence, they are more likely to address ethical issues when teaching in their own disciplines. When an ethical question or issue comes up in, say, a marketing class, if the professor asks the class, “Is everybody comfortable with that?” it shows that he or she has heard it, and it allows for a brief discussion of the issue. Then, if the professor says, “That’s not OK—that’s not the way it’s done in marketing,” that’s gold. It shows that the respected marketing professor is sensitive to the ethics involved and is willing to take a stand. That’s so much more meaningful than when I first got to Tuck and would come in as a guest professor at the very end of a marketing or accounting class to talk about ethics. First off, that’s not very effective; second, it’s counterproductive, because it tells students that ethics isn’t mainstream.

When it comes to running a business, it must be particularly difficult to handle ethical questions, especially when you can’t really quantify ethical results.

The Values Question in the framework for the course is, Who am I/who are we as an organization, and who do I/we intend to become? We talk about Aristotelian ethics: Aristotle spoke about virtues or habitual right actions. I tell students, this is a marvelous time in your life; you’ve got nothing to do but study. Take some time; think about who are you as a person. Ask yourself what virtues or values do you espouse and where do you draw the line: are you an honest person, a responsible person, a compassionate person? The students will come back afterwards and say, I was forced to think about that, and it was very helpful. I point out to them that they’re not alone. Companies do this all the time: they develop mission statements, and codes of conduct. They decide who they are as a company and how they intend to behave, and it informs the very difficult decisions that managements have to make.