Youth Enterprise re-visited – (let’s all hope that) the times are they a-changing

A few months ago I reported upon a presentation that I gave to the business students at Peter Jones’ National Enterprise Academy in Manchester.

At the end of the presentation on Business Ethics and Values, a subject close to my heart and head under the work that I do with Ethiconomics TM, I left 15 minutes or so for a question and answer session. The session actually extended to over 40 minutes. This I put down to the genuine interest of the students in the practical engagement and delivery of Ethiconomics into business strategy (and possibly a little nod to the delivery of the content itself – excuse the promotion but my mentor would insist!). Either way there was an engaged audience of young, exuberant and mature young entrepreneurs prepared to miss some of their lunch time to interact on the subject.

The quality of their questions in general was testament to their interest in business ethics and the standard of general business studies education that the Academy provided. It was the penultimate question that nearly caught me out and not because of its abstractly theoretical nature on some hitherto non-considered topic but almost the exact opposite. I was asked which were the top 3 topics (An A-Z Introduction to Ethiconomics has over 100 personal values and business principles topics) that I would recommend and that I also deployed most diligently. The first part of the question was relatively straightforward to respond to but I did have to make a mental check that I was “diligently deploying” the principle into practice.

My first topic was Authenticity. No surprise to anyone that has worked with me over the years,

“Even the fear of death is nothing compared to the fear of not having lived authentically and fully.” Frances Moore Lappe,

Is very much how I personally feel about Authenticity. I had no problem with that element at least. The subsequent discussion left me with a strong impression. The topic was received with vigour and open minds. They instinctively recognised the power of acting authentically and of how today’s World of social media and instant information made it even more important to behave consistently and with integrity. Even as they forge their respective ways into the business and commercial world they were already conscious that behaviour is increasingly visible and that reputation of the individual and the company is becoming increasingly representative of brand, niche and sustainable business. Their own example was one of the Disney Corporation who’s mission statement is something along the lines of “To Make People Happy” but who have (allegedly – they also have a reputation for being mercilessly litigious!) the highest suicide rate amongst employees in the business world! A glorious manifestation of inauthentic values at work where clearly the value of the customer (and the cheque?) is strongly favoured over the value/values of the employees. Effective and successful if only measured in terms of money but maybe not so successful in terms of employees engagement and fulfilment.

The second topic that I chose was that of Affluence. I requested that they begin to consider their respective affluence, and presumed search for more, in terms other than just financial. This too was well received – albeit initially with a few raised eyebrows! The point that I made had two distinct elements; the first, that we have been in search of the Yankee dollar at the exclusion of the environment, personal contentment and community engagement for too long. It is becoming increasingly clear that this has had its day, shot its bolt and ran its course. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone in Greece or Ireland or vast areas of the US, or even many regions in the UK. The perspective of the students, and I want to reaffirm their knowledge and maturity in these matters, was again refreshingly open-minded and practical.

They absolutely understood the value of community, the need to protect natural resources and to reduce waste. They saw these in ecological, personal AND social contexts and very much understood that the change in World economic balance toward China, Africa (via China!) and Russia was going to involve a major re-assessment of financial practices and economic stability. They very much related to the need to be ostensibly less materially-minded and to move away from the pure consumerism mentality.

“Many who seem to be struggling with adversity are happy; many, amid great affluence, are utterly miserable.” Tacitus

The third topic that I selected was that of Culture. I presented this from the perspective of personal culture (including references to uniqueness, brand, values and niche). As a wise man once said,

“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” Mohandas Gandhi

Once again this resulted in creative debate. If the culture of a country lies in the hearts and minds of its people then my faith in the future was significantly uplifted. The “got it”! They instinctively applied the principle of personal values and ethical behaviour to their own personal “culture” and to that of their peer groups.

If culture is the accumulation of the collective values of one generation past on to the next, and I think that it is as culture forms the framework of society, acceptable behaviour and generally in the laws of the land, then I was left with a slightly bitter taste. Not because of the discussion just completed but because of the culture that we are passing on to this next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders. We have created and perpetuated a culture of “what’s in it for me” rather than one of “how can add value to others”. We have thrown ourselves willingly upon the alter of consumerism. We have over-eaten, over-spent and over-exploited the planet. We have presented many dubious “role models”. We have allowed corrupt officials to bankrupt society. We have lost, or at least stopped deploying, our core, personal values. But there is hope and after all that was all that was remaining in Pandora’s Box when we let out the rest of the evils of the World!

The hope lies in the future. The hope lies in the youth. They are technical savvy, astute, aware and confident – maybe this is the legacy culture that we passing on – a “don’t do as we do but please do as you say” culture. I am very much looking forward to working with the students again; they seem to me to be the light at the end of the many tunnels that we have created.

This article was published in the3rdimagazine on 1 August 2011

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