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Buie Seawell, Douglas Conant, Barbara Mowry, Mark Soane

From the latest incidents with United Airlines and Fox News to the fairly recent scandals involving Wells Fargo and Volkswagen, the 2017 Elevate Ethics panel had much to discuss at its fourth annual event held April 26.

A crowd of about 100 people packed the Reiman Theater at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business to hear New York Times Bestselling Author and Former President and CEO of Campbell’s Soup Douglas Conant, Founder and CEO of GoreCreek Advisors Barbara Mowry and Managing Director of Appian Mark Soane. Daniels Ethics Professor Buie Seawell moderated the conversation, initially asking what kind of difficulties large corporations face in order to lead responsibly.

Conant, who has served as an independent director of companies like Avon and Applebee’s, in addition to leading Campbell’s Soup, said that in the past 40 years corporations have placed an emphasis on financial performance, inadequately emphasizing social performance.

“Time and time again, we see companies losing their way,” he said. “You can perform well in the marketplace and you can do so ethically. It has to be both!”

Mowry agreed with Conant that ethics isn’t negotiable, but she says companies live in a world where one incident can destroy your whole brand.

“One rogue employee, one person with a bad day—the world has changed and the speed of change is so different now with internet,” she said.

Soane pointed out that when he was in business school, he wasn’t trained in ethics. However, 50 or 60 years ago people shared many of their experiences. They watched the same TV shows, read the same newspapers and often attended the same churches or temples.

“People had a common experience and understood how to behave,” Soane said. “As companies get bigger, they’re less personal and it’s more difficult to find common ground.”

The panel’s conclusion was that companies, large or small, need to establish a code of conduct that is unmistakable.

“It has to be brought to life every day in the way they do their business, just like they have to bring to life every day financial reporting,” Conant said.

Mowry gave a few examples of how she did this when leading different companies. At one point when she led a startup, the company was approached by a major beer manufacturer to create a customer loyalty program. While it would have been a huge amount of money for the startup, she knew creating a frequent beer program wouldn’t be the right thing to do.

“We weren’t going to do it and I told that to the employees. I told them why,” she said. Later, while at a different company, she found a competitor’s strategic plan at an airport boarding gate. “I wanted to open it, but I didn’t. You have to show your employees how you live those things. It is really important!”

Joshua Kuell (MBA 2012) returned to Daniels for the Elevate Ethics event.

“I thought it was interesting to hear how organizations don’t plan to be unethical, they’re not trying to fail,” he said. “They get bad situations and then make bad decisions.”

Madison Etherington is a second-year marketing student at Daniels. “I’m in a corporate governance class and I enjoyed hearing the perspectives of people who have actually had to face ethical issues in the workforce.”

Elevate Ethics is hosted annually by the Institute for Ethics Enterprise, a center within Daniels.

“Our goal is to provide a forum and voice for discussions around ethics,” Dan Sweeney, director of the institute, said. “Our hope is to help advance the case for high standards of ethical leadership in our business institutions.”

The event is sponsored by a number of companies including CoBank, Level3, the Daniels Fund, Deloitte and IHS. More information on the Institute for Ethics Enterprise and its upcoming events can be found on its website.