After a successful career holding executive positions at Northwestern Bell and USWest (the predecessor companies to Qwest and now CenturyLink) and Ceridian, Ron James was tantalizingly close to taking over an entrepreneurial venture put together by a group of angel investors. Then a recruiter for the Center for Ethical Business Cultures called—for the third time. James had turned down the opportunity to lead the CEBC twice before.
The third time was the charm. “I believe that every person’s unique destiny lies at the intersection of our God-given gifts and talents, the life experiences that allow us to grow and develop these talents, and the opportunity to share them with others,” James says. It occurred to him that the CEBC, an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit, might be “that intersection for me because I care deeply about the purpose of business and about leaders who are focused on both the what [profitability] and the how [ethical behavior].
“I grew up in the middle of the civil rights movement with a strong sense of purpose and community, with many people pouring into my life,” he adds. “So perhaps this was an opportunity to come full circle and pour into the lives of others.”
Eleven years later, James is convinced he made the right decision. “The entrepreneurial venture would have been more of the same because I knew how to do that,” he says. “Leading a nonprofit is totally different. Leveraging your gifts and talents and life experiences to make an impact in others’ lives, that’s pretty powerful. I see that when I see breakthroughs in how the business leaders I work with and the students I teach start to think about the what and the how.”
Under James’s leadership, the CEBC, which has been embedded inside the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas in downtown Minneapolis since 1988, has developed and pursued a mission to assist business leaders in building ethical and profitable business cultures.
Both his work at the CEBC and his business career and have informed James’s work as a board member. In nominating James for the 2011 Outstanding Directors award, St. Paul–based Bremer Financial Corporation cited not only his contributions to its own board, but also the numerous for-profit boards to which he has provided insights and leadership. (The sidebar at the end of this story provides a not-quite-exhaustive list of James’s board service.)
“Ron has a great grasp of corporate governance issues and best practices, and has been a great value to our board,” Bremer Financial Chairman Terry Cummings says. “Thanks to his practical approach to governance issues, the structure of our board has been upgraded quite a bit. Plus, he asks great questions, not just from a governance standpoint but from a managing-the-business standpoint.” Among James’s achievements at Bremer: leading the addition of an annual board self-evaluation process, which has helped facilitate communication and board governance strategies.
James also serves on the boards of Richfield-based Best Buy Company and Minneapolis-based RBC Funds, a fund group of the Royal Bank of Canada. He chairs the governance committees at both Bremer and RBC. James also chairs Best Buy’s executive compensation and human resources committees, and is a member of its finance and investment committees.
Best Buy, James says, is “built on ethics and integrity. The fact that it’s growing globally, and in a very interesting space, is also important, as is the responsibility for carrying on and preserving the legacy of the company and its founder, Richard Schulze.”
Schulze, now Best Buy’s chairman, describes James as “a director who acts with integrity and courage in addressing some of today’s complex governance and business challenges. Ron has helped to shape Best Buy’s governance and compensation principles in a meaningful way, and in a manner that has built upon the culture and successful history of the company.”
James himself sees his board service as “yet another opportunity to enter into discussions of the what and the how.” His long and distinguished service as a board director, and his profound commitment to ethical business practices, give him a particularly deep understanding of both.
OTHER BOARD SERVICE:
• Ceridian Corporation (1991–1995)
• Greater Twin Cities United Way (1992–2007)
• St. Paul Companies (1993–1998)
• Automotive Industries (1994–1995)
• Allina Hospitals & Clinics (2001–2008)
• Allina Hospitals & Clinics’ Center for Health Care Innovation (2008–present)
RON JAMES ON THE INTERSECTION OF BUSINESS AND ETHICS:
Based on the extensive research that the Center for Ethical Business Cultures has done, I would describe ethical business cultures as having five characteristics:
• Values based The standards of behavior are clearly articulated and practiced
• Leadership focused Leaders “talk the talk” and “walk the talk”
• Stakeholder balanced Organizations seek to understand and meet the needs of their various stakeholders (customers, employees, shareholders, communities, suppliers, et cetera)
• Process integrity The systems of the organization (i.e., hiring, evaluation, pay, promotion, training, et cetera) are aligned with and reinforce its values
• Long-term planning Organizations balance the need for short-term results with delivering over the long term, thus sustaining themselves.
Beyond ethical business cultures, there are individual ethics—values and principles that we have developed over a lifetime that guide our individual behavior. We are happiest (and more productive) when there is alignment between our individual and organizational values.
In addition, there are cultural differences in ethics and values around the world. While there are some basic consistencies, local norms and customs may differ in geographic settings. And individuals as well as organizations must learn to recognize, respect, and embrace this difference while maintaining their “sense of core” in order to participate in a global society.
The work of the Center for Ethical Business Cultures is as crucial as ever. Founded 33 years ago, the center now serves at the intersection of the academic and business communities, bridging its decades of knowledge and experience gained in its service to the business community with the academic community’s leadership and dedication to preparing tomorrow’s leaders.
We see a strong correlation between organizations that invest in building an ethical culture and increased profitability. Intuitively, if you behave ethically, you retain customers, and they buy more from you over a longer period: Employees stay, retention is higher, and retraining costs and quality is improved. We are finding data that support our intuition.
But I’d caution against behaving ethically just to make more money. That puts you at risk of rationalizing what “good” is. And that, in turn, can become a slippery slope.