In the last 100 years or so, the American concept of a “career path” has developed in the workplace as people began to advance from one position to another. Advancement brought greater work responsibility and increased demands on one’s time. It also brought more visibility in the organization, higher pay and, often, greater power. In years past, longevity on the job could also influence advancement because a person could be experienced and very reliable in the job. Education also had a lot to do with advancement and promotion.
Entrepreneurs built their own career paths and established their own reputations. They are different from small business owners who are content with small-scale and controllable operations such as a restaurant, a store or two or a one-stop manufacturing operation. Entrepreneurs are in the driver’s seat in their retail, service or manufacturing operations. To them, advancement is a personal achievement as their business develops and diversifies. They may have employees who seek to advance in their positions as the business grows. They want to have a greater stake in the financial success of the company as well as make an impact in their field. The start-up firm gives these people a great opportunity.
As a company advances, the opportunity for personal advancement and achievement is there. As it grows larger, advancement in the company’s operations becomes much more complex. The ethical questions also become challenging. Some workers have a “generous” view of their greater responsibilities. Their attitude—and the company’s philosophy—may be that as they advance in their positions, the company will advance in its market share, profitability and shareholder value. In other words, everybody wins throughout the organization and in the larger community as well.
Yet, as nearly any corporate person can tell you, there are people who want more power, money and visibility. They may be extreme Type A people who are demanding and difficult. They want it all and they want it now. They can be manipulative in relationships, and they try to use people as a means to an end: personal gain. This pattern was evident in the 1980s and 1990s with aggressive corporate executives such as Al Dunlap, former CEO of the Sunbeam Corporation, and the leaders at Enron and Worldcom. Movies also depicted ruthless financial leaders, such as Michael Douglas’ character, Gordon Gekko, in Wall Street (1987). Greed and power are the driving forces for such business leaders
There’s nothing wrong per se with generating market share, buying competing companies or increasing shareholder value—as long as these dynamics are balanced by honesty, fairness and a desire for the greater good. For business leaders, the same principles hold in the way they do their work. Some people can function effectively in teams and work together so that all can benefit and advance. Some can’t live like that. Maybe they are insecure, angry or psychologically needy. They want it all, and they want it now.
So the ethical question is how to reconcile personal advancement with business advancement, and to see that they are linked. Where do we learn this way to advance? Some people are really focused on self and cannot operate any other way. They are highly individualistic and greatly gifted. They are tremendously talented, but not team players. Businesses and organizations need these people too, however, and they may have to “train” them in healthy business patterns.
Just like Alexander Dumas illustrated in his 1844 novel The Three Musketeers using the friends Athos, Porthos and Aramis—inseparable friends who live by the motto, “One for all, and all for one”—human organizations get things done when employees, volunteers and customers share a similar set of values. That’s what drives organizational success. We all advance when we advance the mission and endorse a set of core values which we know, understand and live out. To know what these dynamics are and to work by example takes effort.
So we may have to learn the principle of advancement all over again. In the workplace, we are no longer a large group of Anglo men who are the decision-makers. We also now have large numbers of women in leadership, many of whom lead differently than their male counterparts. We also have persons of color—African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans—who bring different sets of values with them into the workplace.
One of the great challenges ahead for the ethical practices of businesses is to help people of many different origins endorse and embrace the value of advancement based on all for one and one for all so everybody wins and develops to their full potential. IBI