Business Ethics as the New Thing?

I write a blog every Monday for my company’s internal Advisor website, basically read only by advisors within my own firm. I thought the following entry had a broader ethical message worth sharing to a wider audience.

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When I was a financial advisor trainee many moons ago I heard from a manager (who has since been barred from the industry) that our success as a financial advisor would be “in having the brain of a capitalist and the heart of a socialist”. I was a little too politically educated to take his comment seriously, but I guess the raw intention of it, soaked in naivete and simplicity as it was, was this: Be sharp and aggressive in how you pursue monetary advancement, but also do everything with a real care for human beings. Simple enough, right?

I would suggest that the false dilemma embedded in his statement is the least of his concerns, as I would not grant that those who advocate seizing private property have good hearts, and I would not grant that pursuing monetary advancement without really knowing how to care for your clients have good brains, but be that as it may, what are we to do with the underlying instruction to care for our clients?

I have served on the Advisory Board for a university’s business college. I have spoken around the country on the idea of values juxtaposed with economic pursuits. And I read now on a weekly basis that the need of the hour is to teach business students (or young financial advisors) “ethics”. I would think that 17 years of an education at the hands of the great ethicists who dominate modern secular education would have done the trick, but I digress. Here’s my take as it applies to the profession we are blessed to call our own:

If you need an ethics course at age 35, or 45, or 55, to tell you what to do or not do for your clients, you are a lost cause. The need for ethics is not a post-2008 thing, or a post-Enron thing; it is a post-Sinai thing. It is a post-garden thing. Whatever. And if the “capitalist” in us does not see that we do best by most comprehensively serving those who pay us, than we are bad at doing business. If the “human” in us does not know that we are obligated to demonstrate honesty, integrity, morality, and empathy in what we do, than we are bad at doing THIS business. These are not separate things – they are integrated. We do well by doing good, sure, but we do more good when we are doing “more well”. It is an entrepreneurial business, but if we are to hit a moment of a wake-up call in our careers, it should be because we realize we have gotten complacent in business development, or that a fee-based model is more objective and sustainable, or that we like or dislike more than we thought a given investment philosophy … It should NOT be, “you know what, I think I want to start being ethical”.

Every single day take care of your clients. Take care of them because you want to do right by them. Take care of them because you care about them. Take care of them because if you don’t they’ll stop paying you a fee. All of the above, always and forever, with no need to delineate or bifurcate along the way.