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Steven Miller's Counsel on Ethics and Values

Steven Miller, Leighton Lecturer.In his lecture entitled, "Ethics, Values, and Business in the 21st Century," Steven Miller did not pretend there was a simple solution to the problem that has plagued US businesses in recent years, a problem he believes could take up to a full generation to overcome. Corporate scandals have shaken investor confidence and made the global market volatile because of doubts about corporate governance practices and ethics.

"This is a topic that is at the top of the mind of the business world," said Miller. "We could probably spend the rest of the evening talking about ethics."

He spoke on February 24 as the 2003 Leighton Lecturer to an audience of more than 280 students, faculty and staff, and community members. The Leighton Lecture is named in honor of Richard and Grace Leighton who contributed funds to endow the lectures, which focus on ethics in business. Miller retired as President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board at Shell Oil Company in 2002. He is now the chairman and president of SLM Discovery Ventures, Inc. in Houston.

Miller's Framework

In an optimistic view, Miller noted that companies that continue to deliver valued products and services and give a solid return on shareholders' investments "share a framework" that has provided them success through turbulent times. This framework, Miller said, is composed of, "uncompromised business ethics, a commitment to sustainable development, a commitment to diversity, an understanding of strategic planning, and unlocking the power of collaboration."

"We cannot rely on government oversight or detailed reliance. Corporate governance is also involved (in business ethics)," Miller said of one of his elements of his framework. "We need those in whom we place our confidence to use wisely the power we grant them. Leaders bear the responsibility for modeling the desired personal and corporate behavior." However, he did not leave the responsibility of ethics solely in the hands of corporate leaders.

"No leader can have all the answers in a global economy, with the complexity of today's world," he said, "we have to rely on employees to do the right thing, to live up the company's ethics and values."

Miller also discussed his belief that corporations need to do more than simply acknowledge the positive aspects of diversity, a "central force that is shaping and reinforcing values that are vital to business" and one that is driven by globalization, technology, transparency, and changing demographics. Miller was firm in his belief that an active stance is necessary.

"Leaders have to represent this commitment to diversity through their behavior … and it has to be genuine," said Miller. "An endorsement through an occasional speech or letter is not going to cut it."

Focusing on strategic planning, he noted that we are at a watershed of two worlds. "We're moving from a past world where knowledge was power and information was expensive," Miller stated. "Now knowledge is pervasive and information costs you virtually nothing. It's a paradigm shift that presents both incredible challenges and incredible opportunities for the future."

In Sum

Overall, Miller's emphasis was on the need for corporations to adapt to the future of business ethics."Ethics decisions are not like they used to be," Miller said, "where the decisions were between what is right and what is wrong. They now concern what is right and what is right."

He closed his presentation with advice to do the five imperatives well. "Your stakeholders will thank you, your community and your nation will be enriched, and you will be fulfilled."

For Future Reference

Miller's presentation is available as streamed video on the web (March 2003).

--Christopher Boyce
February 2003