Over spring break, seven UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA students teamed up with a group of Duke Fuqua MBA students to participate in an exchange program with the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) and traveled to Denmark for a week-long course on sustainability with a focus on Scandinavian companies.
Each morning we discussed a different topic or case related to sustainable business, and each afternoon we visited a Scandinavian business to hear about various approaches and successes related to their sustainability efforts. We learned about IKEA’s response to child labor accusations from Marianne Barner, the executive tasked with managing IKEA’s internal and external efforts to remedy the crisis. We also visited the corporate headquarters of Maersk, a global shipping company, where we learned about its business case for sustainability, as well Novo Nordisk, where the vice president of corporate sustainability showed us first-hand what makes them the world’s most sustainable company. Finally, we gained perspective about government policy making and public-private partnerships in the realm of sustainability from the Danish Business Authority – a government agency that promotes corporate social responsibility (CSR) among local businesses – and a CSR advisor from Deloitte Denmark.
So often the conversation on business strategy is focused on competition – winners and losers, market share, quarterly earnings, etc. – but lectures and company visits in this short course opened up a discussion on cooperation, partnership, long-term shared value and how companies can work with various stakeholders to achieve greater overall value. Our American-born, Scandinavian-trained professor Robert Strand showed us what makes companies in Scandinavia more willing to capitalize on the benefits of sustainability, as well as strategies for U.S. companies to implement those lessons. We learned how taking a long-term view of profitability changes management’s decision making in favor of more sustainable options, and how focusing solely on short-term shareholder value can stifle creative thinking about CSR.
As business school students, we were well aware of Michael Porter’s Five Forces, but many of us were not aware of another article that Porter wrote on creating shared value. Embracing the idea that forces don’t always have to oppose each other, Porter focuses on the opportunity for business to leverage interests and expertise of various stakeholders, including employees, customers, partners and the community at large. Porter highlights this point by arguing that “societal needs – not just conventional economic needs – define markets, and social harms can create internal costs for firms.”
While we each took away something a little different from this course, I found it quite fitting that we went on this trip with students from our rival school. Just as in business, the talk about UNC versus Duke focuses all too much on competition – if Duke loses, UNC wins. This trip taught us not only that businesses have a lot to gain from stakeholders beyond their shareholders, but also that leaders can learn from their rivals. The Fuqua students that we shared a week of class with will be our colleagues in sustainability and CSR in the years to come. Together we will form a peer network of professionals interested in sustainability who will continue to learn from and rely on each other to push our respective companies and industries to operate more sustainably. Of course, a little friendly competition isn’t all bad … we promise we won’t tell who won the dance off at a local Danish bar after class was over.
By Cindy Frantz (MBA ’15)