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  January 26th, 2024 | Written by

Corporate Search Committees have New Message for Executive Candidates: Ethics and Ethical Leadership Matter

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As a firm that puts a professional in a job every three minutes of the workday, Korn Ferry continuously tracks what organizations are looking for in the way of future senior executive leaders.

In addition to helping corporate board search committees find executive leaders, using the criteria specified by the committees, we also spend a great amount of time carefully listening to CHROs and C-suite executives–and learning about the skills and leadership experience that are especially important to them. Our company’s success depends on understanding what businesses truly need to drive performance through their talent and leadership.

As MBA and other business leadership programs across the nation seek to ensure that the next generation of business leaders will fit those requirements, there are three points of guidance we can pass along from corporate search committees and the candidates themselves, as they consider which organizations to join.

A key priority of corporate search committees is to ensure that a candidate’s demonstrated leadership experience includes adherence to the highest ethical standards.

In today’s business environment, ethical leadership is more than a desired quality–it’s a must-have. Search committees expect this to be the case and will often further probe candidates to confirm that their previous leadership roles reflect these high standards.

The top candidates for senior executive positions are asking the same questions: “Has this organization demonstrated a commitment to ethics and ethical leadership? Have they applied the principles of ethical leadership consistently, even during very difficult times?”

The priority given to candidates who have demonstrated ethics and ethical leadership continues to be reinforced, as does the amount of background searches our teams have been asked to provide to ensure evidence of real ethics and ethical leadership.

There are even programs in place today to instill quietly well-regarded principles of ethical leadership in modern MBA curricula, often backed by nonpartisan philanthropic organizations or business programs like the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown, Etisphere and the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund. That organization annually partners with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) to honor a 2023-era CEO who emblemizes tenets such as empathy in the boardroom, business resilience and self-awareness; traits which recent McKinsey surveys dating back pre-pandemic reflect are in short supply.

Yes, unfortunately, there are also some corporate executives of today experiencing severe ethical lapses, causing damage to reputations, reduced business success, and loss of confidence among employees, shareholders, customers, and other stakeholders. The price for failing to practice ethics and ethical leadership can be extremely high–and last a very long time.

Given the guiding priorities of corporate search committees and the candidates themselves, this issue is serious and will be a vital criterion in companies’ assessments of business leaders in the future, as well as in candidates’ consideration of organizations they might join.

We do hope that MBA and business leadership programs take heed to the power and importance of ethics and ethical leadership as they prepare the next generation of business leaders.