Ethics 101 For CEOs

Don't laugh -- plans are in the works

Amid the hand-wringing over corporate scandals, the Business Roundtable has unveiled an initiative to train the nation's CEOs in the finer points of ethics. But experts wonder if these old dogs can be taught new tricks.

The Roundtable's plan is certainly ambitious: The association of top CEOs will start an ethics institute at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia to conduct research, develop a B-school ethics program, and lead seminars. "As the chief ethics officers at our companies, we know setting and maintaining the highest ethical standards starts at the top," says Henry A. McKinnell, the group's chairman and Pfizer Inc.'s (PFE ) CEO. "This effort will support business leaders to maintain a cutting-edge culture of ethical business practices."

Maybe, maybe not. The institute will tap some of the best minds in the U.S. -- professors from Harvard Business School, Wharton, and other top B-schools. But governance experts say teaching corporate ethics is a tough assignment. They suggest case studies exploring the consequences of real-life behavior. Says Sarah B. Teslik, executive director of the Council of Institutional Investors: "If packaged right, it could create the conditions for a 'there but for the grace of God go I' epiphany."

The problem: By the time most CEOs become CEOs, they're pretty set in their ways. Says B. Espen Eckbo, founding director of the Center for Corporate Governance at Dartmouth College: "You cannot teach ethics to a 55-year-old CEO with a big ego." Let's hope he's wrong.

By Louis Lavelle in New York and Amy Borrus in Washington

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