RSB Member Profile – Professor Mollie Painter- Centre Leader

About Prof. Mollie Painter 

Mollie is a research professor, teacher and and public speaker whose professional endeavours span three continents and a variety of institutional settings. In her current roles as professor at Nottingham Business School and Africa Director of the Academy of Business in Society (ABIS) she combines academic writing with practice-oriented leadership development as well as consulting in the areas of business ethics, CSR and sustainability. Mollie’s professional activities have always been varied and diverse. After pursuing her PhD research at the Center for Business Ethics in Boston as a Fulbright scholar, she returned to her country of birth, South Africa, to run the Centre for Business and Professional Ethics (CBPE), which spearheaded ethics across the curriculum initiatives at the University of Pretoria. At the same time, she developed a successful ethics management and corruption prevention consulting offering for the CBPE. She then moved to Chicago, where she worked as a tenured associate professor and associate director of the Institute of Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University – an institution known, among other things, for its service learning and ethics across the curriculum programmes. She also continued to work as a consultant, providing expertise on the development of ethical cultures, ethical leadership development and professional ethics. Since her move to the UK around three years ago, her academic interests and professional activities have been focused on the establishment of the Responsible and Sustainable Business Lab (RSBLab).


How would you assess the impact of globalization on the business ethics of companies?

It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, certain global codes and standards have emerged that require of companies to be more transparent about their impact on society. Companies are now required to report on the triple bottom-line (economic, social and environmental performance), rather than just on their profit-making. International reporting standards like the Global Reporting Initiative’s G4 standards provide clear guidelines and performance indicators to do so, which improves the comparability of various companies’ performance and can enhance transparency and stakeholder engagement. On the downside however, the global environment make responding to ethical challenges more complex due to cultural diversity, political dynamics and different legal systems. The risks to society and the environment are also much more difficult to manage as a result, with companies often making themselves guilty of ‘window-dressing’, or participating in the ‘race-to-the-bottom’, i.e. minimalist rule-adherence and cynical box-checking. Cross-sectoral partnership, as well as stakeholder activism, are required to prevent this.


Do you think that the corporate responsibilities of companies in the energy sector differ from those in other sectors, or perhaps that some weigh heavier? And do you think that there is room for improvement?

Indeed, the extractive industries pose great risks to society and the environment, and as such, are under heavier scrutiny and open to criticism. However, the energy sector also has great potential to facilitate truly transformative change in the long-term interest of society and environment. Developing cleaner and more sustainable energy alternatives is an opportunity to show how capitalism can support human flourishing rather than undermine it. If companies in the energy sector approach their corporate responsibilities as an opportunity to create purpose and meaning in the working lives of their employees and stakeholders, they will not only attract top talent, but also gain competitive advantage.


Given the changes and transition that the energy sector finds itself in, what kind of leadership is needed here?

In the leadership literature there is much debate on whether we are witnessing a return to a desire for strong top-down leadership, rather than the distributed, participative leadership models that have replaced our ‘Great Man’ theories (gender-bias intended) in recent years . On the one hand, it is clear that we need decisive commitment to change if we are going to make any inroad into addressing the environmental and social risks that we face globally. However, environmental risks and social challenges are too complex to manage in a top-down manner, and inter-disciplinary expertise and skills and cross-disciplinary collaboration are required to design viable business models, technologies and management practices. As a result, leadership in the energy environment will function best, at least in my mind, if leading in a sustainable manner becomes the assigned and incentivized task of various influencers across the organization (middle management, engineers, marketers etc.). Of course, top management have to opt into doing this, and assign budget and other resources to make this a reality, but in the long-run, sustainability emerges from collaborative change movements across the organization that generate important tipping-points and systemic change.


Today you can quite often hear people say that the morality of our societies is changing or that the current norms and values are under pressure. What does this mean for business ethics and how our companies or organisations affected by this?

Given recent political developments in various parts of the world, one may feel that it is not a good time for those of us committed to environmental responsibility, social values such as equality, care and respect for people, and ethical values such as fairness, transparency and honesty. Thankfully these values are deeply entrenched in our understanding of what is required for human beings and businesses to flourish. Ethics is in fact an embodied reality, honed through evolution and societal practices of collaboration and belonging. This is not something a few politicians can change. They can perhaps make it more acceptable to voice certain immoral sentiments such as racism and sexism in the public domain. They can even make themselves guilty of unethical business practices such as corruption, or various conflicts of interest. But history has shown that an embrace of unethical values such as racism hardly ever leads to prosperous societies and businesses in the long-run (the demise of Apartheid in my home country of South Africa being a case in point). As such, it is perhaps time that we stop making our belief in values contingent upon political leadership or societal dynamics, and instead on a reading of history, literature, philosophy and neuroscience, which has all that is required to make us understand that ’this too shall pass’…  It is however up to us to do our bit to make any embrace of destructive values pass sooner, rather than later – and we do so by putting our values to work, rather than just talking about them.




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