Pepperdine People Magazine
Pepperdine People Magazine Fall 2005
Walking the Talk: Charles Kerns has written the book on value-centered ethics.
By Lyn Klodt
Warning: derailment ahead if managers fail to match words to actions, and lack accountability, honest leadership, and an ethical framework. These may seem like small things, but each can result in questionable behavior capable of toppling business giants like Enron, Arthur Andersen, Adelphia, WorldCom, and Tyco. Pepperdine University's Charles Kerns helps current and future executives navigate the complexity of modern management by mapping out values-centered leadership, in the classroom and in his new book.
The associate dean at the Graziadio School of Business and Management identifies the number one reason executives "derail": arrogance, plus their own decreased effectiveness. To avoid disastrous consequences, Dr. Kerns advocates a host of proactive steps. For example, managers who embrace "virtuous" values (such as self-control, courage, and integrity) strengthen their resistance to unethical temptations.
"A leader's example might be the single most important determinant of the existence (or absence) of ethical practices throughout an organization," states Dr. Kerns. "If you can walk the talk, it is possible to shape an ethical culture within your organization," he adds with assurance.
Dr. Kerns' early years were spent a world away from the courtroom drama of corporate greed. When "Charlie" was a boy, his father worked as a tenant farmer in Virginia. Several years later he would move the family to the city, beginning a new career as a carpet layer. Both parents hadn't received more than a third-grade education. "My dad didn't know how to get a good education, but he gave me the message: education was the key to a better life," recalls Kerns. He took his father's advice to heart and would later earn a bachelor's degree, a Ph.D., and a Pepperdine MBA.
Opportunity knocked after earning his Graziadio School of Business and Management degree and Dr. Kerns joined Pepperdine's adjunct faculty. Here he applied his real-world business knowledge as a senior healthcare executive at the time to his teaching in the classroom, an approach shared by many of the business school faculty, which sets the Graziadio School apart among MBA programs. Four years later as he continued to teach part-time, Kerns transitioned from the healthcare field to start his own consulting company, in which he used his psychology and business acumen to coach business executives on how to improve the performance of their organizations. In 2000, he joined the Graziadio School as a full-time associate professor.
"Teachers have always been my role models," he says simply. One in particular had a tremendous impact on young Charlie. It was a psychologist who taught senior high school students. "You have to understand what a total aberration it was for a Ph.D. to teach public high school," recalls Dr. Kerns. His teacher delivered organized lessons, fascinating material, and encouragement, and Charlie applied his own passion for psychology at college where he majored in it.
Fast forward to 2003, and another opportunity in education was presented to Dr. Kerns. He accepted his current role as the Graziadio School's associate dean for academic affairs, mainly responsible for the care, nurturing, and leading of a faculty on a trajectory to becoming world class among business schools. In this leadership position, Kerns believes that he can be especially effective in relating to the faculty by continuing to teach. Benefiting from his instruction are first-year business school students who learn how to "manage values" from Kerns during Human Behavior and Organizations.
Linda A. Livingstone, dean of the Graziadio School, describes how one of the school's strengths also applies to Dr. Kerns. "We work with our faculty to integrate in a synergistic way their teaching, scholarly work, and connections to the business community. Charlie not only articulates this vision extremely effectively, he models it."
A perfect example is Kerns' recently published book, Value-Centered Ethics—A Proactive System to Shape Ethical Behavior, which he wrote at the request of the publisher. It is practical instruction that teaches business professionals how to take charge of ethical behavior in their organization. Kerns believes there are three important steps. But he warns they're not easy ones. First, clarify your values. They determine your attitudes and how you act. Second, communicate your values. Third, act in accordance with what you have said.
George Pepperdine himself laid out those three stepping stones in his 1937 charge to faculty: "…you shall conduct your lives in such a manner as to be noble examples of Christian living in the presence of the students who are likely to be influenced more by what you do than by what you say."
Mr. Pepperdine's words are prominently printed in large type, framed on the wall of Dr. Kerns' West Los Angeles office, and often pointed out to prospective faculty members that he interviews. "Mr. Pepperdine was talking about values management!" he says enthusiastically. "All three are right there – clarify, communicate, act." It's a timeless, succinct guide on how to do the right thing, with an added bonus. "It also makes good economic sense," adds Charles Kerns. And what businessperson isn't interested in the bottom line?