Presbyterian College alumna Robin Boren ’97 shared her personal experiences navigating the ethical dilemmas of doing business at the 2022 Robert M. Vance Lecture on Business Ethics held Jan. 25.
Boren, the senior vice president of finance and treasurer of Southern Company and a member of the PC Board of Trustees, said she researched the late Vance and discovered that the Clinton banker and textile magnate lived by the same principles she values – ethics, honesty, and integrity.
“These were things he lived by,” she said. “And he believed these were very important qualities as a business leader. Ethics are part of our personal journey – what we’ve been through in our lives and how it impacts how we live our lives. I know that is the case for me.”
Ethics was one of the greatest lessons Boren learned at PC.
“The fact that we have an honor code – that it is real and it is important,” she said. “It’s not just something we put on our website or, in my day, the glossy brochure you picked up at the administration building. It’s real. As a student, you have an obligation to uphold the honor code – if for no other reason than so future generations can also have the honor code. I know I felt that obligation when I was here as a student, and I’m sure you do, as well.”
Ethics and honor also are inherent in the college’s motto, “While We Live, We Serve,” Boren said. The same holds true of the Presbyterian Church’s principles of stewardship, service, honesty, dignity, and respect that come from scripture.
“This institution values those things, as well,” she said. “It embodies them. So, PC left its mark on me as I think about ethics and my commitment to ethics and the way I look at ethics – no question about it. And it has been a good mark at that. A good foundation for me.”
During the late 1990s, PC professors began letting their students take final exams outside of the standard class period without being proctored. As she took the very last final exam of her undergraduate career – alone in a Harrington-Peachtree Center classroom – Boren said she came up against a question she could not answer and ultimately chose not to look at her notes.
“As ethical dilemmas go, it was not that big,” she said. “But what I’ve come to realize is that while PC gave me a great foundation on ethics, not every ethical dilemma is as black and white as cheating. There’s a lot of gray out there, and navigating that gray in the face of chaos and strife and stress in the business world is not nearly as easy as I thought it was going to be. I’ve had to learn some painful lessons, as a matter of fact. Along the way, I’ve learned to navigate the gray, trust my gut, and surround myself with people who share my view on ethics.”
Early in her professional career, Boren said she created a model for two financing options for a client, including one her employer wanted to sell. However, her numbers suggested the client should choose the “vanilla” option. When she presented her estimates to her supervisor, he reconfigured her assumptions and led to a different conclusion more favorable to her employer.
“Was that ethical?” she said. “Were his assumptions better than my assumptions? He certainly had more experience than I had. He was my boss. He had to go pitch the product to the client. I just ran the numbers. What would you do? I did nothing. That day has sat with me for 25 years. It really taught me about the kind of people I want to surround myself within the business world.”
Later, at a different company, Boren said she had to give a client bad news about potential investors and learned a valuable lesson on being more transparent. But even in failure, there was room to grow and establish personal ethical standards.
“I’m a big fan of failure stories,” she said. “It is from our failures that we learn so much. Those experiences early on in my career really shaped for me the kind of leader I wanted to be and the people I wanted to surround myself with and even the kind of company I wanted to work for.”
At Southern Company, Boren said she works with and for people who share her values. Even when employees on her team have been laid off, she said the company found ways to help them, and she has made it her goal to be completely transparent and keep them informed.
“I have an obligation as their leader to tell them what’s going on,” she said. “If you trust your leader is being honest with you – one, you can reduce their fear and anxiety and, two, they would know to make the best decisions for themselves and their family.
What ethics comes down to is people, said Boren. Whether clients, investors, or employees, everyone deserves transparency, honesty, and empathy.
“I had a boss who said, if I lose my job, I can always go out and get another one,” Boren said. “But if I lose my reputation, I’m toast. I have lots of experience and skills I can use in another role. But if I don’t have my integrity, no one will hire me.”
Boren told students that PC gives them a great foundation to live and work ethically.
“Learn from your ethical misjudgments and use them to make better decisions as you go forward on your journey,” she said.