“We can afford to lose money. We can afford to lose a lot of money. But we cannot afford to lose one shred of our reputation. Make sure everything you do can be reported on the front page of your local newspaper written by an unfriendly, but intelligent reporter.”

–Warren Buffett

You should know that this has been a week of resumption for Darden. We welcomed everyone back to the North Grounds for our MBA Full-Time degree program. First year students are excited and perhaps a little apprehensive about what lay before them. Second year students are confident: full of great summer experiences and expecting a year of good courses and job prospects ahead. Staff and faculty have a spring in their steps, suggesting a recuperative summer. This week has the air of a New Year celebration. In this context, the words of Warren Buffett came back to me—he sends them annually in a New Year’s greeting to the employees of Berkshire Hathaway. They caution us about what really matters: great organizations don’t measure stature simply by profit; they do so by reputation. Thus it is at Darden.

In greeting our MBA students, I advised them to live the brand. I extend this advice to all students, faculty, staff, and our extended family. Each year, we interact with a wide range of people, companies, governments, NGOs, media, and so on. All of these will judge you, and Darden, by what you say and do. Assume that you are always on stage. You are Darden’s brand.

Darden’s brand is easily identified from our mission statement, slogans (“high touch, high tone, and high octane”) and from our exemplars—people like Steve Reinemund, Susan Dorsey, Warren Thompson, Lawton Fitt, Bill Hawkins, Follin Smith, George David, Palmer Garson, and so many others. In a field of over 540 accredited MBA schools, I describe Darden’s strategic position as a “high-end boutique”: small, in a lovely location, very selective, relentlessly focused on quality, highly principled (our robust honor system and leadership in business ethics), and tied to a premium historical legacy (Thomas Jefferson and one of the oldest universities in the United States.) Our market research reveals that we have a strong “brand” defined in these terms.

Why live the brand? As John Donne said, “no man is an island‚Ķapart from the main.” We are all part of a larger community. All of us gain when any of us rise in stature; the reverse is true as well. There is another reason why we should live the brand. We all are stewards of a public trust. The Commonwealth of Virginia, our alumni, corporate partners and the public have generously supported Darden in the belief that the School and its programs will “better society,” as the Darden Mission Statement expresses it. We owe our constituents of the past, present, and future the kind of conduct that will thank them for their support.

How does one live the brand? Quite simply, you have to square your actions with the values you espouse. As Mohandas Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want to see a strong Darden, live a strong Darden.

Warren Buffett got it right: we at Darden cannot afford to lose one shred of our reputation. Our reputation reflects our values. We should live our values in the good year ahead, and always.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 08/22/2007 10:05:28 PM