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Leadership / Company Culture / Economics, Capitalism, Geopolitics & Globalization / Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) Issues / Policy & Government / Strategy / Financial Services / International Speakers & Advisors / Executive Education


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Learn More About Karthik Ramanna

Today, trust in both business and government, particularly among the young, is roughly the lowest it has been since the Great Depression. How do the institutions central to the functioning of society and the world economy begin to recoup that lost trust? Oxford academic Karthik Ramanna studies how organizations build trust with stakeholders and the role of innovative businesses in designing sensible and responsible “rules of the game.” A pragmatic advocate of democracy and free enterprise who also recognizes the need for change and adaptation, Ramanna helps both the corporate and public sectors reach out to skeptics and opponents, devise strategies for building confidence and reimagine their place in the great global debate over equity and trust.

Ramanna, a professor of Business and Public Policy at the University of Oxford, is an expert on business-government relations, sustainable capitalism and corporate reporting. A leading authority on corporate accounting standards and practices, Professor Ramanna unraveled a stark reality in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis: in their drive to profitability, companies were shaping the rules of the global economy in ways that subvert capitalism itself. He addressed these issues in his 2016 book, “Political Standards: Corporate Interest, Ideology, and Leadership in the Shaping of Accounting Rules for the Market Economy” (University of Chicago Press), which explored the role of industry experts in setting standards and norms for market behavior. Through his keynotes and advisory services, Ramanna guides companies on steps they can take to enshrine integrity, transparency and accountability within their governance structures. In doing so, firms can not only bolster their own reputations and leverage that to increase profits, but can also help remedy the essential problem of trust that afflicts modern capitalism, which could potentially be its downfall.

In addition to his work on reforming capitalism and building organizational trust, Ramanna is a leading scholar on how public institutions can sustain a reputation for excellence and serve as magnets for top-tier talent. Ramanna argues that a major contributor to the decline of trust in capitalism is the draining of capacity for action of public sector institutions. Using case studies of organizations that have successfully served as beacons of competence and prestige, Ramanna offers concrete lessons for institutions seeking to attract the best and brightest while doing good.

Professor Ramanna, who has authored dozens of research articles and case studies on non-market strategies in Africa, China, the EU, India and the U.S., has consulted with several leading professional service organizations worldwide. His scholarship has won numerous awards, including the Journal of Accounting & Economics Best Paper Prize and the Case Centre’s Outstanding Case-Writer prize, dubbed by the Financial Times as “the business school Oscars.” He is the faculty chair of the Transformational Leadership Fellowship, a bespoke, by-invitation, part-time program for senior corporate executives considering a second career that can bring their strengths to address broader societal challenges. Ramanna is also the inaugural director of Oxford’s Master of Public Policy program, a flagship one-year degree for current and prospective leaders in government. He is currently working on a book project that explores how the institutions of free-market societies must adapt to survive both declining public trust and transformational technologies like artificial intelligence.

Prior to his roles at Oxford, Professor Ramanna taught leadership, corporate governance and accounting at the Harvard Business School in both the MBA and senior executive education programs. He is a faculty associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and has a doctorate from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He has served on the editorial boards of several scientific journals, including as co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal Accounting, Economics and Law.

Karthik Ramanna is available for keynote addresses, panel discussions, workshops and advisory/consulting services through the exclusive representation of Stern Speakers & Advisors, a division of Stern Strategy Group®.

Karthik Ramanna was last modified: February 22nd, 2024 by Justin Louis

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Cutting Through the ESG Greenwash: A Sustainable Approach for Corporates and Investors

Investors, advocacy groups, politicians, and over 200 CEOs of the U.S. Business Roundtable are among those asking corporations to adopt a purpose-driven approach to pursuing shareholder value. In response, many companies now issue ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) reports. These reports, however, are often greeted with skepticism for their high fluff-to-substance ratios. How can we fix ESG reporting so that it serves investors and society and achieves the intended goal of addressing challenges like climate change and global inequality? In this presentation, Professor Ramanna discusses common traps corporations fall into when preparing ESG reports and explains how they can overcome those traps using an explicit framework that helps make trade-offs inherent in underlying ESG actions. He also shares strategies for robust ESG reporting and auditing and outlines principles for investors to consider as they evaluate ESG reports for their own stewardship indices.

Renewing Organizational Trust: Winning Over Skeptics Within and Outside the Enterprise

Even as we enter an age where leaders in business and government are trusted less than building contractors, more is expected of them than ever before. For leaders to make long-term decisions that require near-term sacrifices from stakeholders, they must earn the trust of skeptics both inside and outside their organizations. Drawing on lessons from a wide range of field studies – including entities as diverse as IKEA, Nestle, the U.S. Justice Department and the Vatican Bank, and in places as varied as China, India and Saudi Arabia – Professor Ramanna discusses the actions leaders take, and the mistakes they sometimes make, as they navigate the trust divide. He guides organizations through such measures as:

  • Building a mandate for organizational reform when external stakeholders demand radical change but internal powerbrokers are tradition-bound
  • Navigating conflicting expectations of global firms in different jurisdictions – for instance, the empowerment of LGBT employees in countries where this contravenes local customs and laws
  • Deciding when and if to legitimately engage – as a multinational corporation – in policymaking outside your home jurisdiction

In this presentation, Ramanna can elaborate on powerful analytical tools such as bridging capability asymmetries, managing perception gaps and setting and delivering on legitimate expectations.

Doing Business in an Age of Outrage

Across the world, populism and nationalism are supplanting free-enterprise and globalisation in the public’s consciousness. Are these trends transient or here to stay? Even as public trust in business leaders declines, more is being expected of business to address grand societal challenges like climate change, inequality and shifting demographics. So how must business respond? Are the responses different for local versus multinational businesses? Are they different in emerging versus developed societies? Can businesses still rely on a global supply-chains rooted in political stability and arbitraging low-labour costs? Or must business rethink the globalisation and free-market paradigms altogether? Professor Karthik Ramanna offers a thought-provoking keynote drawing on more than a decade of practical case study-based research on these questions.

The Future of Capitalism: Defending the Market Economy in an Age of Populism

Why is free-market capitalism – seemingly the winning formula for the success of nations since at least the end of World War II – losing popular support worldwide? America is a case in point. Where once the U.S. was synonymous with free markets, today we see the specters of economic nationalism and even socialism. How did we get here? Wages for jobs in the lower third of population skills have stagnated or declined over nearly forty years. This deterioration is visible in occupations affected by automation and global competition – policies encouraged by market liberalization. Moreover, as America pursued free trade and free markets, it was slow to upskill those most vulnerable to economic change.

In the face of further disruption from artificial intelligence and rising authoritarianism, how should multinational businesses respond? As public institutions have failed to act, more is being expected of corporations. But how much of the solution is within the corporate mandate and capabilities? And how can corporations do so without losing focus on profitability, particularly in the face of intense international competition? Professor Ramanna’s presentations equip audiences with a framework for business leaders looking to engage in an increasingly hostile and populist world, where long-held rules for global engagement are coming undone.

Reimagining Corporate Reporting: The Role of Boards, Auditors and Senior Management

Listed corporations are locked in a dysfunctional game with Wall Street intermediaries, where hundreds of billions of dollars are lost to financial reporting shenanigans such as meeting artificial earnings-per-share benchmarks. Meanwhile, corporate auditors are criticized for their seeming willingness to accept aggressive accounting practices. Overall, this scenario has helped deplete public faith in capital markets, contributing to the populist backlash on finance. How can boards, senior management and auditors in listed corporations break out of this flawed equilibrium? In this presentation, Professor Ramanna  discusses which accounting and non-financial reporting practices mitigate manipulation of capital markets and build trust with investors and other stakeholders. He explores the role of prudent, verifiable and timely reporting principles as bedrocks of modern capitalism, and  offers a framework for designing reporting standards that promote transparency and stability in the global financial system.

HBR Harvard Business Review 2022

Managing in the Age of Outrage

January-February 2023

The New York Times Logo 2022

Ruling From the Shadows

November 21, 2015

The Age of Outrage: How to Lead in a Polarized World

(Harvard Business Review Press, October 2024)

Harvard Business School Logo 2022

How to Fix ESG Reporting

(Harvard Business School Accounting & Management Unit, June 2021)

Investors and consumers alike are increasingly skeptical about corporations and capitalism. Meanwhile, governments are becoming more unpredictable as they respond to populist pressure. How should corporate boardrooms and C-suites approach these times of challenge and uncertainty? The answer varies based on the scale, capabilities and citizen expectations of individual corporations in their different geographies, notes Professor Karthik Ramanna. Building on his generalized framework of how business can legitimately respond to the trust crisis in capitalism, Professor Ramanna offers customized workshops with corporate leadership teams to develop specific action plans to navigate this age of outrage. Leveraging his unique insights into what drives public-service organizations, Ramanna helps corporations embed authentic empathy and civic responsibility into their corporate strategy.

“‘Accounting for Climate Change’ could not be more timely given the urgency of the climate crisis and the imperative for companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The judges praised the article’s rigorous and practical approach to improving ESG reporting.”

Adi Ignatius, Editor in Chief of Harvard Business Review

“The response has been very positive. Partners rated the seminar a 6.8/7 for being thought-provoking, 6.8/7 for being highly-engaging, and 100% plan to discuss the concepts with colleagues or clients. Quite an all-around success!”

McKinsey’s Partner University