Best 40-Under-40 Professor Adam Waytz

Adam Waytz of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management is among the 40 best business school profs under 40

Adam Waytz of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management is among the 40 best business school profs under 40

Adam Waytz

Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations

Age: 33

Institution: Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

Before current institution: Harvard University (post-doctoral research associate)

Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

Marital status: Married

Children: none

Education: University of Chicago, PhD, social psychology

Courses currently teaching: Values-Based Leadership, The Individual in the Organization, Ethics and Executive Leadership

Fun fact: I have two other lives: I have released a number of albums and toured North America and Europe as a member of a rap group since age 16, and I have co-authored two books about professional basketball as a member of the FreeDarko collective.

Professor I most admire: My mentors, colleagues, collaborators, and especially Daniel Wegner, a Harvard psychologist who passed away last year and who exemplified the idea that levity and intellect do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Most memorable moment as a professor: Any time students use tools from class to shape their organizations or to better understand issues related to values and ethics in business. Former students tell me they have used values-based principles from class to craft mission statements, design fundraising strategies, and develop the vision of start-up companies. Other students have used class material to better understand ethical dilemmas in their work lives. For example, following a lecture on whistle blowing, an executive student who was also a fleet manager at a major European shipping company wrote a master’s thesis uncovering surprising effects of monetary incentives on whistle blowing in the shipping industry. Others have used class to discuss and think through issues related to discrimination, conflicts of interest, and cross-cultural differences in ethics. Helping students cut through the complexity of these extremely thorny issues is always rewarding.

“If I weren’t a B-school professor…” I would like to be general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves, clerk at the Dries Van Noten store in Antwerp, or line cook at Manny’s Deli in Chicago. Honestly though, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Rusted and old parts, antennas and bear hearts
Grease for the axel rod and keys to the cattle prod
Slangin’ fish bait on the corner like mix-tapes
With bow-legged Eddie so faded, can’t piss straight 

– “14th Street Ritual,” Kill the Vultures

Adam Waytz, 33, leads two lives. In the first, he’s a psychologist at the Kellogg School of Management, researching topics like ethics and meaning-making and teaching MBAs about effective leadership; he says the worst advice he’s ever received is “don’t worry about it,” because “I always feel like I get caught sleeping whenever I’ve taken the advice to not worry about something,” he explains.

In his other life, though, he’s Advizer: a member of a rap group that toured the U.S. and Europe and once performed with Snoop Dogg.

When Waytz was 16 years old, he and his friends formed the group—first called Oddjobs, later Kill the Vultures—in their hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Minneapolis and St. Paul have a surprisingly thriving rap music scene, so we came up under some of the elders of that scene,” Waytz says. Still, he dreamt of venturing out. “I felt all this teenage angst that I needed to move to a bigger city, so I wanted to move to New York,” he says.

His ticket to the Big Apple also happened to be the first step on his path to professorship: acceptance at Columbia University. “My freshman year in college, I saw two or three shows a week and spent all of the money I’d ever earned in part-time jobs in high school and things like that,” he recalls. “It was really fun.” Still, more classically intellectual pursuits didn’t fall by the wayside. One summer, Waytz took a social psychology class—taught by two graduate students—that made him realize what he really wanted to study. “I don’t even think I necessarily wanted to be a professor,” he says. “I just wanted to be a grad student. I saw their lives and they got to play with ideas, and they were published, and they had interesting things to say, and I just said, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to be a graduate student in social psychology.’ I knew that when I was 19 years old.”

Right after college, he went to University of Chicago to pursue a PhD in psychology. Thanks to a few particularly understanding advisors, he still managed to stay in the rap game. “We got an opportunity to do a major 60-day tour, and they said, ‘No, you need to do that. Join us when you’re ready,’” he says. He went ahead and toured with their blessings. When an opportunity to travel even farther popped up, his advisors encouraged him to keep at it. “When we changed our name to Kill The Vultures, the music became a little bit more avant-garde, and people in Europe really started picking up on it,” he says. “We got to tour Italy and France a couple of times. I’m not sure if they could understand the lyrics, but they really liked our energy and it was a really wild experience.”

Now, Waytz is an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, and though he still records, he doesn’t have much time for touring anymore. But he can’t imagine having any other job. “I think business schools demand that you are able to answer the question ‘so what?’ much more than being a member of a purely academic department,” he says. “‘Why does this matter? Why does what you’re studying, why does what you’re teaching matter to us in the real world?’”

Right now, most of Waytz’s research and teaching centers around morality and ethics, topics that have plenty of real-world applicability (or not, depending on your level of cynicism). Ethical dilemmas take up a lot of space in Waytz’s mind. “I’m constantly worried about my own ethical failings, because as the guy who teaches ethics, I think that creates an opportunity for real feelings of betrayal,” he says.

Nevertheless, Waytz doesn’t teach ethics in a fire-and-brimstone sort of way. “I don’t want to speak to students like they’re children and tell them, ‘Don’t lie, don’t cheat, and don’t steal,’” he says. Instead, he uses data from labs, field studies, and surveys to demonstrate that paying attention to ethics is a sound business strategy. “There’s a case to be made that ethical companies—socially responsible organizations—do better,” he explains. “They do better financially but also do better on things that we wouldn’t necessarily associate with ethics, such as innovation.” For example, a company that puts a premium on ethics likely fosters a culture of trust, openness, and autonomy—“the same factors that are going to lead people to be more comfortable generating novel ideas, thinking innovatively,” he says.

Much of Waytz’s work is tied to broad questions: “Can you actually make people better people?” he asks. “Can you increase people’s ability to be compassionate, empathetic? Can you increase people’s ability to be altruistic? Can you increase people’s willingness to behave ethically? Those aren’t always the questions I’m asking with my research, but those are big questions. Can you design organizations or situations that actually lead people to become better people?”

These are heavy matters to deal with—which is why Waytz keeps in mind the example of Daniel Wegner, a Harvard psychologist who passed away last year. “The implicit advice that he would always give me is that we have to pursue these sort of intellectual and scholarly demands with a sense of humor,” he says. “It’s important to keep things interesting.”

Adam Waytz is among “The World’s 40 Best B-School Profs Under the Age of 40