How much of this book came from the classroom? Did it evolve out of discussions in the classroom or is it more research-based?
It evolved more from experience in the classroom, but also my research: My focus area is on business sustainability. So the idea of business being a positive force in society is something that’s been front and center for my work for a long time. The idea that we need to address climate change. The market is a cause of that, but the market has to fix it. Only business can create forms of mobility, buildings we live and work in, the food we eat, the clothes we wear.
And so a lot of people are throwing rocks at business, and maybe that’s fair, but I defy any of them to come up with an alternative solution to these problems besides business. Business is the most powerful institution on earth. And then similarly with economic inequality. I mean, it’s caused by the market as presently set, through policies that were deliberate choices influenced heavily by people in the corporate sector.
We can fix these problems, but we need to teach business students to have a responsibility to create a safe and sound society. I think for example, right now, businesses are in a quandary over what to do about funding for politicians that … took positions on contesting the integrity of the election.
Just the other day, Google announced they would not donate to any of those who voted against the certification. That’s a pretty big deal.
It is a big deal. And I find it’s an interesting double-edged sword. Anand Giridharadas’ book, Winners Take All, has really crystallized a fair criticism of businesses becoming too powerful. But to my mind, they don’t have an alternative solution. And while I would love to see government become more powerful and set laws and create stable institutions, the fact is, they’re not doing it. And so business is stepping into the breach — whether they want to or not, they have to. Companies are going to be pulled into social, cultural, and political debates more and more. Many of them are completely unprepared to do that.
I mean, a new administration, new direction — you talk about a vacuum where government might have acted. Don’t you think government is going to reverse a bit?
I think that there’s some structural problems and limitations on how far they can go. I mean, just because we’ve had a change in administrations, the structural cracks, the sources of structural inequality — before Covid, 40% of Americans couldn’t pull together $400 in an emergency, but they’re in the emergency now. I mean, that’s a serious problem. People in business have to have a serious conversation over a fair wage. Because the number of people that work for Walmart that are living on food stamps is startling scary.
We’ve written a lot of stories about what you’re talking about, business as a force for good. And a lot of schools increasingly have programs that fit this ethos. Does that encourage you? Do you see other positive signs in business education?
It encourages me that we’re having some change around the edges, new electives being formed. The Aspen Institute has its Ideas Worth Teaching Award, which has some really great exemplars. At the Harvard Business School, Re-imagining Capitalism; at the University of Virginia Darden, Income Inequality. But as long as the core remains unchanged, then these are single courses amidst an entire curriculum that really is, to my mind, still too stuck in the idea that the purpose of the corporation is to make money for its shareholders.
And while you have the World Economic Forum and the Business Round Table and BlackRock starting to question that, these are aspirational statements, no one’s really figured out how to put tangibility to that. And I think we in business schools have an obligation and responsibility to step into that conversation.
Doesn’t it boil down to trying to teach empathy? And can that be taught?
I’m thinking about it as, not teaching, but encouraging students to examine their conscience and examine their sense of purpose. We can offer a course on ethics and a curriculum that remains unchanged — it will have no impact. And in fact, many students, particularly at the graduate level, are fully formed adults. They already have their ethical code. You can teach them cognitive reasoning, but it’s a little too late. But if we can get them to slow down and pause, and ask, Why are you doing this? And what kind of mark do you want to have on the long arc of your career? This is one piece. I’m not presenting this as the only solution, as the ultimate solution, but it’s one piece.
John Gamble, a corporate attorney, has written some really provocative essays on the idea that the system we put our corporate executives in compels them to act as sociopaths, to focus only on themselves and to the exclusion of everybody else around them. And he makes a really strong point. He says the way to curtail power is through conscience. And that’s what I’m trying to try to do here. And I think our students are ahead of us.
When I talk about management as a calling, I see my students really light up. When I first started teaching in business schools in the mid-’90s, environment wasn’t really in there, sustainability was nonexistent, and students who wanted to change the world went to schools of government and nonprofit management. Today, more and more are going into schools of business. And that gives me hope. And these students, they’re hungry for this content. They really are.
This is your sixth book. What was the spark for this one? How long did it take you, and does it get easier?
In this one, I feel like I’ve said something I’ve wanted to say for a long time. And in a way, it came about by just realizing that many of the articles and essays and blogs and things I’d written were circling around this topic. I first put an idea down, “management as a calling,” probably about 10 years ago. And I didn’t really know what I wanted to say.
And then about a year and a half ago I started to realize that I think I’ve already said it, I’ve just said it in different ways, in different formats. So I just started aggregating and pulling it all together and synthesizing it into a collective whole. So I’ve really wanted to say this for a long, long time.
In some ways, this crystallizes your philosophy?
It does, but there’s so much more to be said. I mean, this is sort of an overarching framework. And then the next step after this is to start to really put meat on the bones — to say, OK, this is how you put it into practice.
What about the Covid factor? How has it impacted you in the classroom? How has teaching been for you?
Well, I taught in the fall, and it was the toughest fall I’ve ever had. I taught hybrid, and I wanted to do that. And I had a 500-seat room for 30 students, which was great. And they were really appreciative to be able to be in the room. We ended online, and I just … it was extremely challenging.
What was the most challenging thing about it for you?
Oh, geez. The technology, getting that right. Zoom was not prepared for this. It is not a complete platform for doing this, managing the online and the in-person. And it’s interesting — I would come home and I’d be exhausted. And I started to realize that when you’re in a classroom, there’s energy coming back at you, there’s a dynamic relationship back and forth with the students. On Zoom, it’s all one-way. All the energy is leaving you, and it is really tiring.
In a larger sense, isn’t there a chance that this whole experience is going to bring people together in a way? People helping each other more and people being more empathetic toward others’ struggles.
Well, you are seeing that in different ways. I’m on the executive committee at the Ross School, and we’re having very serious conversations about how we adjust our in-review, how we adjust our promotion and tenure? And how do we do that in a way that is fair to the fact that — the research shows this — that women are hit a lot harder than men, especially if you have children at home. And so how do we work that in? And then also the students. We’re keenly aware of the psychological health of these students who, some of them may not leave their room for the entire day. They’re just on Zoom all day. How do we work that in?
And it’s another thing, too. We’ve got a new vocabulary in teaching, we talk about synchronous and asynchronous content. And synchronous, I understand that. The asynchronous I think is very interesting, because leaving aside the fact that asynchronous content used to mean a book or an article, now what is that? And so now we’re creating videos. Are we stepping outside our area of expertise? If I was doing a course on the Civil War, would you want to watch Andy Hoffman’s PowerPoint deck, or would you want to watch Ken Burns?
It’s a very fair question of what this will do to who we are as educators and how we do it, and whether we should expand into new domains. Is the university of the future the University of Michigan Google Alliance, or are we actually going to be able to develop new competencies? I’m not so sure.