Michael S. North
“He was my first professor in the MBA program and his class Leadership in Organizations was nothing short of transformative. His lectures always left me and my fellow students talking about the topics for days and weeks after, something other classes have failed to do. He was always encouraging and worked to develop real relationships with us students. He also challenged us, making us rethink our conceptions about many dynamics: age, leadership vs management, gender, success, and others.” – Chad Arnett
Michael S. North, 38, is Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations at New York University Stern School of Business.
His research focuses primarily on challenges of and considerations for the aging and multigenerational workforce. He has been published in leading academic journals including Psychological Bulletin, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Academy of Management Annals, and Research in Organizational Behavior. He has authored op-eds for the Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, Newsweek, Quartz, New Scientist, and other outlets. His work has also been featured in media outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, BBC, New Yorker, Washington Post, Forbes, and TIME.
North wants to do research that helps “unite generations, both within the workplace and in broader society,” he tells Poets&Quants. “(I fear) that ageism is the most (last?) acceptable form of prejudice, and this creates unnecessary and unproductive divisions within a society and a workforce.”
In 2015, the first year he was eligible, he was named a Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science. He was also a Top-10 finalist (out of more than 14,000 candidates across social science fields) for the international Social Sciences USERN Prize, and he was the only pre-tenure invitee for next edition of the prestigious, once-every-decade Handbook of Social Psychology.
At current institution since what year? 2015
Education: BA (Psychology) University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; M.A.; and Ph.D. (Psychology & Social Policy) Princeton University
List of MBA courses you currently teach: The core course “Leadership in Organizations,” in two different Stern programs (Full-Time MBA and Part-Time MBA)
TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I experienced two separate epiphanies during my Psychology PhD program. First, I realized that nearly all the professors I idolized the most (vis-à-vis their research and presentations) taught at business schools. I greatly respected the interdisciplinary, applied lens of their research questions and the engaging way in which they would present their (real-world applicable) findings.
Second, my career path has often vacillated between applied relevance and scholarly rigor. I came to realize that being a business school professor would likely yield the best of both worlds, an environment where I could explore the intellectual questions that not only excite me the most but also might impact organizational practices. Thus far I feel that assumption was correct, and I have been grateful to be in an environment that feels like such a good fit.
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I have been researching age, ageism, and generational tension for nearly 15 years. The first half of my career focused primarily on increasing (at that time, limited) attention on the issue – something along the lines of, “We don’t think about age/ageism/generational tensions enough,” or, “We overlook age as a DEI category,” and trying to build some foundational building blocks to help understand it a bit better. Delving more deeply, the latter portion of my research seeks to clarify some outright misconceptions people sometimes have in this domain.
One misconception is that age discrimination is primarily an “older person issue.” In contrast, a collaboration with my Stern PhD student collaborator, Stephane Francioli, unpacks “youngism” or age biases afflicting the younger side of the spectrum. We find some evidence that ageism may actually (in some cases, at least) be a worse problem for younger adults today. (Francioli & North, 2021)
Another misconception is that social egalitarians care about ageism as much as other “isms.” By contrast, a recent collaboration with Ashley Martin (Stanford GSB) finds that the most fervent equal opportunity advocates not only overlook ageism, but actually endorse certain forms of it, seeing older adults stepping aside for younger ones (e.g., retiring) as freeing up opportunities and supporting egalitarian values. (Martin & North, 2021)
A third misconception is that the best advice automatically comes with age. Rather, in a recent publication with Ting Zhang (HBS), we find that advice from someone younger than you is statistically rated as no less valuable than advice that originated from someone older than you. And yet, we collectively—including younger advisers themselves—underestimate this “wunderkind wisdom.” (Zhang & North, 2020)
A final misconception that my work strives to clear up is that we should be focusing so heavily on numerical age in the first place (which, considerable work has shown, doesn’t tell us much; e.g., chronological age does not reliably predict work performance). Instead, I argue that we should be emphasizing workers’ “GATE”: their Generation, Age, Tenure, and Experience, in order to gain a more comprehensive view of how to accommodate workers of all ages and life stages. (North, 2019) This is a topic I am exploring with my wonderful research lab members, post-doc Irina Gioaba and Ph.D student Angela Shakeri.
If I weren’t a business school professor… Probably a therapist (as I almost was, and as a part of me will likely always be). Otherwise, perhaps an Italian restaurant owner, high school football coach, or video game programmer. But the most important thing of all, I would want a job – like the one I am lucky to have – that allows me to be with my family and two young children as much as possible. I benefitted from my (professor) dad being around when I was growing up, and so naturally I want the same for my own kids.
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? You would have to ask my students! But some things I have been told: 1) Being an NYC native teaching at NYU, and a graduate student not too long ago, I have experienced firsthand what many of my students are going through. Grad school is an anxious time filled with uncertainty; the city can be unforgiving; the business world can seem cutthroat; finding your career path can be winding and intimidating. I want to do my small part to make it seem like things are probably going to turn out ok, since I have been down this road before.
2) I was almost a therapist, and this bleeds into my teaching style. It’s probably not a coincidence that my classes at times feel like group therapy sessions (lol). I strive for inclusion as best I can, as a guiding life principle; in addition, especially in the current world, I feel we all share a need to be “seen,” to feel supported, and free to share our thoughts and concerns. In this vein, in my classes I try to model vulnerability as best I can, sharing the failures and challenges from my own life as (hopefully useful) leadership lessons. In general, I like the idea of my classroom providing some sort of respite from the hecticness of everyday b-school life, and equally important, as a forum where we flex our collective EQ muscles and develop leadership skills thereof.
3) I do not “fit the mold” in much of what I am or do, but I have come to realize the same goes for many of my students, so perhaps they appreciate some aspects of that. For me personally, whereas these misfit feelings used to be a source of insecurity, I have decided to reframe them as a source of strength. In class, we talk about the utility of “filling structural holes” – being connected to different networks and people, which makes you more creative and influential. I have felt this personally growing up in the city, being forced to relate to different worlds, developing an appreciation for many walks of life, and enjoying the opportunity to strike up a conversation with anyone, from the cab driver to the mail person. I like to think of myself as someone who is fairly well-rounded (growing up I spanned many categories: athlete, musician, techie, writer, thinker, observer), and I see the same sort of “passionate generalist” qualities in many of my students. I think that quality bodes quite well for future business leaders. And learning about each student’s personal background is simply fascinating to me; I never get tired of learning about each one’s unique story and finding commonalities. It’s like a fun scavenger hunt that I get to play every semester!
One word that describes my first time teaching: “Grateful,” which describes how I have felt every class since.
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: More “when” than “what.” That is, I wish someone had told me earlier how much I would enjoy being a business school professor.
Professor I most admire and why: (1) my dad, the original “Professor North” and my primary role model in life; (2) my PhD advisor Susan Fiske, a rare combination of force to be reckoned with mixed with the most supportive Ph.D. mentor to ever exist; (3) Nate Pettit, my Stern colleague and most influential unofficial teaching mentor; (4) various social psychologist role models teaching at business schools: Adam Alter (also a Stern colleague), Adam Galinsky, Hal Hershfield, and Michael Norton (the latter not just because of our name similarity, although there probably is something Freudian to that). Also, a special shout-out to my wife, not a professor but a longtime public school teacher, who has taught me so much about how students learn best in the classroom. I often say that she is the “real teacher” in our household. ☺
TEACHING MBA STUDENTS
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? Several things: (1) Sharing reality with students in a variety of ways; (2) the back-and-forth banter that makes class extra fun; (3) getting to know my students on a one-on-one basis, satiating my natural curiosity about individual backgrounds; (4) being around passionate, well-rounded people who have varied interests and want their work to have meaning – qualities that I like to think I share, deeply.
What is most challenging? Finding the ideal balance between teaching my students what I know while also incorporating their prior work experiences into the conversation. I want to make sure that the balance does not skew too heavily toward me acting like I am all-knowing, nor toward the class being a student free-for-all train that goes off the rails.
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Thoughtful
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Inconsiderate
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… “Fair” continues to be the #1 word in my evaluations.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies? I used to compose music; now I try to channel that same creative energy into research ideas, slide decks, and teaching paradigms. Not much time for hobbies these days outside of being with my two young kids, but one of my favorites right now would be collecting retro video game systems and games and playing them (and more modern games on Nintendo Switch) with my 6-year-old son. Also, memes, to pretend I’m cool. I’m probably a little too into them sometimes. There might be something wrong with me. ☺
How will you spend your summer? Bouncing between the city and upstate New York, where my family and I go regularly to escape city life. We love the peacefulness, the space to run around with our kids, and the ability to see the stars at night (unlike the city). I end up doing my best writing and thinking up there, even if it means occasionally making awkward eye contact with deer while I am typing. But we kind of just look at each other for a moment and then get on with our lives, it’s all good. We have an understanding.
Favorite book(s): Moneyball by Michael Lewis, The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett (whom I worked for once upon a time), Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?
Movies: Two of my recent favorites happen to be internationally made: “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (New Zealand) and “Intouchibles” (France). Both mix comedy with drama, and both center on people from different walks of life who initially misunderstand each other but find common ground. This has been a defining theme of my teaching, my research, my marriage, my closest relationships, and my life.
Shows: My wife and I have a bunch of favorites that we like to watch together. Some recent ones: Casa de Papel/Money Heist, Upload, Arcane, Resident Alien, Ted Lasso, Shadow and Bone.
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? Empire of the Sun is my favorite band, but I am into almost everything, being a classically trained pianist, former jazz trumpeter, a former athlete who likes working out to rap and hip-hop, and a child of the 80s-90s (so that era’s music resonates). My favorite artist is my mom, an impressively talented painter and sketch artist from whom I inherited zero of that talent. I did, however, inherit her low-key disposition.
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…
- Experiential learning: Being the professor in the room is an honor, but to borrow a phrase that my wife taught me, it often feels most appropriate when I am the “guide on the side,” versus the “sage on the stage.” In other words, even though I know something, I do not see the value in pretending to know everything. Rather, it makes more sense to draw out the considerably diverse and interesting perspectives that MBA students have to offer, given their diverse and interesting backgrounds, and then offer my two cents to try and bring some of the major points home. Experiential simulations often draw out this dynamic in the most fruitful ways.
- Emphasis on diversity: This is somewhat topical now, but even with that, we have a long way to go in fostering fully inclusive workplaces that celebrate multiple perspectives. To me, true leadership requires being in tune with as many different types of people as possible, regardless of whether or not they happen to be similar to you.
- Emphasis on soft skills: My students hear me say countless times that the biggest differentiator will be how well they get along with and understand others. More broadly, from my standpoint, at least, business school reputations will likely hinge on their ability to train well-rounded, ethical future leaders who understand multiple angles of what is going on in the world around them.
In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Valuing diversity and soft skills, plus – in line with my research interests – accommodating the uniquely complementary skillsets of different age brackets/generations the workplace. I believe the most forward-thinking organizations are doing all of this already, but as above, we have a long way to go. For instance, a majority of organizations report the presence of generational conflict, and I have learned that virtually everyone who has worked in an organization has had an experience involving generations not seeing eye to eye.
I’m grateful for… My students, for helping make academic life less lonely, and also for whoever went out of their way to nominate me for this award. For better or for worse, I am what happens when you usher the quiet one at the back of the room to the front, say “Speak,” and have people actually listen. So it is that spirit that underlies my class, where I try my best to draw out as much as I can from each student, be they vocal or shy. Ever since I was little, perhaps because I tend to “zag” a bit, my report cards described me as a “quiet leader.” But I am not sure I necessarily felt like that at the time, as I often felt talked over, underestimated, and misunderstood. For that reason, I still find myself surprised sometimes that anyone cares about what I have to say. Nevertheless, what I have learned is that, contrary to business “alpha” stereotypes, many of my students know these overlooked feelings quite well. So I guess there is a synergy of sorts between us. I am so fortunate to be in this position, where I can do my small part to help students of all types – extraverted or introverted, majority or minority, typical or atypical – grow into the types of leaders they aspire to be. I want them to know how much they matter. I want them to be inspired to come out of their shell in the manner that I worked hard to do, and have their voices be heard. Their ambitions inspire me, and I never take a single day of this privilege for granted. And as a result, I strive to make one-on-one connections with each and every student, because if that helps them feel like they matter even just a little bit more, or believe in themselves a little bit more, then maybe they will also feel a little less ignored than I used to feel when I was in their position. So, thank you all. And thanks to anyone taking the time to read this.