Alison Taylor is a clinical associate professor at NYU Stern School of Business, and the executive director at Ethical Systems. Her previous work experience includes being a Managing Director at the non-profit business network BSR and a Senior Managing Director at Control Risks. She holds advisory roles at VentureESG, sustainability non-profit BSR, Pictet Group, and Zai Lab, and is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Good Governance.
She has expertise in strategy, sustainability, political and social risk, culture and behavior, human rights, ethics and compliance, stakeholder engagement, anti-corruption and professional responsibility. Her book Higher Ground: How Business Can Do the Right Thing in a Turbulent World will be published by Harvard Business Review Press in February 2024.
Praveen Gupta: “Corporate America is finding itself trapped between society’s progressive impulses, and the conservative backlash”?
Alison Taylor: This is certainly true. But I think it’s been a long time since the world saw America as a role model. Lots of people still want to live here, for the economic opportunity and dynamism. But whether it is guns or reproductive rights, America has plenty of issues that make it a poor role model.
PG: What do you see in the crystal ball?
AT: Gosh, I have no idea. The next election is terrifying. Clearly, we are past the era of globalization and in a much more fragmented, contentious, fraught period where commitments to democracy seem increasingly fragile
PG: Why is delivering on both profit and purpose getting increasingly complex?
AT: I think it’s always been complex. One challenge is that no one agrees on what “purpose” actually is. Another is that doing the right thing, or even just focusing on environmental and social issues, is sometimes profitable, sometimes not. Timeframes, and investing for the long term in an unpredictable world, further complicate things. A final problem is that corporate value itself has become more intangible and perception-based. It has reached the stage where we can’t even agree on terminology, let alone discuss the actual problems.
PG: A quieter leadership cohort in favor of collaboration and humility remains a minority vis-à-vis the Silicon Valley god/emperor model?
AT: One point a smart reader of my upcoming book made is that often this new generation of quieter leaders are just fronts for the existing founders and shareholders, who are now all neatly moving themselves into “executive chair” roles. But, notwithstanding that, there is recruitment data showing that what we are looking for in senior leaders is changing. Recruiters want more international backgrounds, more career variety, more sustainability knowledge, better social skills, humility, and an understanding of influence, not just barking orders from the top.
PG: Milton Friedman’s compelling case for maximizing profit still prevails. Shouldn’t business schools be addressing this?
AT: I am not sure I agree. Businesses must make a profit to survive. Very few of the younger students I teach think that business exists solely to make a profit. To borrow a line from my book, humans need hearts to survive, but don’t exist solely to act as vehicles for their beating hearts. There is an expectation that business should treat workers properly and clean up its own mess. And interestingly, that position is not particularly partisan.
Many of the most powerful faculty continue to approach these questions in a way that might be argued is anachronistic.
In business schools, many of the most powerful faculty continue to approach these questions in a way that might be argued is anachronistic. I think the important thing is to not insist that professors parrot a certain worldview but to open up the space for scrutiny and debate. We can disagree and debate ideas, that’s what a university is for.
PG: Wasn’t it Friedman who unleashed forces of corporate greed leading us down the path of Climate Breakdown?
AT: The problem is not so much Friedman but how he has been interpreted. Perhaps he was right IF there is a clean and clear line between business and politics. There isn’t.
PG: Does it make sense to continue treating branding, culture, sustainability, risk, and ethics as separate disciplines?
AT: My book is about why it does not.
PG: Moreover, performance matrices have little room for ethics.
AT: Some performance matrices consider not just whether a target was achieved, but how it was achieved. High-performing assholes are a big vulnerability in a lot of organizations, not least because this encourages kick down/kiss up behavior.
PG: A deep global hunger for inspirational leadership prevails. Why are business schools unable to address the scarcity of moral leadership?
AT: I don’t know if business schools exist to teach moral leadership, and at least at Stern, there is quite a bit of focus on helping students to be better, more effective and ethical leaders.
One issue that is frequently raised is that personal and organizational ethics are not the same thing, and we are in a highly contentious and polarized era. In my book, I recommend grounding a corporation’s ethical commitments in its impact on human beings.
Exercise practical curiosity about this, treat people with dignity and respect, make your best possible effort to do no harm and clean up your own mess. Interestingly, none of this is partisan and all of it is in line with how society would like business to behave!
PG: It’s been a real privilege tracking the evolution of your book and I am amazed at how you draw in all the rapid-fire unraveling. Truly compelling. My best wishes for the upcoming launch, Alison!
This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.