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Stern Faculty Spotlight: Alison Taylor

“I have got a very long way […]  by pivoting careers and fields frequently. I think that there is a lot to be gained by seeing connections between things rather than staying in one area and just doing the same thing over and over again. Going to business school is an amazing moment to completely change your career, so I would advise people to take that possibility seriously because you don’t have endless chances to do that. Think creatively, because a sideways move might be very good for you in the long term.” – Alison Taylor 

This month’s Stern Faculty Spotlight features Alison Taylor, the Executive Director of Ethical Systems and Adjunct Professor at Stern. Alison has spent the last two decades consulting to multinational companies on risk, anti-corruption, sustainability, human rights, culture and behavior, stakeholder engagement, ESG, and ethics and compliance. She holds advisory roles at ESG and risk consultancy Wallbrook and sustainability non-profit Business for Social Responsibility, and is a 2019-2021 member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Transparency and Anti-Corruption. 

Let’s start with the basics. Introduce yourself and what you teach here at NYU.

My name is Alison Taylor and I teach Professional Responsibility to MBAs and Professional Responsibility and Leadership to undergrads. This summer, I will also be teaching executives on a short course called Leadership for the 21st Century.

Describe for our readers your areas of academic interest.

I am broadly interested in questions of ethical culture and human behavior inside organizations. This began with an interest in corruption and how businesses operate in environments where there is a lot of political risk, poverty and underdevelopment. And I’m interested in human rights, sustainability and responsible business.

Ok, this question is a little longer. Tell us more about your career and the experiences that brought you to where you are today.

I studied History for my BA and was obsessed with anti-colonial movements (I’m British, so they are quite central to our story!). So, after school, I worked in a liquor store to save money and I backpacked around India for a year. That was really, really life changing for me and it started a complete love of travel. I absolutely fell in love with India. I had no money and I didn’t touch hot water for six months … and it was awesome. 

After India, I went back to London and then went to grad school to study International Relations at the University of Chicago. I specialized in India and the Indian political economy, and even studied Hindi. Though I did not focus on India later, my interest in globalization, business and impact on society had begun, and became a big theme in my career. I’d had some very badly paid jobs before going to get this masters, so once that was complete, I thought, ‘Now I have to make some money.’  I took a job as a strategy consultant at PwC. This was during the first dotcom boom, so I was in San Francisco working on tech projects. I lived in the W Hotel and it was fun for a little while.  Then I moved back to London (for a guy who ended it two weeks before I got back, but that’s another story!). I carried on being a management consultant for PwC, but by then had decided I didn’t like all the forced travel that comes with management consulting. 

I went to start to work in country risk – what businesses need to take account of when they move into markets like India. So I had this job doing country risk analysis and then sort of by accident, when I was about 29, I got a job in corporate investigations. A few years later, I was given the opportunity to run the Middle East and Africa team for this corporate investigations firm. The firm is called Control Risks, and it was dominated by former spies and army officers – it was a very macho culture. They gave me the Middle East and Africa team, which was very small at the time. It was hard to work in the region, so it wasn’t thought to have much commercial potential. I built this team from two people to about 20 people. I lived in Dubai for a little while, and spent a ton of time traveling to Africa – especially to Nigeria and Kenya. We had a big network of journalists and sources and I worked on some incredible projects and had a lot of fun. Then I moved to New York to run the Americas business, so I started traveling to Brazil, Mexico and Columbia, where we had offices.

Then, gradually, I started to notice that the results of my investigations and due diligence didn’t seem to make any difference and people weren’t doing anything about them. I’d find problems with transactions, allegations of corruption, and so on, and I’d see the bankers yelling at the compliance officer to approve the deal, because they were clearly much more powerful than the compliance officer. Or, I would investigate a bunch of fraud and I’d write a big report and then the management team would dump blame on a convenient scapegoat. I thought, I need to understand what’s going on. This seems to have something to do with culture, but I didn’t really have any concepts in hand to analyze what I was seeing. At around the same time, I started to have a load of problems in my career for a variety of reasons, but partly to do with gender and the culture I was in. I was really starting to hit a wall. Both those things came together and I started to really want to understand what was going on so I could do something about it. So, I went to Columbia and I studied organizational psychology. Around this time, I also got married and got a Green Card, so I’m still here in New York! 

Then I went to work for a nonprofit in sustainability called BSR. This was another “through the looking glass” moment because I realized there was a whole other way of thinking about business ethics. The lawyers and compliance people I’d been working with before didn’t understand the CSR and sustainability people; it was as if they spoke two different languages. There was this completely garbled crazy thing going on, so I spent a lot of time in that job trying to make connections between all these ideas and that’s what I really get excited about. 

Last December, this job came up at NYU running Ethical Systems for Jonathan Haidt. It seemed like it brought everything together because it’s a research institute focused on ethical culture. Jon wanted someone who could think broadly and had a lot of private sector and consulting experience. I also came to NYU in part because I wanted to teach. I discovered how much I love it and I come from a whole family of teachers. Now, I’m trying to get to a place where I can combine research, writing, consulting and teaching, and focus on ideas. This is very exciting to me! 

In summary, I’ve changed directions a bunch of times, but this has kept things very fresh and interesting for me. I recommend this approach, as there can be huge benefits to exploring new fields and finding new connections. I can’t imagine doing the same thing for decades! 

That tees up my next question. I know from taking your class that you are a very prolific writer and a frequent contributor to many publications, so I thought it might be interesting if you shared with everyone a recent article or insight that you published, or something you’re working on specifically that you’re really excited about.

Sure. The best thing that happened to me recently was that I did an interview with NBC about the ethics of vaccine distribution. Nursing homes were doing vaccine sign-up drives and pharmacy chains were offering the vaccine sign-ups along with their bonus points programs. And I said, ‘You know, I don’t think they should be doing’ and the reporter took my comments to CVS and they changed their policy. I thought that was amazing; it completely made my day. 

I just wrote something short for Quartz (here’s the link) about the legacy of Jeff Bezos, which is very relevant to class because you can have a really good debate about whether people would work at Amazon or not. That question really divides a professional responsibility class. It’s really interesting because Amazon is such a great employer but people are either really turned off or they don’t have a problem with it at all. And they’ve always got really good reasons for why. Last summer, I wrote an article that was directly inspired by teaching professional responsibility, which you can read here.

Writing is a great way to get your ideas out there and I would recommend anyone reading this to try and write as much as possible. It’s super fun.

Tell us a little bit more about Ethical Systems, since that is really why you’re at NYU and it’s such an important body of work

Ethical Systems is a collaboration of professors that work on questions of business ethics, culture and psychology. A lot of them are quite famous people like Adam Grant, Dan Ariely and Max Bazermam, and Jon Haidt himself is obviously very well known. They think about questions of business ethics from an academic perspective and a lot of them do incredible work and have written amazing books. We are trying to share the best of that research and make it accessible to people that work in businesses. There are loads of good ideas that stay in universities, partly because people can’t write in an accessible way and partly because the reward system in universities is very much about academic publishing. So all these amazing ideas sit in universities and never make their way into the private sector. 

I suppose the other thing I’d say about Ethical Systems is that a lot of culture challenges today are really unprecedented.  You can think about remote work as an example. The situation has obviously changed dramatically. What people want from their leaders has really changed, too. I think a lot of people of your generation are very frustrated, partly because older people are not retiring and because they’re not seeing enough career progression. There are a lot of new creative business models and a lot going on with gender, race, values and issues like human rights and climate change – so it’s really a fascinating time to study what’s going on in organizations.

You started at NYU at the end of 2019, so I’d imagine you’ve taught more virtual courses than in-person ones at this point

I taught at Fordham before so I have taught many classes in person, but yes, I have not yet taught an in-person class at NYU. I sat in on an in-person session of Work, Wisdom and Happiness, so I can say that I have been in a classroom here. I just sat at the back!  

What’s it like having to pivot online learning? Can you describe one thing that’s positive about it and one thing that’s not so great about it.

You just have to think about it in a completely different way. It’s not like you can have a ‘no laptop’ policy. It’s also really obvious when people are multitasking or not not concentrating and you have to work really hard to be entertaining. You don’t want to be doing anything for more than seven minutes at a time. I don’t like lecturing anyway, but I think you’ve got to really figure out how you can get a good discussion going even more so because, otherwise, everybody is going to switch off. That’s really challenging. 

What’s bad about it is that it’s just creepy. You can’t engage with people. Even right now, I’m not looking you in the eye – there’s just something off about it. There have been all of these studies about how draining and hard it is to keep the energy going. It’s very hard for everybody, particularly for students who have been working all day. So you’ve got to think about the energy and do what you can to make things interesting.

But there are good things about online learning, too. You can make class more inclusive; for example, if you’re the kind of person that finds it hard to speak up in a big room, it might be easier for you to put comments in a chat. Or, maybe it’s easier to go into a breakout room. With virtual class, it’s also easier to have a couple of conversations going, like something in the chat and something in the main room. That’s not what professors tell you you’re supposed to do, but if you’re a young person, you will grow up multitasking on millions of platforms anyway. So I do my best to work with that, and to talk about the things students are really concerned about, rather than lecturing them not to break the law.

Great point, even during the professional responsibility class that I took with you, you sometimes had to stop your lecture because of the robustness of what was going on in the chat.

Yes, I loved it. I thought it was brilliant that everyone was having a separate argument in the chat and I think that’s exactly what you should be aiming for in a Zoom classroom.

Yes, because people were engaging deeply with the material.

Exactly, it’s not about anything other than engaging with material, especially for a required class like professional responsibility. It’s not like people are super excited to be there, but it’s possible to make it fun and worthwhile.  

For the record, your professional responsibility class was one of the most interesting classes I’ve taken at NYU. And everybody that’s reading this article should try to take it with you, too! 

Now, let’s move to our rapid fire questions:

– What’s one word that describes you? Curious.

Where is the most interesting place you’ve traveled on a business trip? Kinshasa. 

– Where did you spend the Covid lockdown? Bearsville, which is near Woodstock in upstate New York.

– What’s one thing you can’t do that you want to learn? I would like to learn to be a brilliant cook. I’d love to go to chef school. I’m an alright cook, I want to be a great cook.

– What are you reading or listening to or watching right now? Queen’s Gambit, I’m watching it way later than anyone else but we just caved in and got Netflix. I also just watched My Octopus Teacher this weekend, which I highly recommended. And I am reading a bunch of books, but mainly for work and research. I finally got going on Joe Henrich’s book WEIRD about the psychology of people from western, rich, democratic countries  – which it turns out is quite unusual. The last fantastic novel I read was the Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett.

What’s a cause you’re passionate about? Human rights – and the environment. I hike all the time, so conservation is a big deal to me.

… that’s kind of a given based on everything we’ve talked about. 

– What’s your favorite time of day? Probably 10 to 11pm. The time for the best after dinner conversations, and the best phase of a good party! 

Would you work at Amazon? I don’t think they’d have me.

If you could meet anyone alive or dead, who would it be? I’d be pretty interested to meet Gandhi. I was obsessed with India for a long time, so I’d be interested to meet him in real life.

Who’s the most important person or people in your life? My husband.

Ok, I have a couple more questions left. The first is, what is something your students might not know about you, but you think they should?

When I say I would love to keep in touch and chat with you about your career,  I actually mean it.

The second is, what career advice would you give to your students?

I have got a very long way, as you would have heard, by pivoting careers and fields frequently. I think that there is a lot to be gained by seeing connections between things rather than staying in one area and just doing the same thing over and over again. Going to business school is an amazing moment to completely change your career, so I would advise people to take that possibility seriously because you don’t have endless chances to do that. Think creatively, because a sideways move might be very good for you in the long term. 

Interested in keeping up with Alison or her work? Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn, or dive into the content on Ethical Systems’ website (… and try to take her class!). 

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