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Stern Faculty Spotlight: Nate Pettit

“It’s not about everybody becoming a CEO. It’s about hopefully having conversations that give people the courage to be true to themselves. And then when I see people being more true to themselves, that’s where I sit back and I’m just like, ‘I’m so freaking lucky that I get to do what I do.’” -Nate Pettit

This month’s Stern Faculty Spotlight features Nate Pettit, an associate Professor of Management and Organizations. He teaches the core course “Leadership in Organizations” in the full-time MBA program and serves as an advisor of the Leadership Development Program.

As the faculty representative for Stern Chats, Professor Pettit has been described as a foundational part of the MBA student podcast. 

“His unique perspective as an organizational professor, compassionate attitude, and considered advice inspired us to think holistically about the podcast’s purpose in connecting and strengthening our community, especially important now with so many of us scattered around the country and, indeed, the globe,” said Marcin Skok of Stern Chats.

Professor Pettit’s research focuses on status and social hierarchy, competition and intergroup relations. A decorated teacher, Pettit has won numerous teaching and research awards, including “40 most outstanding MBA professors under 40,” best paper awards at both the Academy of Management and INGRoup conferences, and most recently, Stern’s Professor of the Year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Congrats again for being voted Professor of the Year. That’s amazing. What was your reaction?

Of course, I was happy. It’s actually good. So I’m lucky enough that I’ve won it more than once but… and I’m only saying this to tee up what I’m about to say next… it’s been a really tough year. If I think back to a year ago, when we were like, “You’ve got to Zoom now,” and then like, “I don’t even know what Zoom is.” Monday I taught in class and then Tuesday I had to teach on Zoom. Monday night I was like, oh my god, what does Zoom do? 

I’ve been really lucky to win teaching awards before but they always matter way more, and I’m not just saying this, so much more when they come from students. These are the people that are in class, it’s not like faculty who were like, we think you might be a good teacher even though we’ve never seen you teach, they just see your teaching ratings. When it’s the students that you interact with and you’re like, oh, my gosh they were willing to check a box to vote for me, it means so much more than in person, particularly this year with just the craziness of having to redo so much teaching a virtual classroom and teaching in person classes. 

You actually started to answer my next question. How has the pandemic changed the way you teach? Did you have to engage students differently?

I mean a couple of things. When we’re in the classroom, even though it’s not quite the same now, you know, I’ll chat with students before class or students come up during break. And you know, you’re in the building and you just hear things. There is this certain kind of connectivity that happened without even really having to do much. Everybody’s so starved for connection right now. And one of the things that I’ve needed to do to try to connect in the virtual sections is write an ungodly amount of emails every week responding to end of class memos. Because that’s one thing I can do, and it takes me almost a day to do and I don’t respond to everybody, but I read through them all. I highlight the ones that I’m like, okay, I need to respond to this. So usually it’s anywhere between 50 and 100 emails. I feel like I have to try to simulate any sort of “I see you, you’re not just a screen or a box on a screen or a student in a row.” It’s like, “No, I see you and I’m recognizing your comments.” So yes, it’s changed the way that I teach; virtual is much more mechanical than in person. 

I really appreciate the class memos actually because I find it so hard to participate in class with a mask and sitting so far from everyone. I just don’t want to yell. Same with Zoom. it’s just so awkward, I hate it, so I really appreciate that. But just backing up, can you tell us a little bit about how you got here and why does this topic of leadership specifically interest you so much?

So, I think I mentioned in class at one point I was a math and stats major when I was an undergrad. That’s what I did. I was one of these kids that was good at math and I was like, I should major in math and then I got to college and I’m like, oh, math is different now. So what’s interesting is that I wasn’t, I hate to say this, but I wasn’t that great of a student in undergrad. I just didn’t study. I was just involved in all sorts of clubs and what I found myself drawn to was not so much like what the club did. You know, I’m embarrassed to admit I was part of a fraternity and I was in one of these all male acapella groups that has like 12 guys in it, and I ran that for a couple years. But I found that what I was most interested in was group dynamics. It wasn’t so much what we were doing but it’s fascinating how we organized ourselves and how we decided to do what we did. And then actually a girl that I was dating at the time was a psych major. I remember being over at her place one night and looking at one of her books and it was on organizational psychology. I was like, oh my gosh this is the vocabulary to all the things that I think about ordinarily. It opened me up to be like, “Oh my gosh, there’s a field that studies it.” I would think about this stuff all the time, even if I wasn’t getting paid to think about it. And so I thought why not do that as a job because that’s what I will naturally gravitate towards no matter what. 

What research projects on this topic are you working on now? Anything you can share?

Sure, there’s a few things here. One is in response to COVID, we’re looking at how public expressions of gratitude affects the wellbeing of essential workers. Like in New York City you know people clapping for the doctors, nurses and health care providers. We actually studied it with corrections officers, and we thought that was a really interesting population because they are essential workers. You have to have corrections officers, but they’re completely invisible unless you’re in prison. So they were sort of left out of all these public displays of attitude like postal workers, you know, clerks in a grocery store, doctors and nurses, all these people are getting – even like trash collectors – are getting all this praise. But no one sees corrections officers and yet there were these COVID outbreaks in prisons. We found that people who felt like they were getting public gratitude went to healthier ways of destressing. So things like exercise, talking to family and friends, meditation. When people didn’t feel like they were getting public gratitude, they turned to more detrimental ways to destress like overeating, excessive alcohol consumption, things like that which can have these like long term consequences. So it was just interesting to see the different effects of feeling like people are grateful or not, for the work that you’re doing during COVID.

That’s really interesting. So, I’m in your LIO class and I’ve always noticed how open you are. You’re really brave to approach subjects like race and culture topics. People call you out in class all the time and you openly admit when you think you’re wrong or when you’ve been wrong in the past. Would you say that is the hardest part of your job?

It’s a harder part of the job, Yeah. Because you have to make yourself vulnerable. I bring them up because I feel like I have, I’m not saying I’m so virtuous, like I do all sorts of dumb stuff, believe me, but I bring them up because I feel like I have a sense of duty to bring them up. Like they would be conspicuous in their absence. Sometimes getting feedback from students, when they feel like their perspective represents everyone’s perspective and trying to delicately handle that is one of the more challenging things. Sometimes they feel as if they can speak for everyone, when in fact, one function of the end of class memos is I get to see people think very differently about these topics. And you cannot assume that every woman will interpret things the same way. You cannot assume that every African-American would interpret things the same way. 

Yeah, I totally feel that being in class with very outspoken people, but I think you handle it really well. I think everyone feels heard, you know. So I think that’s important. So what is the best part of your job then? 

So I want to be clear on that. It’s hard, but it’s not bad, right? Like I would never say that’s, like, the worst part of my job. It’s just a challenge, because how to deal with these topics is a moving target.

I mean, frankly, the best, like honestly, the best part is when a student comes back and says that I had a difficult conversation that I wouldn’t have had otherwise because of your class. And that difficult conversation led to these really positive things. I like when I see people take risks that they wouldn’t otherwise. And it doesn’t have to be a difficult conversation. It could be like a student saying, “I thought for the longest time I wanted to go into consulting but then I realized that I was going into consulting for the wrong reasons because those conversations started in your class. And now I’m going after this other thing, and I’m so much happier.” And so it’s anything to just sort of change people’s trajectory in a way that’s more true to them. It’s not about, like, everybody becoming a CEO. It’s about hopefully having conversations that give people the courage to be true to themselves. And then when I see people being more true to themselves, that’s where I sit back and I’m just like, “I’m so freaking lucky that I get to do what I do.” So that’s definitely the most rewarding.

You teach a class about leadership. What would you say are the most important traits of a good leader? And maybe touch on some of the less obvious ones?

So I would say I think good leaders have a clear understanding of why they do what they do. So it’s this idea of saying, “I am in this position with purpose. I’m not in this position because it was the logical next step.” I’m not in this position because there’s a certain prestige associated with it but they have a great deal of clarity on why they’re doing what they’re doing from an intrinsic place. Like money and status is all right but I’m talking about people that have a very, very clear understanding of why they are in this position and they can spout off whatever it is that’s so core to them. So there isn’t this confusion about it because leading is so difficult, you’re going to piss people off. You can even think about class today. You can say things and they will upset people. This is part of the reason why I structure the class as I do. I think good leaders know how to pause. So it’s this idea that they don’t just ramble, they know when to just take a beat and let other people in, which is the pull side or the listening side of things. You’ve heard me harping on that so many times because I think that’s so important.

Random note, your slides are always different themes. I’m actually very curious about that. Is there like a study or research you’ve done or just like personal observations that people paid attention and engage more?

There are no studies that I’m aware of. But I’d be surprised if having slides like that didn’t help. Their themes aren’t by accident, though. So for instance, the listening one is politicians. You know, today with Mario on motivation, it’s like, hey, I want to go and get more coins. The one on influence in social hierarchy with superheroes, because they’re powerful. The person who actually executed these is Jeanette Zhu, we would sit down and talk through different ideas like trying to have that match the lessons.

Now that you said, it the themes make much more sense now.

I mean, I have to be honest it’s also just for my own entertainment.

Speaking of entertainment, what’s something your students don’t know about you? 

Oh god, I can’t believe I’m about to say this. So remember I mentioned fitness was a big part of my life at one point when I was talking about this. So despite what I look like now I’m actually qualified as a professional, natural bodybuilder. Basically, there’s like bodybuilding that’s natural and then there’s bodybuilding that is not drug tested. And so they’re like the guys you see in magazines. But there’s this whole other set of bodybuilding that you just have to be completely natural. 

I competed in some local stuff when I was in my early 20s but then I turned 35. I hadn’t worked out in like, X amount of years. And I was like, this is ridiculous and if you don’t do this now you’re never going to do it. So I went all insane and competed in a show. This was in Boston, it was called like a pro-qualifier. If you win that show – there were about 15 people in my division – if you win that, then you get your “pro card.” And by some weird miracle, I won it. And then I’m in a pro show, like a couple months after that in New York. I did not win.

That’s so interesting. Never would have thought. I do know you’re into fitness and nutrition, but I didn’t think you would compete.

Yeah, I didn’t think I would either. Like, your diet has to be insane. I mean, I was so shrunken down to nothing, because you have to take your body fat to this insanely low point. So for instance, like I probably weigh 205 to 210 now. When I competed, I was 166. Oh, my God, but with more muscle than I have right now. So you’re just, you have nothing, like no fat on you. 

Are there any documentations of this phase?

The sad part is there are pictures out there on the internet if you look hard enough, but they’re not attached to my name.

That’s really funny. Okay, last thing, what career advice would you give students, especially those of us who are struggling with internships or career choices?

I’m going to take this in the realm of like, not how do you get a job, but how do you know you’re going after the job that you want to go after? Would you do it for 70% of your salary? That gives you a better understanding of whether you’re doing it for the money or because that’s the thing you want to be doing. Right? No one would want to have 30% of my income pulled away, that would suck, but I would still do this job.

I mean, I don’t mean to come across the wrong way about this. But like, I am continuously reminded just how lucky I am to have the job that I do. Just in the sense of like, to get a faculty position here. It’s like, you’re one in 100 that actually lands the job, and then to be able to teach the class that I do and run into the people that I do. Like, there are parts of the job they’re just a huge pain in the ass. But the time when I feel the most alive is actually in the classroom. The only time in my life that I’m really in the moment is when I’m in class, which in the end is almost like therapeutic for me, because it’s like one of the top few times I’m truly mindful of what’s happening. And I noticed that when I’m not teaching, I feel like my mental health is worse, I think because I don’t get those three hour doses of mindfulness, which is what class feels like.

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