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Stern Faculty Spotlight: Michael S. North

Our Stern Faculty Spotlight this month is on Dr. Michael S. North, Assistant Professor of Management and Organization, and the Founding Director of the Accommodating Generations in Employment (AGE) Initiative, focusing on cutting-edge topics in intergenerational workforces and workplaces. Professor North’s work has been featured in various media sources, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, BBC, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Forbes, and TIME. He has been named a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science, and a “Top 50 Undergraduate Business School Professor” by Poets and Quants.

As The Oppy Interviewer walked in, she was pleasantly surprised to see a different avatar of the Professor than in his classes (normally in a formal blazer). Sporting a green leather jacket and a fedora, he looked comfortable, relaxed, and cool!

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Would you please introduce yourself, your areas of expertise, and what you teach at Stern?

Sure! This is my seventh year at NYU, and I teach the Core Leadership Class for both full- and part-time students. In the past, I have taught the core Management and Organizations course for undergrads and a PhD seminar on Understudied Topics in Psychology and Organizational Behavior. These days, I spend quite a bit of time supervising research-based classes, for instance through SPUR (Stern Program for Undergraduate Research) in my lab.

What is your educational background? How did you end up at NYU?

I went to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Go Blue!) for undergrad and majored in psychology, then got my PhD at Princeton in psychology and social policy. I did a two-year postdoc at Columbia University and then ended up here. At one point, I was convinced that I was going to be a clinical psychologist and a therapist. So for two years after college, I worked in a Child Psychiatry Research Group, which taught me a lot and shaped my thinking on how I should approach my professional teaching career as well. I am also a native Upper West Side NYC kid, so you can probably tell I have spent a good portion of my life either in or circling around here, and feel extremely fortunate to have landed such a great academic job in my hometown!

Having studied at Princeton and Michigan, what do you think the Stern community can do better?

(Laughs) No, I think the Stern Community does things really well. Being a professor here, I feel very supported and have a true sense of belonging to a close-knit community. I have noticed a change in the last seven years where this school has shaped its priorities towards the so called ‘soft skills’ and is now somewhat of a pioneer in this space, for instance, in my department, in diversity research. Historically we have been a finance driven, hard skills driven school. I have been fortunate enough to not only witness this ongoing transition where the school is focusing on the human side, the people side of businesses but also feel privileged to be a part of this transition in some small way. In terms of what we can do better? I’d say let’s keep this momentum going!

How did you become interested in Leadership as a subject?

Great question! For whatever reason, ever since I was a little kid, my teachers described me as a “quiet leader” in my report cards. I don’t think I necessarily felt like that at the time. When I was a kid, I wanted to fit in in the crowd, listen to the kind of music that everyone did. You will see that in my classes I make a lot of pop culture references. That is an intentional choice that contrasts with how I sometimes felt growing up, feeling like I didn’t know a lot of the movie/TV/music references my peers would make. At the same time, I also seemed to have a natural tendency to “zag” when others were zigging, so I guess I always felt a little out-of-the-box no matter what I did. I should also mention that I used to be silent in most class and group discussions, usually seated in the back row, and too nervous to speak up (and still have trouble doing so). I want to do what I can to inspire fellow introverts to feel that they can also come out of their shell, as I have worked to do my whole life, and develop leadership behaviors in spite of whatever hurdles they may be facing.

Do you ever do consulting work or venture outside Stern? If so, what types of problems are you typically asked to address?

Yeah, on occasion. For example, I recently served on a DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) panel with other experts for KPMG. I was to talk about my research and insights, insofar as I have them, on how age and generational issues play into DEI efforts at workplaces.

What are your current research interests and passion projects? 

As part of the AGE Initiative, we have built a world-wide collaborator network of researchers that focuses on two key trends that affect industrialized economies globally – the aging workforce and the multi-generational workforce. We look at ageism, intergenerational issues and related organizational HR, legal, public policy, and societal implications.

To learn more about The AGE Initiative, please go to this link.

What is something that your students may not know about you, but you think that they should?

Does the fact that I wear colorful jackets and fedoras when I am not teaching count? (Laughs) Another thing that might be useful to know is that even though I teach in a business school in an environment that is very “professional” in the colloquial sense of the word, my background in terms of my education and even in my family is very inter-disciplinary and liberal arts focused, even slanting towards humanities. I like to think that informs my research which focuses on the margins, at the intersection of disciplines, and my teaching style, blending different thoughts to paint a holistic picture.

Onto some fun questions:

Which one word describes you best? Versatile

What are you reading right now? The Nineties by Chuck Klosterman

What is something that you do for fun? Playing with my kids is my primary hobby these days! I have been a passionate video gamer since early childhood, but lack of time lately has morphed this hobby into retro video game collection. So I collect retro video gaming systems and games and play them with my six-year-old son. Both he and I are very into it!

Do your kids find you funny? (Smiles) For now, yes, but mostly because anything silly is funny to them, and that is extremely easy to do – especially when I don’t sleep enough, as is the case these days! My son enjoys imitating me and my two-year-old daughter tries to imitate the things we both do, so I guess we have a good circle going around.

What is one of your favorite TV shows or movies?

Favorite TV Show has to be The Office. At least that’s the one that students would assume. The French Comedy/Drama called The Intouchables is one of my favorite movies. I think in retrospect it captures a lot of what I stand for – people from different walks of life who initially misunderstand each other finding common ground. This has been a defining theme in my life, even in my marriage, where my wife and I share this very real feeling of being caught between worlds and not belonging wholly in any one. I have noticed I vibe the most with people who share that.

What has been your personal mantra that you like to think of often?

It’s three pieces of two-word advice. One is from my wife, one is from my parents and one is from my PhD Advisor. From my wife, it’s “Do you”, from my parents, “Enjoy it” and from my PhD Advisor, “Perseverance furthers”. I have it engraved on my watch.

Professor North was kind enough to give the author a peek at the watch.

A close up of a camera

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Are you part of any cult or secret society or non-intuitive social/academic groups?

(Laughs) No, but if I were, my secret society would not allow me to tell you that, would it!

If you could meet anyone living or dead, who would it be?

Such a good question. I feel I have a lot in common with standup comedians, though let me offer a caveat. That’s not me saying that I am very funny! Just like how I was a shy kid sitting at the back of class, observing what other people were doing socially and trying to make sense of it. I think this is essentially what stand-up comedians do too, though in a much more amusing way. To that end, I would love to meet George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, and David Letterman.

(The Oppy is now literally keeping the professor away from eating his lunch, so we wrap up real quick!)

Last question, do you have any career advice for your students?

The big one would be “It’s ok to not fit the mold.” Or as my teacher once told me, “keep one ear to what the band is playing, but march to the beat of your own drum.” Whatever little success I have mustered, this has been its defining characteristic. Sometimes that can be a source of loneliness, but overall, it’s okay. You can still make it work your own way.

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