From crisis to hope: Leadership for a sustainable future
Alison Taylor,Director of Ethical Systems and Clinical Professor at NYU
In a recent interview for Infosys, Joel Makower of GreenBiz spoke with Alison Taylor, Executive Director of Ethical Systems and a Clinical Professor at New York University, which explores questions of how to build more ethical and effective corporate cultures.
One issue Taylor and Makower discussed is the scrutiny companies face when they take a public position on an issue that’s in the spotlight. Taylor noted that “it's only a matter of time before investors, customers, employees, and the general public start to look at whether you really mean what you say.” For example, if a company pledges its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, “it's only a matter of time before someone's going to look at the composition of your senior leadership team, how you're hiring, and how well you're doing at retaining and even how you are treating your suppliers.” Taylor’s advice is that “if you're going to speak up on something, just be realistic about polarization, be realistic about how America is today, and prepare and stand up for that backlash.”
Social media can amplify controversy, and Taylor said that “governance by Twitter – trying to keep everyone happy and trying to respond to all these people yelling at you – is never going to work.” The key, she said, is for companies to ensure that they can back up their commitments and not get hung up on reputation and social media chatter. “If you just think about your reputation, you'll end up getting buffeted around every five minutes. You need to ground yourself a little bit firmer.”
Taylor has said that "companies need more social and behavioral psychologists and anthropologists" to interpret the realities of human behavior. She points to companies setting ESG incentives, which can include bonuses for senior leaders hitting climate or diversity targets. “The realities of human behavior,” said Taylor, “mean that a lot of that is ending up with manipulated data and executives getting paid more for stuff that should have been their jobs anyway. So if we think more sensibly about how human beings and human groups really respond to incentives, we might design better incentives.”
Leadership styles are also evolving, said Taylor, and becoming more interactive and reciprocal. “When I was young, there used to be the idea that a leader just needed to set orders from the top and incentivize everyone to perform. And that was enough. Now I think what we need to see is leaders building trust, interacting, having better social skills, and better stakeholder relationship skills. Maybe technical skills are less important compared to these more soft and difficult-to-acquire skills.”
As for employers, she said that people born between 1981 and 1996 – also known as “millennials” – could be big assets for companies. “They can help you understand how the world is changing. They can help you anticipate and see things that someone of our age wouldn't see. And I think they're very, very practical, and just have a different mindset.” Contrary to the stereotype of them as lazy and entitled, she sees them as “very dynamic, talented, and passionate.”