Management should be a calling to do good by serving, not merely accumulating

March 9, 2021

Faculty Q&A

Young people entering certain careers like medicine, ministry or public service may see their choice as not only a way to earn a living, but also to serve society.

Andy Hoffman, professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business [and Center for Positive Organizations faculty associate], thinks students entering careers in management should take a similar approach.

Hoffman details his argument in a new book, “Management as a Calling: Leading Business, Serving Society,” which makes the case that fighting climate change and income inequality in particular will require this major shift in thinking. He has also discussed the idea, along with related topics, in a recent video from Ideas Roadshow, an appearance on the podcast “What’s America’s Purpose?,” and an interview with Economic Sociology.

“How will the world be different in the future, and what role will you want to have in making it a world you want to see? This is a question I want every business student and business leader to ask themselves,” Hoffman writes in the book.

He discusses these ideas, as well as the response by students as well as business experts and leaders.

Fighting climate change, income inequality, and other challenges will require a massive shift in society. Why do you believe business can and must be part of the solution—not just part of the problem, as some people think?

The market—corporations, the government, nongovernmental organizations and the many stakeholders in market transactions, such as the consumers, suppliers, buyers, insurance companies, banks, etc.—is the most powerful organizing institution on earth, and business is the most powerful entity within it.

Though government is an important and vital arbiter of the market, it is business that transcends national boundaries, possessing resources that exceed those of many nations. With its extraordinary powers of ideation, production and distribution, business is best positioned to bring the change we need at the scale we need it. Business is responsible for producing the buildings that we live and work in, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the automobiles we drive, the forms of mobility we employ, and the energy that propels them.

Indeed, if there are no solutions coming from the market, there will be no solutions. And without leaders, business will never even try to find them.

The book convincingly makes the case that seeing management as a calling will help address these crucial issues, particularly among today’s business students. How do you work this idea into your own classes? How do the students respond?

I find that students respond very positively to this framing. Twenty years ago, students who wanted to change the world turned to schools of public policy and nonprofit management for their training. Today, many are turning to schools of business management and they are bringing with them a desire to explore a new sense of the economic, social and environmental purpose of the corporation and their role as leaders.

By framing management as a calling, I am encouraging students to discern what kind of manager they want to be and then ask tough questions about the role of the corporation in society, the role of executives in leading them, and indeed the nature of capitalism as it is presently structured and as it could be structured in the future. This gives students a strong sense of agency, when many feel constrained by stale and outdated models of business management.

I recall one student who told me that she felt her values were under attack every time she walked into the building. These kinds of students are hungry for ways to augment their management education to fit their own vision of the kind of manager and executive they want to be.

I can imagine many cynics and critics questioning such a framing. How do you answer them?

Look, we are graduating countless business students, whether you like it or not. If we keep producing students that only want to increase the size of their bank account, we will continue to have the kinds of business scandals we have seen in recent decades. But if we can teach business students to seriously consider the vast power that they may someday possess to shape and guide our society, and learn the responsibility to wield that power carefully, we will be in much better shape. And, I would add, we are more likely to serve students by helping them find their best path.

Right now, we typically try to help them in this direction in one of two ways: ethical reasoning or the legal implications of corporate wrongdoing. But the first often strives to instill new values on fully formed adults or teach ethical reasoning to students who are paying a lot of money to learn other topics. The second only sets a worst-case baseline and does not inspire future business leaders to be their best, to achieve great things for their companies, for society and for themselves.

To help students look within themselves, to examine and discern their calling and their purpose in business, will yield much more powerful results.

Changing attitudes among current and future students won’t be enough—current business leaders, many of whom are set in old ways of thinking, will also need to change. How can they come to see management as a calling?

I wrote this book with business students and young professionals in mind. I hope that they will find inspiration to shape their education and young careers in a way that sets them on the right path. But more seasoned professionals may find value in the message of this book. It is never too late to set a new course in your life and find your calling.

I am reminded of an interview that Tim Hall, careers scholar at Boston University, conducted with a highly successful, mid-40s senior executive. Hall reported she was unhappy with what she thought was success and had an epiphany one day when she looked in the mirror and realized, “Oh my God, a 20-year-old picked my career!” To avoid her fate, I want to encourage business students to make wise and far-reaching choices today, to strive for greatness, and to measure that greatness by how others benefit from what you do. Think to serve in business, not just to accumulate.

In discussing how business students and managers must rethink their approach to government and regulation, what are you suggesting and how do you find that students respond?

It is surprising to me how few business schools offer courses on government lobbying, much less collaborative and constructive lobbying. Indeed, common perceptions are the government has no place in the market, that regulation is an unwarranted intrusion in the market, and that all lobbying is corrupt. These views are naïve and destructive.

Government is the domain in which the rules of the market are set and enforced, and lobbying is basic to democratic politics as governments seek guidance on how to set the rules of the market and usher reforms as needed.

I taught a new course in the winter 2019 semester called Business in Democracy: Advocacy, Lobbying and the Public Interest. It was offered jointly between the Ross School of Business and the Ford School of Public Policy, and to my surprise the course was filled at 70 students. Students told me that they were hungry for this kind of content.

They also said that many of their peers in their respective schools could not understand why they would take such a class. We need to change that kind of mindset—teaching students to see the value in government and business working in some kind of synergistic way. Companies with a mindset toward serving society can participate constructively in policy formation, seeking policies that help to make society and the economy strong and fair in the aggregate, not just for the select and affluent few.

You have another new book coming out this month, The Engaged Scholar. Is it fair to see that book as posing a challenge to academia similar to your other book’s challenge to business—to think more clearly about a responsibility to the broader society?

Yes, in a way. Both books are challenging the institutions as they presently exist—Management as a Calling is challenging the norms of business education and the role of business in society; The Engaged Scholar is challenging the norms of academic research and the role of the scholar in society. The rules of academia reward scholars for producing academic publications, but I would like to see those rules change so that more academics do the extra work to bring their scholarship to the public and political spheres that need it and can put it to use. In an era of fake news, alternative facts and misinformation, I would go so far as to say that it is our responsibility as academics to serve society, and I hope this book encourages more academics to try to do that. And where both books challenge the norms of their respective domains, both books also ask individuals to take it upon themselves to redirect their careers, even if those norms are slow to change.

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This story was originally published by Michigan News.