Nathalie: Stephanie, thank you very much for your time and to be in conversation today.
Stephanie: I’m happy to be here.
Nathalie: I’d like to start by asking you the question that I offer most of my guests, and you can take this question in any direction you want. Given where we are at this point in human history, I’m curious to ask what you think is happening in the global human psyche right now.
Stephanie: Oh, wow. That’s a huge question, isn’t it? The global human psyche. I think we are at a crossroads right now, where we have this opportunity to really think about how we want to entertain some of these really deep, structural social problems that we’ve been having for hundreds, thousands really of years, and take the time to dive deep into those and either solve them, or take the time to really think about how we got here and what we can do to move forward, or we can keep going where we are not getting to the heart of the problems. One of the things that I’ve been noticing recently throughout this year where we’ve been dealing with the pandemic… Or you see a lot of oh, once we get through the pandemic and all of this. And yes, it is a crisis.
But a lot of what we’re dealing with is not new. It’s not new, the pandemic has exposed how our systems are broken already, how our systems can’t handle what we’ve been trying to place on them. But the problems we’re having are not unique, they’re not new, they’re not things that we shouldn’t have been working to solve before, and now they’re pushed to the forefront. Again, we have this opportunity to really address them or say well, this is a crisis, we get through the crisis and then we move on like before. So my hope is that we really don’t look at this like a lens of the coronavirus pandemic, the lens of 2021, 2020, that we really take the opportunity to open up that lens and address what’s been barreling toward us for a long, long time.
Nathalie: Do you think that the pandemic has influenced what we prioritize, whether as individuals or as businesses?
Stephanie: Oh, for sure. I mean, I think a lot of people have started to think more about how we prioritize our families, how we prioritize our relationships, how we prioritize a lot of different social issues, definitely. But what I don’t know yet is are those prioritizations things that will remain, or are they things that will slowly go back to an older way of thinking about things? So when you’re in a crisis, you see that readjustment. Does the readjustment stick, or does the readjustment then go back? And you’re sort of seeing it already where in the beginning, at least here in the United States in March where people sort of came together and were willing to make some sacrifices, or some people were willing to make some sacrifices. It’s sort of gone away a little bit, or a lot depending on your perspective, or they’re just tired of it.
My guess is that’s going to continue where it’s this individualistic approach to society that we have here in the U.S. I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re going to continue down that path or we’re really going to have a reset where we’re able to think deeply again about how we approach things. But it’s a big day here, right? The inauguration is today, it’s an exciting day I guess, depending on your politics and how you view the world. Although I would hope no matter how you see the world, no matter what your politics are, no matter what anything is, that we can all see a change and all see a day like this as a wonderful and exciting day. But we have some social problems, some systemic problems here that really, we need to take a hard look at. There are a lot of people suffering.
Nathalie: I know that a lot of your work also focuses on business ethics, which is so important right now. I’d like to ask given that we’re facing so many crises, what do you think are the biggest risks and opportunities that organizations are challenged with? I’m thinking we can take this in any direction, but whether you want to talk about the climate crisis, social inequality or political change, through your lens of business ethics, what do see as the biggest risks and opportunities right now?
Stephanie: Business issues are social issues, social issues are business issues. So for me, I think the biggest opportunities and the biggest risks are the same. Businesses have to decide where they’re placed in society. Are you part of the solution? Are you part of the problem? Are you trying to be part of a global positive change, a global positive net impact? So I think it is really difficult to make that decision as a business. When you’re thinking about business in maybe the old way or the way some people still think about it, it’s oh, I’m just here to make a profit. I would challenge that those things aren’t necessarily opposed. When you look at business and making a profit, or going out into the marketplace in that way, you can still be a positive contributor. I think businesses have a lot of introspective thought that they have to do about how they want to be placed, how they want to think about their role as global citizens.
And for me, again here in the U.S. but really worldwide, it’s a tricky decision to make. We have a lot of things going on, the Black Lives Matter movement, the coronavirus pandemic, and everything’s been politicized. So businesses have to make a choice about what their role is going to be, and even if they don’t outwardly seem to make a choice, they’re making a choice. They have to do a lot of deep thinking about what that is going to look like for them and their role, it’s not just about making a product and selling it anymore, if it ever was. We have to really think about what our role is as citizens.
In the law, it’s kind of interesting here again in the U.S., the businesses, the corporations are considered people, and so I think about it that way too, in the way that they operate. You’re just a bunch of people putting together this business and putting out a product, putting out a service or whatever, and so all the decisions you make are a bunch of people impacting the world. So it’s important to be thinking about all of those decisions and how those are influencing your customers, how those are influencing your shareholders, how those are influencing the government, everyone who’s out there. Those are all people that are influenced by the things you’re doing, and so it’s important to make those distinctions and decisions matter.
Nathalie: It’s interesting hearing you conceive of well, hearing the law you’re just relaying, but conceiving of these companies as people, because of course if we were to meet a group of people who expressed themselves and made the decisions that they did in the way that many of these companies do, we wouldn’t necessarily want to hang out with them in the pub afterward.
Stephanie: No, right? Of course. Of course, right? Yeah, you’re totally right. I mean, we give them really just freedom, we give them freedom of speech. All of these things are given the rights and freedoms and protections of people, and so they should have the expectations of people as well in how they conduct themselves in the marketplace as far as being socially responsible.
Nathalie: Completely agree with you. I think especially now in the research of the book that I’m writing, I was exploring some of the biggest changes we’re seeing in consumer behavior and what we’re valuing. A lot of it centers around a desire for purpose and meaning and connection, which of course is nothing new in the history of humankind. What I find curious is that it seems as though our quest for purpose and meaning and connection is no longer held within the private sphere of our personal lives. It seems to be making connections and bridges into what we expect from a work context. Do you see the shift happening in the work that you’re doing? Are people wanting the organizations they work for to support them, to give them a sense of purpose, to give them a sense of belonging?
Stephanie: Oh, absolutely. I think that that is a definite. I’m seeing it especially in my students, I’m seeing that shift. We’ll talk about where are you willing to work and what’s a deal breaker, and what kinds of companies are you willing to buy for, where are you willing to go work. We’re finding that those kind of connections and support are so important to people, especially younger employees, younger workers. They’re really wanting that support and connection, and that meaningful purpose out of their work. It’s becoming more and more important.
Nathalie: I think it’s one of these things that’s probably quite tricky to map the full extent of now, but if you were going to make an educated guess about what you think is happening for your students to be coming and saying well actually, a deal breaker is that I need to have meaning and purpose working for this company, where do you think that’s coming from? In my mind I think maybe it’s because we’re moving towards a more secular society, maybe we’re losing some of our old rituals. What are your thoughts about why this trend might be happening now?
Stephanie: It’s so interesting. I think it’s a lot of things as everything is, right? It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. I wonder if it’s possibly our connectedness over social media and our access to information, our ability to learn more about the companies we work for, learn more about other people and their experiences and make those connections in other places. So it’s twofold. In one way we’re getting all of this information, we’re making all of these connections, we’re doing all of these things virtually or through technology that are providing us access to information and giving us all of these connections. But then in the other way, that’s isolating us. So we’re looking for these more meaningful connections and support in our actual lives, which our jobs are. I think that we really are craving personal connection and support in the spheres that we have because we’ve gotten so focused on technology, so it’s sort of a twofold technology based answer, I guess.
Nathalie: It’s interesting because I think from that perspective, and you hold within your answer the potential for connection and the potential for maybe a sense of isolation, and I wonder with some of the work that I’ve read that you’ve written which has been fascinating, looking at the impact of remote working practices, obviously it can be liberating for some people but it’s also been disastrous for others, what are your thoughts about some of the impacts of tech on how we work, especially when it’s remote?
Stephanie: I think it’s really difficult to make a sweeping statement on that because I think for some people it has been really beneficial. The ability to work from home, the flexible hours, all of those kind of things have made it so that some people can do jobs they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. On the flip side, it has been absolutely disastrous for some people. I mean, I have a really hard time getting my job done. I don’t want to say it’s disastrous, I’m making it work. I have four children, 19, 16, 13 and 11, all boys, and it really is exactly what it sounds like when you hear it out loud. They’re all schooling in a multitude of ways at home and in person, and there are many days where it’s just impossible to do anything. I spoke … I presented a paper last week at the Care Crisis Symposium here at IU, and it was all these people coming together, mostly women, some men but mostly women, just talking about how difficult this year has been for working professional women because there’s so many different categories of women right now, working professional women with children and how it’s just been very difficult, very difficult to meet all of those roles and fill all of those boxes.
That doesn’t even start to scratch the surface of all of the women who are having to go in person for these essential worker roles who can’t get childcare, and then the disproportionate impact on women of color, black women, Latinx women who are losing jobs much more significantly here in the U.S. at least, both losing those jobs and also leaving jobs because they can’t get childcare. It’s so many different directions to go with this. But the pandemic and again, I hate to narrow the lens because I don’t think it’s a COVID-19 problem, I think it is a much bigger problem than this, but it obviously has shined a light on it. The impact on women, even more significantly black women and women of color, has been just astounding. So yes, wonderful that we have these resources, wonderful that we have flexibility, wonderful that we have technology, but these are resources. These are things that we have that cannot exist in a vacuum without the support and without tackling the gender biases, without tackling all of the other things that are going on. It’s not helpful.
Nathalie: I think one of the things also that I’ve noticed that connected what you’re describing is it’s very easy when you look at the ways in which we use technology to create an appearance of equitability, whether it’s the amplification of messages that we stand in solidarity with, or the flexibility that often women who are typically the primary caregivers long for. It’s easy to say well, now you’ve got amplification, now you’ve got flexibility, but actually without changes in the substrate, changes in the structure of society that makes it possible for women not to have to spend most of their time as has been the case in the research that I’ve read, instead of spending the time on work they’re having to spend the time on childcare because they can’t get anyone else to come in or it’s not possible because of restrictions.
There needs to be a really big course correction I think, in terms of how we value and structure the working roles whether it’s caregiver or whatever it might be to make it possible for everyone to fulfill that potential. I know that’s a very utopian view, but what are your thoughts on that? What’s your take on that?
Stephanie: I mean, that’s exactly it. We are creating this appearance of a co-ality, and that just doesn’t exist. It is a very frustrating wall to come up against because you see it in so many conversations. You see it in writing, you see it in really everything, and it just … We’re not solving the problems with technology, we’re not solving the problems with the things we’re putting in place. So we have to go deeper, we do. We have to go deeper and recognize okay, flexible work is great, flexible work is actually necessary, and being able to work from home is great, it’s necessary. But these are first steps. These are just baseline first steps to tackling this problem. They’re not solving our problem, they’re just getting us in the door.
So understanding that providing, let’s say, a working professional mum the ability to be at home with flexible hours, is a good first step, you are not solving her issue of still having all of those children at home without childcare. You did not solve that problem, especially during the pandemic. What are you going to do? I’m not going to bring somebody in my home, that’s totally unsafe. And there’s … I’m not going to send my kids to childcare, also totally unsafe. So understanding that these first steps are really great and important and we’re lucky to have them, are still just first steps.
Nathalie: Yeah. Because obviously this is such a huge question, and it really does require reassessing the foundations of how we build society and business, because obviously these things are interlinked as you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. What are your thoughts about some of the things that companies can do to begin to address these inequalities?
Stephanie: One of the things that I think is really, really important is that we still are lacking seriously and significantly in our leadership with women, and specifically again black women, women of color both. So when you’re tackling these issues you’re still again, at the top traditionally having white men as your larger, much, much larger group of decision makers. It’s not bad. White men are fine, they’re making good decisions and all of these things. But research shows that a diverse group of decision makers in leadership, they’re just going to make better decisions. You have a much broader lens, a much broader group of people with lots of different experiences, viewpoints, and all of these things. So even though maybe at the bottom, at the entry level we’re doing a slightly better job of getting people in the door, we’re still not doing a good enough job of moving people up. We’ve got these systems in place to maybe recruit, but then once people are in the door, we’re not doing a good enough job supporting people, we’re not doing a good enough job promoting people, we’re not doing a good enough job in those areas. So once we get up into leadership positions, the leadership still looks like it did 30 years ago.
So I mean, that is really the most important, most significant step we need to make, is that we need to get our leadership looking like the rest of the country, like the rest of the world, so those decision makers represent everyone else. If I am coming to the table, I’m going to be thinking about what a typical mom of four boys is thinking about. That’s just how I’m going to approach a problem. It’s not the best approach necessarily, but it’s my approach. If a woman of color comes to the table, she has different experiences. If a man comes to the table, he has different experiences. All of these viewpoints are important. It’s also about where you grew up. It’s also about what your family experiences were, what your religion is if you have one. It’s about where you went to school, it’s about your experiences with your siblings. It doesn’t have to be race or gender or any of those things, it’s all of your experiences. Diversity is diversity of thought. Diversity means a lot of different things, but we need decision makers to be diverse so that we are able to make better decisions.
Nathalie: I mean, to me it just seems crazy that we’re not making the most of the extraordinary richness of experience that everyone brings to be able to innovate better and come up with creative solutions, because we have all of the creativity and the experience and the imagination to actually create something really quite extraordinary, whatever the industry, whatever the sector whether you’re wanting to build a zero waste economy or you’re wanting to create a citizen assembly, whatever it might be. There’s so much potential that just needs to be tapped in a thoughtful, considered, inclusive way.
Stephanie: Well absolutely, and the research backs it up. The diverse leadership and diverse organizations, they’re better. They make better decisions, they’re more successful. It’s not just oh, we should be doing the right thing, which of course I believe we should be doing the right thing just because we should be doing the right thing, I believe that, too. But even if you didn’t believe that for some reason, if you just believed that you should be doing it because it makes your business more successful, well, that too. It also makes your business more successful. So whatever direction you want to come at it from, it meets both categories.
Nathalie: In terms of the work that you do, is there a question that you wish people would ask you that they haven’t yet, or that they don’t ask enough?
Stephanie: I’m not sure if this is relevant to you or not, but I am constantly frustrated by how gender issues are frequently seen as women’s issues, how diversity is frequently seen as either a woman’s issue or a people of color issue or a black person’s issue. That really frustrates me because diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, all of these issues are everyone’s issue. They’re societal issues, they’re business issues, and so I find it frustrating that we don’t all come to the table, every single person understanding that these kind of things are meaningful and important to everyone. It shouldn’t just matter to me because I’m a woman, or it shouldn’t just matter to someone who is black or someone who is Asian or someone who whatever, because they’re a person of color. That is constantly something I come up against that I really struggle with, and so that’s probably the most frustrating thing I deal with in my work.
Nathalie: It’s funny how that often seems to be the first place people go to in their mind, it’s like well, this affects you, it doesn’t affect me. And you think well factually, you’re wrong, it does. It’s we’re all in this together.
Stephanie: Right. Well, and we are. We’re all in it together and again I go back to what I said before, which is even if you don’t buy into the idea that you should just care because we should all care about the world being a better place and all of that which we should, even if you only care about your business getting better, even if you only care about those kind of things, then that too, right? That is also true. I have this hard time understanding why people don’t connect the dots with all of it but they don’t seem to, and that’s really frustrating. When we have these … like the Care Crisis Symposium last week, the audience was filled with women. When I did a gender panel this summer for executives with several of my colleagues the question popped up, why is the panel filled with women. The question is always either directly asked or floating there, out there in the air somewhere. I really don’t love it, right? I directly address it, usually because that’s my way, and I talk about it with my students often.
I had a class in the fall where we were talking about gender, and the class is very quiet. I said to them, “Why are we so quiet today? What’s going on? Why today in particular are we so quiet when last week we were so lively?” One of the young men in my class said, “Well, it feels like I don’t have a place to speak, I’m not a woman and so I don’t feel like I should be the one to talk about this,” and so there were a couple comments like that. Then one of the young women raised her hand and she said, “Well, I just don’t want to be perceived as whiny,” and so it’s just so fascinating where both kinds of comments come out and you think, oh my goodness. Right?
Nathalie: Because then everyone feels like they don’t have the possibility for voicing their experience, which makes us all poorer for it.
Stephanie: Right, it’s an everyone issue and we’ve got to be having these conversations.
Nathalie: I’m wondering if this question’s going to connect back in with some of the earlier answers, but I am curious to ask if you had to choose a few qualities, one or two qualities that you felt are absolutely key to the long term success and resilience of a business, so we’ve already mentioned inclusivity but maybe there are other qualities that are there as well, what might those qualities be? What would you look for?
Stephanie: They need to be flexible, they need to be able to look out and see what is going on and be willing to make changes in light of what they see and what they perceive as going on in the world with their people and directly linked to that. Communication I guess I would say, is number one. A business that is able to communicate well with their employees, with everyone but mostly with their employees is going to be the most successful. Leadership that is able to really hear what’s going on throughout their entire organization is going to be able to make those changes, be flexible and understand the challenges, understand what they can do, what they can’t do. Because they’re not going to always make changes based on what your employees want, but at least you’re going to open up that line of communication so that your employees feel heard and understood, and know that you are there for them in understanding what’s going on. So flexibility, communication, not in that order.
Then I would say alignment. When I say alignment, I mean an organization has to be aligned all the way through ethically, right? So you have to be talking the talk and walking the walk, for lack of a better way of saying it. When your external systems and your internal systems aren’t all the way together, then something’s going to fall apart. Your leadership, your employees, what you’re putting out into the world, all of the things have to be on the same page, and so you get some of these organization who will say oh, we value honesty and we value transparency and we value all of these things. They’ll have this great mission statement, all this stuff that they’ll put out there on paper that looks amazing. But then you get into their organization, and they’re not really living their values.
The most successful organizations you’ll see are actually living it, and it has to be through every single piece. Are you living it in your hiring, are you living it when you let somebody go, are you living it in your promotion processes, are you living it in all of your meetings, every single piece of what you do as an organization has to be aligned with the things that you say you care about. Those are the most successful organizations, and those will continue to be the most successful organizations because employees know that you mean what you say.
Nathalie: And so to move towards the end of our interview, I’d love to ask within the context of the future of work, what kind of world would you like to see emerge from how we deal with this crisis?
Stephanie: I would like to see a world where we are valuing each human, each employee, each person’s contributions, or those very human contributions instead of these arbitrary how many hours did you work, or where did you go to school or these sort of again, arbitrary boxes that we’ve made up. I think in a lot of businesses and academia and really everywhere, we’ve put in place these systems in a lot of places that just don’t make sense, and we have a lot of people coming in that have non-traditional backgrounds who have amazing gifts to give us, and to give of themselves and who want to. I would like to see us move in a direction where we are able to open our minds and our hearts really, to understand that work and business and society and all of those things don’t have to be boxed in to these categories we’ve put them in so far.
I had this job right out of law school where I worked for a judge, I was a clerk for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. It was fantastic. He’s this amazing man. I was pregnant actually, in my third year of law school, and I delivered my son five days after graduation-
Nathalie: Oh, my gosh.
Stephanie: It was terrible. It was terrible.
Nathalie: You are a fierce woman.
Stephanie: I know, it was not the best plan. My husband and I moved to Salt Lake City two weeks after that and I mean, only in a way that you do when you’re young and you don’t know what you’re doing. I had accepted the job, I interviewed and accepted when I was seven months pregnant, again just not knowing what I was doing. I got to Salt Lake and I have this baby and he just cried all the time, and I was in the throes of this just debilitating post-partum depression, but I didn’t know. I was undiagnosed and I had no idea. So anyway, I called up the judge and I said, “I’m so sorry, but I just am not going to be able to come work for you. I just won’t be able to do this.” And he said, “Oh, absolutely not. You will come work, and you’ll just bring your baby with you, it’ll be fine. You can bring him every day and you can come.”
Over the next four years I brought my baby with me every day, and then another baby actually, so four years. I would go into the office and I had my own little area, and I would work whatever hours I could manage and I worked from home, and I did all of these things. We were amazing. We did this amazing work and it was super flexible, and the creative output was fantastic. So what I learned from that experience was that when I was given this opportunity to just do what I needed to do to be okay, to just take care of my child and take care of myself, that I could still be an amazing employee. I could do amazing work, I could do this job in a way that was excellent, but I could also be wonderful and okay personally. It was just this human way of managing people. And it wasn’t unique. Then I learned there were clerks that were skiing all day and working all night, and there were … He just managed people in a way that was fascinating to me.
Nathalie: What an extraordinary person.
Stephanie: It really … He really, really was. And so, but our chambers was consistently putting out again, excellent, excellent work. We weren’t in any way not doing our jobs, in fact we were doing a wonderful job. After that I started thinking to myself, what is this idea of work that we have, where we think that people have to just fit in this box, that some manager has told them you have to sit at your desk from this time to this time and look at this computer or whatever, and that’s the way that work happens. Well, I don’t know about you, but that’s never been the way that work has happened for me. I can’t work like that, it’s absurd, right?
So how many people have we stunted by trying to force them into this ridiculous idea of what it is to be an employee or what it is to be a creative person, or what it is to be out in the business world, when there are all of these wonderful humans out there ready to contribute to society in their own way? That’s my long winded way of telling you what I hope for the future.
Nathalie: That’s so inspiring and just extraordinary. It’s really uplifting to hear, especially from a chap in position of power how really being … Yeah, just taking the chance to be so audacious and change the way that other people have done things in order to get the best from his people and to create such an extraordinary environment. That’s very uplifting.
Stephanie: I mean, it’s both. On the one hand you think to yourself, I mean how wonderful and lucky and fortunate, because without that I would have likely tanked my entire career because then I would have had no job, and I would have just turned down I mean, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and then what would I have done with my life. So this man, this powerful man saved my career and likely the careers of a lot of other people and thank goodness, so wonderful. But then on the other hand you think to yourself, it shouldn’t have to be that way. We need it to be that way just as a general rule, not as the exception. That’s my hope for the future, that we don’t have to count on a powerful man saving our lives, because that’s just ridiculous, honestly. And again I’m so grateful, he’s my hero and all of those things. He’s an amazing wonderful role model, and a fantastic human being. But it shouldn’t have to be that way.
Nathalie: It would be nice to not to need heroes in the first place.
Nathalie: So for people who are listening to that, especially if you’re listening and you’re in a position of leadership in business, Stephanie, what would you suggest as something that people can do or maybe contemplate on to help us move in the direction that you just described, with that kind of work environment being more of a norm than the exception?
Stephanie: I think anyone who’s in a position of leadership needs to be moving in that direction. We need to stop thinking about work in the more traditional ways that we’ve been thinking about it. We need to be more creative in our thought processes as leaders and understand that everyone has a different way of working, a different way of being creative, a different way of processing information and all of those things, and really challenge ourselves to understand that and open up those opportunities and take those risks as leaders, take those risks for our employees.