In one of his first interviews as Dean of the School, Guthrie talks about why he prefers business students over sociology students, how responsible firms can make more money, why no one can compete with US-educated Chinese grads and his love of Indigo Girls.
The youthful Dean earned his first degree, an A.B. in East Asian languages and civilizations, from the University of Chicago in 1992.
He earned his master’s and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. He has taught at Harvard, Insead and Stanford. Most recently he was a professor of management at NYU Stern School of Business.
His books include China and Globalization: The Social, Economic, and Political Transformation of Chinese Society, published in 2006 and Dragon in a Three-Piece Suit: The Emergence of Capitalism in China, published in 1999.
You were originally a sociology professor. What perspective does sociology give you on business?
Sociology gives a much wider perspective on how markets work.
The problem with a purely economic and financial approach is that you get just one piece of the puzzle. We also need to look at political, social and cultural systems.
For so many years, business schools have trained sophisticated technical people think about markets as purely economic and financial systems.
But those systems are embedded in complex social and political environments.
Why did you move into teaching business?
I started out as a China specialist and a sociology professor. I’ve always had a passion for particular subjects: the complexities of market power, inequality within markets.
Business students challenge me and they don’t agree. My thinking is completely foreign to them. Sociology students self-select: they agree with you and that’s why they chose the discipline. When I teach MBA students who are going on to work on Wall Street I feel like I’m doing something.
Corporate Social Responsibility is one of your research interests. A lot of people are cynical about it. What are the opportunities in this area now?
There’s a trend that goes back to the 1950s of tycoon philanthropy – a way for corporations to carry one with business as usual while justifying their existence on the basis of a social agenda. I’m uninterested in that definition.
I’m interested in issues of sustainability and how corporations can strategically think about the places where they have greatest risk, and the systemic possibilities. How can we train business leaders to avoid events like Shell in Nigeria in 1994 and Nike in 1997?
I’d like to train business leaders to think creatively about how to save money and maximize shareholder value by mitigating these risks. Ultimately it’s in the interests of their companies.
There are people talking about risk management and corporate citizenship from that perspective. The global director of New York branding agency Landor, Scott Osman, has developed an exciting practice around companies who want to evolve business models that converge the interests of people with economics.
We have a responsibility to train business leaders who will think about how fortunate they are and what their role is in society as members of these powerful organizations. Only nation states are more powerful in today’s global economy.
It seems like every week there are new business degrees on offer. Do we really need this many business graduates?
I think the issue is not how many business degrees are on offer but how focused the degrees are. Whether at undergrad, master or executive level, technical knowledge needs to be balanced with broader thinking that includes philosophy, ethics and social sciences.
Who’s more unethical? An MBA who makes millions selling mortgage-backed securities or an accounting professor who neglects to teach the systemic risks associated with off-balance-sheet liabilities?
Probably the accounting professor. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mortgage-backed securities: there are serious problems if you don’t think about the systemic risks that arise when you package bad assets into tranches and sell them on. I think there’s something wrong in failing to train business leaders in how markets can unfold in negative ways.
More business schools are opening in Chinese universities. What are the challenges for business grads in the US versus grads in China? We hear a lot about the shrinking skills base in the West, but also the lack of jobs for grads in China.
The bigger problem for the US is that in most schools we don’t have as clear enough understanding of how to embrace globalization. A lot of schools do study tours and use international cases, but few school know how to teach about, say, the BRIC economies in a deep and effective way.
I’ve taught classes on the multinational corporation in China, and students have come to me saying: “I really want to work in China. What should I do?” US students are at such a disadvantage. The answer is: you need to have embraced the language, you need a deep knowledge of the market; you’re competing against Chinese students who want to return home… We’re not training students who can compete in that world.
Within China, most business schools (with a few exceptions like CEIBS and Tsinghua) have a distance to go to catch up with US and UK schools. They aren’t yet producing a graduate population with higher level skills in finance, leadership, marketing and accounting.
Both US and Chinese business grads will find it tough to compete with the people who have the best of both worlds: Chinese students, educated in the US, we go back to take up high-skilled jobs in China.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?
One summer during my undergrad when I was a bike messenger in Chicago (anyone who has been to Chicago will understand this).
What’s your favorite business book?
Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, about the financial crisis. He was in the industry so he has access to people. He’s good at showing how personalities were in large part responsible for what happened.
Tell us what’s great about the GW School of Business in one sentence
I believe we’re the business school that’s taking advantage of being at the intersection of business and politics. We’ve embraced the concept of internationalism – we’re one of the few business schools that have an international business department.
Tell us something your students don’t know about you
I play the guitar and my favorite music to play is folk rock. Ani DiFranco and The Indigo Girls