Michael S. North
Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations
New York University Stern School of Business
Michael North is an award-winning professor of Management and Organizations and teaches the main Management & Organizations course at New York University’s Stern School of Business. North wasn’t planning on being a business school professor until about halfway through his psychology Ph.D. program at Princeton University.
“I realized that all the invited outside speakers I found most interesting and engaging were teaching at business schools,” North says. “I was drawn by the kind of work they were doing – the way in which they were not only interested in what makes people tick but how that applies to real-world problems afflicting organizations. I desperately wanted to contribute to that same conversation.”
North’s research revolves around a very prevalent problem in corporate America — ageism and tensions between different generations. A Manhattan native, North says his experience growing up in New York City helps him relate to his students. That seems to ring true as North received more than two dozen nominations from current and former students.
Current age: 36
At current institution since what year? 2015
Education: B.A. (Psychology), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; M.A. and Ph.D. (Psychology & Social Policy), Princeton University
List of courses you currently teach: Management & Organizations
TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… about midway into my Psychology Ph.D. program, I realized that all the invited outside speakers I found most interesting and engaging were teaching at business schools. I was drawn by the kind of work they were doing – the way in which they were not only interested in what makes people tick, but how that applies to real-world problems afflicting organizations. I desperately wanted to contribute to that same conversation.
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I have been studying age, ageism, and generational tension for over a decade now, geared toward the workplace context for the past few years. My personal favorite paper is a meta-analysis synthesizing various studies (North & Fiske, Psychological Bulletin, 2015), finding, somewhat counterintuitively, that people from modern Eastern samples actually report more negative attitudes toward older adults than do Western ones. This is partly due to more dramatic, recent population aging spikes in those countries, and related anxieties about supporting unprecedented frequency of older adults.
More recently, I am exploring how scholars and organizations can best accommodate an uptick in older workers and multiple generations. My latest argument is that we should avoid focusing so heavily on chronological age to predict workers’ outcomes because numerical age has been found to not reliably predict much (e.g. age has no consistent relation with job performance – on average, workers of all ages perform equally well). Instead, I argue that in the workplace, age really connotes “GATE” – that is, highly intertwined elements of Generation, Age, Tenure, and Experience – and disentangling these elements offers more conclusive predictions. Thus, even though we need to make sense of a rapidly aging, multigenerational workforce, we should no longer be treating age in its numerical form only, but rather as a complex set of highly interwoven components.
If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… (in no particular order) therapist, pianist in some kind of bluesy jam band, high school football coach, NFL GM, or owning my own Italian restaurant.
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?
First, being a Manhattan native probably helps: Teaching at Stern means I feel a genuine connection with all of my students, as I have shared firsthand their reality of being young and trying to make it in NYC. I want to do my part, however small, of making the city feel a little more welcoming.
Second, my background as an almost-therapist: I have been told that my classes sometimes feel like group therapy sessions (lol). This is probably not a coincidence; I came extremely close to becoming a clinical psychologist, and still believe we all share a need to be “seen,” to feel supported (especially in the current world), and to be in an inclusive environment, free to share our thoughts and concerns. I am honest with my students that sharing the failures and challenges from my own life is therapeutic for me, too, especially in trying to turn them into (hopefully valuable) lessons. So I guess we’re all helping one another out.
Third, my teaching style: I am probably a little unconventional, which reflects my growing realization that I tend to “zag,” rarely fitting the mold in the manner that people expect. In high school I held leadership positions, but mostly ones in which I could lead quietly by example, because I was shy and not easily categorized – an athlete (quarterback/team captain), but also musician (first trumpet in orchestra and jazz band), and at some level, I guess, thinker and observer (my mom is an artist; various professors in my family). I find myself similarly not fitting into neat boxes professionally: I teach at a business school, but have psychology degrees; I study diversity, but primarily the under-the-radar topic of age; I am equally comfortable relating to college students in their early-20s worried about finding a job as I am with adults 60-plus worried about keeping theirs. I guess I’m used to people not knowing quite what to make of me. Through my own experiences, I hope to especially inspire those students who similarly feel like they don’t fit in perfectly, and how that not-fully-belonging feeling can actually be leveraged to become their biggest advantage as they navigate their career trajectory.
One word that describes my first time teaching: Grateful.
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: It’s not so much the “what,” but the “when” – as in, I wish someone had told me earlier on in my career how much I would enjoy being a business school professor and what a perfect fit it would be for me, rather than coming to this realization when I did (midway through grad school).
Professor I most admire and why: Long list here, so I’ll just keep it to: (a) my dad, the original “Professor North,” my primary role model in life, including in how to teach and inspire undergrads, as he has been doing for decades; (b) my grad school advisor Susan Fiske, the most supportive Ph.D. mentor to ever exist, who handles challenges with more grace and class than anyone else; (c) Nate Pettit, my Stern colleague whose inspirational teaching style has served as a formative model for my own; (d) various social psychologists who teach at business schools whom I’ve looked up to the most: Adam Alter (also a Stern colleague), Adam Galinsky, Hal Hershfield, and Michael Norton (the latter not just because of our name similarity, although there probably is something Freudian to that).
TEACHING BUSINESS SCHOOL STUDENTS
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?
I share a surprising number of similarities in background and interest with many of my students, and thus inevitably feel a strong bond with them. It’s probably a combination of the NYC connection, shared concern about the pragmatic “so-what” of intellectual topics, and my general curiosity in people’s backstories and drawing those stories out with my propensity to banter and take an interest.
What is most challenging?
In grading, balancing my inherent caring of each individual student with maintaining fairness across all of my students. Both matter a lot, but it’s critical not to trade off one against the other. I want to help my students out, but they also need to own up to and learn from their mistakes in order to become more successful professionals down the road.
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Thoughtful.
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Inconsiderate.
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… “Fair” is the modal word that I see on my evals.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies?
Being a dad to two young kids is my main hobby these days, though that does mean ample opportunity for honing my dad joke skills (lol). In the very few intervening free moments: video games (particularly retro series from my youth, but some newer ones too, like Rocket League on Switch, which my preschooler son and I are getting into together), sports (NFL/MLB/NBA/Michigan Wolverines – Go Blue), and listening to and composing music. And memes, partly to pretend that I’m cool. ☺
How will you spend your summer?
Hanging with my family, writing, and after nearly three covid-era months of barely leaving my apartment, trying to exercise and get back in shape!
Favorite place(s) to vacation: Upstate New York, where my family and I go regularly to escape NYC for a bit. It’s quiet, there’s space to run around with my kids, you can see the stars at night unlike in the city, and I actually do my best writing and thinking up there. More uncommonly, we had the opportunity to visit Australia and New Zealand a few years ago and thought it was amazing down there.
Favorite book(s): Moneyball by Michael Lewis, The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett (whom I worked for in college once upon a time), Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?
I tend to identify with characters who are largely misunderstood. In that vein, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is probably my favorite movie of the past few years. For shows, Casa de Papel / Money Heist is among the most popular international Netflix shows, and the primary mastermind is named, “El Professor.” My wife got me a shirt with the character’s face on it – pretty awesome gift for a professor!
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?
Empire of the Sun is my favorite band, but I am into almost everything, being a classically trained pianist, former jazz trumpeter, a former athlete who likes working out to rap and hip-hop, and a child of the 80s-90s (so that era’s music resonates). Lately I’ve been into breakdance music, for no apparent reason. (Can I breakdance? Absolutely not, but listening does make me feel cool!) And (more embarrassingly) remixes of retro video game music. My wife makes fun of me for that, but various YouTube channels have comforted me in showing that I’m not alone! My favorite artist is my mom, an impressively talented painter and sketch artist from whom I inherited zero of that talent. ☺ I did, however, inherit her low-key disposition.
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…
(1) Emphasis on soft skills: I tell all my students that the hard skills only get you so far, and the biggest long-term professional difference-maker is how well you get along with and understand others;
(2) Emphasis on appreciating diversity: It’s topical now, but even a few years ago it was considered somewhat niche in my field to be specializing in diversity topics, such as ageism. If the current world has not made it clear, we have a long way to go to foster fully inclusive societies and workplaces that celebrate multiple perspectives;
(3) Emphasis on well-roundedness: I am a product of interdisciplinary, liberal arts education from childhood through college, and a growing amount of evidence shows that this kind of well-roundedness yields the most long-term success in any field. Thus, I believe that business schools should not see themselves solely as practice-oriented vocational entities, but also as molding well-rounded, ethical future leaders who understand multiple angles of what’s going on in the world around them, and hold various interests outside of their chosen specialization. Yes, this will make them more successful business leaders, but even more important, more successful and fulfilled human beings.
In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Valuing all of the above (soft skills, diversity, well-roundedness). I would add, in line with my research, that companies and organizations need to better understand the value of having different generations in the workplace. The most forward-thinking companies are trying to learn how to make best use of a workforce that is simultaneously older than ever and more intergenerational, because these demographics are affecting literally all industrialized economies around the world for the foreseeable future.
I’m grateful for… This “Top 50 best undergraduate professor” honor, which I know had to be a result of many students, mentees, and colleagues going out of their way to nominate me. What my students likely don’t realize is that, even five years into teaching, I still get nervous before the start of each class session – partly due to natural shyness, and partly due to putting so much pressure on myself to not let my students down, and to make my class worth their while. So consider that physiological evidence that I never take my position for granted. I know I can’t slack off even a little bit, because there will always be at least one student who secretly feels like they don’t fully belong or fit the traditional mold, and because I know that feeling well, I see it as my job to work as hard as possible to help them feel good about who they are and help draw out what they have to offer. I also want each and every student I teach to learn something personally relevant and professionally useful from my own experiences, mistakes, misfortunes, and failures. I want them to be inspired to come out of their shell by witnessing a natural introvert, a former back-of-the-class-seated kid who used to be too scared to stand out, too timid to even wear any remotely bright colors in my clothing, and who still has trouble speaking up in groups, mustering the courage to try and command a business school classroom from time to time. I want them to know that their Management professor cares about them, because I know that, socially and economically, it’s hard to be young today – and on my end, academia can be isolating, and my students’ presence helps keep me company, and their engagement helps give me purpose. I am just grateful that, apparently, some of these sentiments seem to have resonated over the years. So whoever took the time to think of me for this distinction, especially with everything going on in the world, thank you all.
Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:
“Professor North is undoubtedly the most caring teacher I have ever met. He is known for doing things like memorizing 100+ student names before the semester starts, personally greeting each student before lecture, and dropping everything to help students who need someone to talk to. After detecting that I was struggling to find my career interests, North hired me as his RA, provided invaluable research opportunities, and completely changed my life by helping me discover my passion for management research, all while mentoring me during my most difficult times in school. Knowing that money was tight for me as a first generation student, he surprised me by purchasing my GRE preparation books, and has performed countless other acts of kindness for other students as well. North is a one in a million professor who goes above and beyond every single day to support students both within and outside the classroom.”
“The “first and foremost” criteria for winning this award is having a “remarkable impact on students.” I have been fortunate to have many professors who are remarkable TEACHERS. Professor North is set apart by is his IMPACT beyond TEACHING. Professor North’s unique style incorporates memes, pop-culture, humor and creatively themed ppt decks. He is proof that a well-placed office reference can materially help with memory recall. I certainly left his class with a much greater interest in the field of management, but more importantly I learned much in the way of life lessons. That is the aspect of Professor North’s teaching style that is the most crucial. He pairs each lesson in management with an important life lessons centered on how to be happy and successful. I know more about management because I took Professor North’s class, I know more about life and happiness because I took Professor North.”
“Prof North constantly goes above and beyond for his students. Through his unique and remarkable teaching style and his unwavering support as a mentor throughout my undergraduate career, he has impacted me in unexplainable ways. Prof North truly goes above and beyond in the classroom with his unique slide decks and approach learning materials. He even gives out mugs commemorating the main highlights from the semester together that we cherish forever. I knew that he would be a remarkable professor on the first day when he walked into class having memorized everyone’s names. He is a fantastic Professor that has made my undergrad time at Stern that more worthwhile and he is the most deserving of this award not only because of his extensive research ventures and publications, but because of his efforts as a teacher and mentor.”