Business and Government: Power and Engagement in the 21st-Century World

Back to Class: A new course pushes students (and instructors and guests) to question their assumptions and confront real-world challenges.

April 25, 2022

| by Dave Gilson
Colorful illustration of three people walking through a dark and slightly ominous doorway surrounded by large intertwining pillars. Illustration by Dalbert Vilarino

Illustration by Dalbert Vilarino

On a Friday morning last November, two representatives of the social media giant formerly known as Facebook stopped by Stanford GSB. The visit had been arranged well in advance, but the timing was a bit awkward for a company seeking to rebrand amid bruising hits to its image and stock price.

Editor’s Note

In this ongoing series, we ask our faculty to share the purpose, takeaways, and potential impact of one particular course.

However, for the nearly 50 students taking Professor Anat R. Admati and lecturer Robert E. Siegel’s Business and Government: Power and Engagement in the 21st-Century World, this encounter could not have been timed more perfectly.

The Wall Street Journal had recently reported on “the Facebook Files,” a trove of documents revealing the company’s awareness of its products’ negative effects on teens and how its platforms had been used to spread disinformation. Shortly afterward, Frances Haugen, the former product manager who leaked the records, told a U.S. Senate committee that Facebook’s choices were “disastrous for our children, for our public safety, our privacy, and for our democracy.” She contrasted her ex-employer’s actions — and inaction — with a lesson she’d learned while getting her MBA: “We are responsible for the organizations that we build.”

Her comments hit squarely on the themes of Business and Government, a five-week deep dive into the role of business leaders as they navigate increasingly complicated matters of accountability, trust, corruption, and governance. So, when the guests from Meta Platforms dropped by during the second week, there was plenty to talk about.

The discussion was off the record, but it’s not disclosing too much to say the visitors, one of them a senior executive, were put in the hot seat. “To be fair, I think we did make them sweat a little bit,” says Frances Simpson-Allen, a second-year MBA student. “But if you’re one of the biggest companies in the world and arguably one of the few companies that reaches almost half the world’s population, you should be in a position to take some tough questions.”

As Admati and Siegel later reflected on the Meta moment, they seemed a bit surprised by the intensity they’d witnessed that day. Yet this was precisely the kind of probing, unflinching discussion they’d sought to spark with their new course.

The students, Admati says, had demonstrated just how seriously they were weighing the big questions facing leaders not just in Silicon Valley but in every industry: “Who calls the shots? Who governs?” In that session and those that followed, Siegel says, “I think we touched every third rail that was out there — and I hope we did so in a way that allowed the students to engage with it and not hide behind platitudes.”

 

Business and Government grew out of Admati and Siegel’s shared belief that this generation of business students faces a tangle of challenges that aren’t typically addressed in management and finance courses.

For Admati, the George G. C. Parker Professor of Finance and Economics, the class was a culmination of nearly 15 years of research, advocacy, and teaching about the often-troubled relationship between the public and private sectors. A prominent proponent of reforming the banking sector, Admati saw the 2008 financial crisis as a wake-up call, a stark illustration of how failed oversight can enable both corporate excess and fragility. In 2018, she founded the Corporations and Society Initiative (CASI) at the GSB to promote “more accountable capitalism and governance.”

Expanding on ideas explored in her courses Power in Finance and Is the Internet Broken?, she started to brainstorm a new class with the working title Capitalism 3.0. She explained the need for such a course in a 2019 Harvard Business Review article in which she called on business schools to restore trust in the economic and political system by promoting “civic-minded leadership” — “a way of conducting business and citizenship based on a holistic understanding of how individuals, corporations, and governments interact, one that emphasizes the importance of good governance mechanisms and seeks to create a system in which capitalism and the market economy can deliver on their promises.”

Through his work as a GSB lecturer in management, venture capitalist, executive consultant, and former technology leader, Siegel — a graduate of the MBA Class of ’94 — had also come to see that the intersection of business and government “is a foundational issue that crosses almost every industry. Whether you’re running a large multinational or you are running a small organization, you’re going to have to deal with geopolitical issues in ways that my generation didn’t have to.”

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Anat Admati and Robert Siegel walk through Stanford GSB campus on a sunny afternoon, in deep conversation. Photo by Drew Kelly

Walking the Talk: Siegel and Admati found a mutual desire to push past knee-jerk reactions and oversimplified ideological labels. | Drew Kelly

They were also responding to demand. As the co-director of CASI, Admati says, “I’m working with students who want to have these discussions and are hungry for more content like this.” Siegel heard similar things from recent grads. “When I started talking about this class as Anat and I were working on it, you could see the light bulb go off with the alums,” he says. “I wish I had a dollar for every time one said, ‘Ooh, can I come back and take that?’”

GSB administrators had connected Admati and Siegel, and as they discussed a potential collaboration, Siegel eventually suggested that they teach together. As he recalls, “Because I’m a troublemaker, I looked at Anat, who’d been making trouble for some years by then at the GSB and in the world, and said, ‘We should do a class on this. That would be fun.’”

Admati and Siegel make no secret of their differences in perspective, politics, and approach to the issues. Both recount the “triggers” that would pop up in their conversations. Siegel felt that Admati’s critiques of capitalism failed to acknowledge its overwhelming benefits: “She would share articles about capitalism being broken, and my reaction would be, ‘Except for every other economic system that’s ever been created, right?’” Admati bristled at Siegel’s belief that “regulation stifles innovation.” “Rob, you like the rule of law, right? Let’s call them laws instead of regulations,” she recalls shooting back. “The issue is the rules of the game, and we want to design them to allow innovation without undue harm.”

Rather than letting their disagreements become barriers, Admati and Siegel found a mutual desire to push past knee-jerk reactions toward a deeper understanding. In separate interviews, each expressed their distaste for oversimplified ideological categories. (Siegel: “I hate to use the labels.” Admati: “I hate the labels.”) “It was when Anat and I would really unpack those issues we found where we had common ground,” Siegel recalls. Admati adds, “Rob likes to say that we disagree on everything, and I say, ‘Actually, that’s not true. We talk things through and then we end up agreeing.’”

 

The challenging yet constructive dynamic between Admati and Siegel would provide a model for Business and Government. In their own distinctive ways, they poked and prodded students to question assumptions and eschew convenient narratives.

Admati kicked off the first day with one of her signature lectures, an expansive synthesis of history, law, data, and examples ripped from the headlines. A slide presenting the “false contrast” between “‘free’ markets” and “‘big’ government” echoed the discussions she and Siegel had had while planning the course.

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“It’s really important that we have these conversations in the classroom before folks are put into quite meaningful positions of influence where they’re going to make tough calls.”

She also introduced a concept that would become a touchstone in the weeks ahead: The “circles of interests” that surround everyone, from the individual level to the planetary. “If you believe there are rights people should have and you want those rights for yourself and the circle of people around you, you must also wonder who you can count on to protect them,” she said.

Siegel’s M.O. was kinetic: Pacing in front of the room, he’d lure students into Socratic exchanges, like this one about how companies should operate in countries that violate human rights:

Student: I think businesses have to have core values and ethics, independent of which country they operate in. I know, it sounds idealistic.

Siegel: So, I want to unpack that. They have core ethics and values that are independent of the country that they operate in? This isn’t an ethics class; this is a governance class.

Student: I understand, but every company should articulate its values, its core values, its principles. And when they operate in other countries with different governance, it’s up to [them] how they like to adapt their values in the context.

Siegel: Values get adapted?! Tell me more about that! How do you adapt your values? Where are times that you have values that are one thing and where are times that you have values that are another thing?

Student: (laughing) Maybe I should rephrase that.

“Anat and Rob both did a great job of really pushing people’s positions,” Simpson-Allen says. “It was really nice to see the two of them come together,” says Veena Katragadda, also a second-year MBA student. “I felt like I was getting a different perspective from each side, but both of them were basically saying the same thing: This is an urgent issue that we need to think about.”

In keeping with the course’s focus on real-world topics, nearly every session included a high-profile guest. Former General Electric CEO and GSB lecturer Jeff Immelt spoke about doing business in China and Saudi Arabia. Young Sohn, the former president of Samsung Electronics, discussed global supply chains. Another spirited session featured Rep. Ro Khanna, a Silicon Valley Democrat who boosts big tech and backs higher taxes for billionaires. “Loved the class and the students,” he tweeted afterward. “The classroom is far tougher than how I remember it.”

The emotional crux of the course was an appearance by Linda Ginzel, a consumer activist and clinical professor of managerial psychology at Booth School of Business. (She’d become close friends with Admati while she was an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the GSB in the late 1980s.) After her 16-month-old son Danny suffocated in a defective crib in 1998, Ginzel had launched a campaign to fix the product safety system that allowed dangerous products to stay on the shelves. Her story crystallized another core theme of Business and Government: Corporate leaders can do great harm even when they follow the rules. “That brought it home,” Simpson-Allen says. “It was a very moving session.”

Ginzel urged the students to dispense with the notion that they must wear multiple “hats” representing their various professional and personal identities. Instead, she called for a less compartmentalized view of leadership, an idea that meshed with the concept of circles of interest. “People wear their ‘management hat’ when they’re maximizing profits and some other hat at other times,” Admati says. “When your child dies, you’re not wearing any hat.”

Admati and Siegel say their overarching goal was to provide students with frameworks for a deeper understanding of our economic and political system. GSB students, Admati says, “are grasping for answers how to think about their place in society and how they reconcile their different interests and connect the dots” from different disciplines. After completing the course, Siegel says, “I hope the students could understand that it can’t just be ‘Do the right thing.’ It’s much more complex than that.”

 

Far from being daunted by this complexity, students say they came away with a sense of clarity. “The world is much more complex than what we sometimes imagine and the class was eye-opening,” says Ricardo Monastier, an MSx student. “It provided the tools to connect the dots and understand reality in a broader way.”

“The lines between government, business, and stakeholders have almost blurred,” Katragadda says. “It was exciting to see a class that was trying to intellectually discuss what those lines and responsibilities are.”

“This is one of the only classes that forces you to take on very tough positions,” Simpson-Allen says. “I don’t mean firing someone — we roleplay that all the time. I think it’s really important that we have these conversations in the classroom before folks are put into quite meaningful positions of influence where they’re going to make tough calls.”

Admati and Siegel plan to teach the course again, most likely next winter. Beyond that, they’d like to ensure that all GSB students are exposed to its message in their time at the school. “I think this is the single most important issue the students are going to deal with for the next several decades,” Siegel says.

Admati says it was particularly gratifying to coteach a course that took a step back to look at the bigger picture and examine assumptions, something she’d like to see become more of a habit — not only in the classroom. “Ask yourself: If you follow this strategy, will the world be a better place? What are you assuming if you answer ‘yes’ — and what might go wrong?”

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