Business Professors and Activism: An Interview with Scott Behson

Being neutral in academic work is something that I think many academics struggle with. I came to academia from journalism, so my experiences in journalism might have given me a heightened sensitivity of the importance of neutrality in writing and research. But research can never be entirely neutral or unbiased – if only for the simple reason that we tend to focus on topics that we personally find interesting or important.

However, I’ve noticed that business professors generally seem to interpret being neutral as staying away from any kind of activism – unless it’s something “safe” like joining the local chamber of commerce. I have to admit that when I first started spending time with professors from other academic disciplines, I was slightly shocked that some of them did things like testify at legislative hearings in support of or against proposed legislation, or serving as board members for advocacy groups. I thought, isn’t showing your opinion that strongly going to affect your credibility? But I gradually realized that academics can, and should, use their expertise to benefit society – especially if they can help those in society that struggle to be heard or to be treated fairly.

My frustration about the relative lack of advocacy in my own academic discipline made me especially excited to discover Scott Behson’s work. Scott is an activist who works to promote more family-friendly workplace practices, especially those that affect fathers – and he is also a professor of management in the Silberman College of Business at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Scott is the author of the book The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home, which is an Amazon #1 best-seller in its categories, and which he describes as “the first book of its kind to provide advice and encouragement for working fathers, helping them to achieve success in their careers while also being the involved, loving dads they always wanted to be.” Scott is also a very active blogger, and has written for the Harvard Business Review Online, the Huffington Post, TIME, and The Wall Street Journal. He frequently appears in media, including MSNBC, NPR and Fox News; has worked with Fortune 500 companies as a consultant; and has been a keynote speaker at major events. Scott kindly agreed to let me interview him via email about his experiences as a business professor and an activist, and how he balances those two roles.

Scott Behson. (credit: fathersworkandfamily.com)

Scott Behson. (credit: fathersworkandfamily.com)

Fiona: Your point about business professors being at a unique intersection of academia and practice made a lot of sense to me. Why do you think that business professors tend not to take public positions on issues that they’re very knowledgeable about?

Scott: Thanks. To your point, and to catch up the reader – recently, 203 US business school professors, including myself, signed  a letter sent to the US Congress supporting the Family Act, as well as expanded paid family and medical leave. I wrote a blog post explaining my role in this advocacy effort, and there I articulated how business professors have a unique vantage point based on our dual academic and professional backgrounds, and the fact that we work equally closely inside the academy and in the corporate world.

I know that most of my university colleagues are to my left politically, and most of my “real world” business contacts are to my right. I attribute my mix of political views to the fact that I straddle these two perspectives.

To some degree, being in the middle, or having a mix of libertarian and social justice perspectives, keeps someone from feeling consistently affiliated with specific political movements. I think many business professors are more practical or cynical, rather than idealistic.

Fiona: An open letter about questionable campaign tactics in the recent Canadian federal election was signed by 587 Canadian professors.  Only one of the signers is identified as a business school professor. I don’t know how the signers were recruited for this letter, but I’m wondering if business school professors were asked to sign and said “no”, or whether the letter’s authors just didn’t think of business schools as a place to look for supporters. Do you think that business professors are reluctant to get involved with initiatives like this, or whether other academics overlook them as potential allies? Or is there something else going on?

Scott: I’d venture that it is a combination of the aspects you suggested. First, the authors of the open letter hail from philosophy, law and political science. It is no surprise that the vast majority of signers also come from those disciplines. So, there is some self-selection going on.

Secondly, I’d reason that a much higher percentage of business professors are conservative or have right-wing leanings – probably not a majority, but it would be much closer to parity than among, say, philosophers.

Thirdly, I think you are on to something in that business professors may want to stay publicly apolitical. After all, many business professors work with companies as consultants and do not want to put off those who may disagree with them politically. NBA star Michael Jordan, who votes Democrat, was once questioned as to why he did not get more involved in speaking out on political issues. He responded that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” There may be some of that going on.

Fiona: You are very vocal about the challenges faced by working dads, and the changes that need to happen to address those challenges. One concern I’ve heard expressed by business professors is that if they’re perceived as biased, or as anti-business, their academic careers are going to suffer. Have you ever had pushback or difficulties in your academic career from being a high-profile activist in the public sphere? Or vice-versa?

Scott: I’m sure some business professors feel that way. However, the way I see it is: what’s the use of being a tenured full professor if you do not use that freedom to try to do some good, express your ideas, and debate them in the public sphere?

Personally, I’ve not felt any push or blowback from anyone. My colleagues and leadership LOVE that I am embracing a more public role. They have been incredibly supportive. Even if they don’t agree with my stance, it is hard to publicly criticize someone who is trying to support involved fatherhood and strong families. And I’ll invite that argument any day – I’m convinced that better work-family policy is 100% good for business. If it weren’t, I might not be such a passionate advocate. Incidentally, my students think it is cool that I wrote a best-selling popular press book (and a percentage of my royalties is donated to A Better Balance, an amazing legal advocacy organization), that I have been on TV, and that I am all over Twitter.

The cover of Scott's book. (credit: fathersworkandfamily.com)

The cover of Scott’s book. (credit: fathersworkandfamily.com)

I also think that academia is recognizing that writing research papers that only another 100 academics read is a slow road to irrelevance. There is much more call to have impact with one’s scholarship, and to engage local communities and the national debate. I know that my business school’s accreditation body has shifted much of what it looks for in terms of scholarship to emphasize engagement with the local business community and finding alternate means to make scholarship useable to the wider world. Frankly, I find these activities more fun and stimulating than running statistical analyses. I bet many more academics will start finding alternate paths as well.

Fiona: You have a strong record of academic work, and you also have a very strong record of public output, such as your book, your media appearances, your articles in mainstream media outlets, and your public speaking. How do you decide when and where to focus your work? Do you ever think something like, hmm, I should write an academic journal article instead of this Huffington Post article?

Scott: Again, as a tenured full professor, I have more freedom to define my academic output, and I’ve run with it. And, as noted earlier, business accreditation standards make room for scholarly contributions aimed at the wider world.

While I have deep knowledge in my area of expertise – how companies and employees can navigate work-family challenges, with a special emphasis on fathers – I think that my best contribution to society is to be the person who can interpret the academic research and corporate best practices, and then translate this knowledge into useable formats so families and companies can achieve success. As a researcher, I’m no better than most. But as a translator of academic insight, I think I’ve found something I really excel at. There is probably more Huffington Post and MSNBC in my future than the Academy of Management Journal. And there are definitely more popular and business press books inside of me.

For example, the Harvard Business Review blog reaches hundreds of thousands of managers, and one of my pieces there was shared on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter) over 10,000 times. In contrast, my most “successful” journal article was cited about 300 times. If even five percent of the managers who read my HBR piece on implementing flexibility at work use one idea in that article, I’ve helped a lot of people.

My blog is also a way to create a conversation around these issues. And while it seems odd for a professor to write for Buzzfeed or be quoted in GQ, this reaches a demographic that can really use this information but needs it presented differently. I’m very proud to have written in the business press and in the popular press, and in high-brow and low-brow publication outlets.

The most rewarding experience I’ve had was when I gave the keynote address to the National At-Home Dad Network Convention – a room full of 300 at-home dads – helping them navigate their family dynamics and take on the role of advocate for a new model of involved fatherhood. Shortly thereafter, I spoke at a Fortune 20 corporation, to a room full of ambitious career men, on how they can navigate a competitive workplace and still find time to be highly involved dads. This is powerful stuff, and I can see a direct impact. I love what I do.

Scott (on the right) speaking on a panel discussion at the White House on work-family issues. (credit:fathersworkandfamilies.com)

Scott (on the right) speaking at a panel discussion at the White House on work-family issues. (credit: fathersworkandfamilies.com)

Fiona: I’m also curious about your experiences as a male researcher and activist on work-family issues. The discourse on this subject, in both the academic and non-academic worlds, is dominated by women, and as such most of the discussion is around issues that are relevant to working mothers. Sadly, on more than one occasion, I’ve heard female academics say that men’s perspectives on work-family issues are not as valid or important as women’s, because working fathers don’t have it as bad as working mothers do (e.g. men are more likely to have stay-at-home spouses, higher pay, better career opportunities, and so on). Have you ever encountered this kind of prejudice, and if so how have you dealt with it?

Scott: When I chose work-family as the topic of my dissertation back in the late 1990’s, some of my advisors really tried to dissuade me for my own good. I’m glad I didn’t listen to them (I’ve always been a bit of an iconoclast). It’s been an amazing career move.

Because I stand out as a male voice on the matter, I’ve been able to be on national TV, speak at the White House, and serve on so many influential panels – where I often joke that I am the “token Y chromosome”. When the media wants a quote on Virgin Atlantic’s paternity leave policy, Paul Ryan’s comments on work-family balance, or even Jennifer Lawrence’s call for gender equity in Hollywood, I’m on a relatively short list of male academic experts.

That being said, I have certainly heard those devaluing men’s voices. However, much more commonly, I see women who are effusive in their support for raising awareness of working fathers’ issues. After all, the more men and women that see work-family balance as a common challenge, the more momentum there is for positive change.

To illustrate, I was recently the sole Y-chromosome at a Women’s Leadership Conference. The panel’s moderator began her question to me by saying, “Scott, you are obviously unique in this, but how do you balance all you do with supporting your wife’s career and finding time to be an involved dad?” I stopped her and said. “Thank you, and I know you mean this as a compliment, but I am not unique. Virtually every dad I know cares about his career and is putting in lots of time and work to be a highly involved father. Please don’t look at me as unique. I’m actually really representative of most working dads in dual-career couples today.”

This quote was met by applause from the women in the audience, and later on many women thanked me for saying this – because they see how hard their husbands and sons work to be equal co-parents, and wished more people understood this. It was very heartening, and shows that we really are all in this together.

Finally, being not just an academic, but also a busy working dad with my own juggle going on, gives me the credibility to speak to men, and a rapport that allows men to feel safe enough to explore and discuss these issues. They may not feel as safe speaking with women on this topic.

Fiona: Your wife is an actor, which is also a profession that requires flexibility and availability in work scheduling. I only know of two other couples where one partner is an academic and the other is an actor; most of the professors I know have partners with jobs that don’t require a lot of travel and whose hours are relatively predictable. How do you and your wife collectively balance your work and family commitments?

Scott: It’s not always easy, and it seems that every week is different. But we had conversations about our lives before our son was born, and really worked through what it would mean for both our careers, and what we needed to do to support each other.

That being said, things are so much easier because of my academic schedule. Outside of teaching classes, holding office hours, and enduring meetings, I really only need to be at a particular place to do my work about 20 hours a week. Other than that, I can get the rest of my work done wherever and whenever. I work very hard, but so much of my work is on my own terms and on my own time. When I travel, my wife Amy steps up. When she travels, or works nights, I adjust around her. It’s an odd, ever-changing little tango. Friends and family are also a big help.

The best part of all this is that our son has seen and experienced our true partnership right from the start. He knows mom and dad are equally capable parents, he sees how much we value each other’s careers, and he’s become a very flexible, resilient kid, too.

Fiona: I have to ask you this, because I think it’s something that a lot of other academics would be wondering. Do you have assistants that help you with your academic work or with your public work? Because you’re so productive in both areas, it’s going to make the rest of us look like slackers if you do all of this yourself.

Scott: Sorry if this makes you look like slackers…but I have no graduate research or teaching assistants. Even if I did, I’m a horrible delegator and probably wouldn’t use them much.

I work hard and manage my time, and I work hard even in January and in the summers. But the real key to being productive is that now that I am a tenured full professor, I spend my time on my most value-added activities.

While it may take a year of hard work to get a traditional academic paper published, I’ve had 1,000-word articles pitched, written and published in a prestigious outlet in less than a week. My blog and social media take up 20 to 30 minutes a day. That’s time I used to waste on Facebook or watching baseball. And I really do try to walk the walk in terms of making sure I spend lots of time being a present father and husband. (But I must disclose that I have a literary agent and a professional speaking agency behind me, and I hired a publicist for my book launch.)

A final note – networking is key. Thanks to my public profile, I have dozens of people sending me news items and academic papers almost every week. These often lead to article or blog ideas. People ask me to co-author things or participate in symposia without me always having to initiate these efforts. Almost everything good in my career – consulting gigs, my book deal, my first opportunity at HBR, the White House event – came from networking. This even applies to the rest of my life. I met my wife on a blind date set up by a mutual friend!

 

Thanks very much to Scott for generously sharing his time and for his insights.

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