Spotlight on the McGowan Fund Fellows Program

The Edelman Trust Barometer indicates a crisis in consumer confidence in modern-day business like never before, compounding an already in flux workforce navigating itself through a post-pandemic environment and 2022-era Great Resignation.

Repopulating that workforce responsibly will mean embedding ethical leadership in the C-Suite. The William G. McGowan Charitable Fund‘s Fellows Program hosts a unique mission to help academic institutions embed the principles of ethical leadership within MBA curricula, principles to be taught at a younger age and thus adhered to throughout the work cycle.

I spoke with Colin Emerson, an Alumnus of the McGowan Fund Fellows Program, on his takeaways from his uniquely experiential academic career.

Tell us about your experience with the McGowan Fund Fellows Program.

I was a 2019 fellow from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. I was really attracted to the fellowship program overall because of the emphasis it placed on ethical leadership. I selected Fuqua over other highly-ranked schools because of Fuqua’s emphasis on ethical leadership and actually living those values as opposed to just having them in the curriculum. So, my initial interaction and attraction to the McGowan fellowship and the fund, in general, was because of the emphasis on ethical leadership.

I joined a cohort of 10 total fellows. We worked on a social impact project with the Chicago Jobs Council, focusing on homelessness, as broadly defined in Chicago.

I think there are some core elements of the fellowship experience that, to this day, really stand out to me. The first was the cohort itself. The fund did a good job of bringing us together in person at the time. This is pre-COVID, so bringing us together in person to learn about each other and to get to know each other.

We had phone calls in advance, but the in-person dynamic really built bonds that last to this day. I think my class is one of the more active classes and not just because we’re more recent, but also because we really spent a lot of time at the funds’ request getting to know each other, discussing what mattered to us, and why we were interested in ethical leadership.

I came from a public education background, pre-business school. There were others in my fellowship class who came from tech, some came from finance, some came from consulting, and some came similarly from the nonprofit, social impact-oriented spaces. The fund did a good job of getting us to know each other as people before we launched the social impact project that we’d be delivering for a key stakeholder group for the fund.

We were the first class of fellows to define our own project, if you will, with a McGowan stakeholder organization, the Chicago Jobs Council. That in and of itself was one of the biggest growth experiences that the fund created for us individually and as a class because we weren’t given a set of consulting projects and told that “you’re going to work on X for this organization.”

We had the opportunity to learn about the Chicago Jobs Council, some of its partner organizations, and the end-stakeholders, as well as the people they were working to serve in the Chicago area. We got to scope out what we wanted to accomplish by listening to their pain points and by understanding where certain gaps were because there are certainly a lot of organizations out there that are trying to solve homelessness in Chicago, many with a lot more time and manpower than a 10-person fellowship class.

We created journey maps for individuals experiencing homelessness and their interactions with the various support systems within the Chicago homelessness support ecosystem. While I can’t say for certain how successful we were, our immediate stakeholders were very pleased and felt like our contribution was something that they hadn’t been able to visualize or articulate before.

So, for us as a class, that was really important. Scoping was somewhat difficult, of course. Anytime you scope a nebulous problem and try to come up with a deliverable, you are facing a tough task, but in doing so, I think we were able to come up with something that meant a lot to us and that, more importantly, was going to drive value for the stakeholder group.

That’s sort of where we started. I think throughout the process, the fund did a good job of not only bringing us together in person, but also in checking up on us and giving us guidance, offering resources as we worked to complete our social impact project in a way that was faithful to our work with the Chicago Jobs Council and their partner organization(s). That was the overarching process.

Something that wasn’t part of my experience, but that now is a big part of the fellowship experience centers around a defined set of McGowan principles and coaching; Alumni coaching for each of the fellows in the current class and the previous class as well.

The coaching really allows for self-reflection on the part of the fellows and then enables constructively critical conversations with a coach around how the McGowan principles play out, both in your social impact projects, in your business-school life, and then perhaps even more importantly in the way that you are going to carry yourself as an ethical leader after the fellowship is over and as you enter the workforce as a representative of the McGowan fellows program.

The coaching is very impactful for me. It’s a way that I’m able to continue giving back to the fund and to the fellowship program in a way that’s authentic.

That’s a long-winded way of telling you a lot about what I experienced from getting to know my peers and my fellowship class, learning and scoping a social impact project that helped us to grow, and then outlining the ways that the fund continues to encourage growth for the fellows, but also through its sustained connection to the alumni community.

What makes the principles of ethical leadership which the McGowan Fund champions so relevant to your day-to-day life?

The principles are chosen in a way that makes them relevant for being a leader in today’s age. Being a leader in today’s day and age isn’t about being authoritarian or leading from the front and always being right. It’s about having the courage to stand up when something is perhaps unpopular, and even having the courage to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to do what’s right, even if that may, in the end, be counter-productive to rising profits and driving the bottom line for shareholders.

We talked so much about resilience, for example, just as an individual. It’s hard to be a leader and help others build their ability to bounce back from and be accountable for challenges and push forward in a way that is not only good for those around them if you don’t have resilience yourself.

I really think that the principles themselves are well-chosen. They’re defined very clearly in a way that creates opportunity for agreement and/or even for disagreement in step with the values they espouse. This drives home again the reflective nature of why they’re so relevant to leaders in the business world.

You can’t be successful as a leader if you’re not self-aware. You can’t be a business leader in the public sector especially if you don’t have the integrity and the courage to push on principals that matter, even if they’re unpopular. You will probably never get anything done otherwise because almost nothing starts as the perfect idea and then just flows through seamlessly without disagreement.

The principles of being an ethical leader are both individual in how they help you be successful and drive forward, but more importantly, they keep one grounded in the fact that being a leader is really about making others around you successful or creating a positive impact for others, as opposed to just being a top individual contributor.

Even more importantly, the principles are core to being successful as a leader in a world where there really are no right answers anymore. There are so many different perspectives on a situation or the way that something can be done. It takes courage, self-awareness, integrity, and resilience in order to be able to make sense of that. To come up with a path, rally people to follow that path, and more importantly, be humble enough to recognize when perhaps the path you chose wasn’t right and needs to be corrected.

If you can comprehend that, you’ll be able to understand and work with others around you to drive a positive impact for them specifically, as well as the organization as a whole.

Why do you think MBA programs should adopt the principles of ethical leadership?

It’s constantly in the news, right? Business leaders making decisions, business leaders driving change. I think in the MBA programs, that’s where so much of it starts. How many successful leaders of Fortune 500 companies achieved an MBA at some point?

If MBA programs aren’t focusing on ethical leadership and aren’t challenging individual students who will become leaders to think about their own leadership traits and their impact on those around them beyond themselves and their ability to make the right decisions, even when they are unpopular, for greater social good or for organizational good; if it’s not starting in business programs, which is key training ground or almost a seminal experience for a lot of the most powerful business leaders in the U.S. and worldwide, then we are really missing a huge opportunity.

While someone could argue that ethics and principles are set well in advance of someone getting an MBA in their mid to late twenties or early thirties, that’s probably the first time that folks are having an actual opportunity to self-reflect and think about their leadership in terms of being an ethical leader as they’re about to springboard and jumpstart their career from whatever they were doing before entering into an even more powerful position with more responsibility in the business world.

I think that’s why it’s so important. Because if there’s not an emphasis on ethical leadership, there’s not a frank discussion of ethics vis-à-vis profits, ethics vis-à-vis shareholder value. I mean, should they always be in tension? Will they always be in coordination, in harmony? If that’s not being considered at business school, business leaders certainly aren’t spending time thinking about that when they’re working 14-to-16-hour days making these decisions.

But if they have already considered some of those things and thought about what being an ethical leader means to them and how they want to practice those skills as they become ever more high ranking and given more responsibility and more potential to impact an organization, to impact society, to impact the country, to impact the economy; if they’re not thinking about that from the start, then we’re really missing an opportunity, because like I said, it’s not going to happen in the day-to-day, right?

Where would you like to see the McGowan Fund Program expanding?

I’d like to see the program continuing to build that connection between the social impact projects, the coaching program, and the fellow’s individual journey with ethical leadership and in planning for how fellows are going to be ethical leaders when they leave the fellowship.

Coaching and this emphasis on the McGowan principles have grown over time. The next step is connecting them in a very intentional way, not necessarily through another assignment for the fellows, but in maybe a frank conversation or series of conversations, or even presentations around how what one has done and learned through the program can and will be tangibly applied in those first roles after business school.

One of the reasons that I am passionate about the program is because of the alumni community that I’m a part of. The fund in general and the schools that are involved have done a good job of selecting individuals and the fellowship has created the opportunity to bond with a set class. But what I didn’t realize when I was a fellow is how many amazing ‘alums’ are out there. They have very different ideas and diverse thoughts from my own. I can interact with them at symposia, through coaching and other opportunities. They push me to think about these ideas and principles from different angles and this helps me to care even more.

I speak with alums from at least five different classes pretty regularly, around coaching, around the fellowship, and around life in general. There are some folks who are new parents, folks who’ve changed jobs, just about everything under the sun.

One of the reasons I’m so passionate about the fellowship experience, but also about the alumni community that has been created through the fellowship program is because it’s an area where I know that there could be a continued investment.

So many of us continue to be involved and continue to care and continue to be passionate about the McGowan Fund and its business ethics because we started with the fellowship program. More importantly, we’ve gotten a lot of value [from it], both personally and perhaps societally from the alumni community.