Tag: Jackson Nickerson

During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden said the idea that corporations only exist to deliver profits to shareholders is “an absolute farce.” Companies also have a responsibility to their workers and the country. Is the debate over “corporate purpose” heading toward a change when Biden takes office?

Taking a stand against a divisive president’s most extreme policies has been an easy way for companies to demonstrate their values. But could the bar for corporate responsibility soon get higher?

We asked Stuart Bunderson, director of WashU Olin’s Bauer Leadership Center and George & Carol Bauer Professor of Organizational Ethics & Governance, and Jackson Nickerson, Frahm Family Professor of Organization & Strategy Emeritus, to weigh in.

Stuart Bunderson

Stuart Bunderson

Pressure to adopt a social purpose and to consider the welfare of all stakeholders is influenced more by key opinion leaders in the business community than by who is in the White House, Bunderson said.

“In recent years—years when Trump has been in the White House—we have seen seismic shifts in the conversation around business social responsibility, driven by business community A-listers like the Business Roundtable, Larry Fink/Black Rock and The World Economic Forum,” he said.

“That conversation is what has been driving change, and the trajectory and momentum of that conversation seems unlikely to be affected by who is in the White House.

“In fact, a starting premise within that movement is that business has to step in not because we have morally flawed leaders in government but because government has shown itself incapable of addressing major problems in our society due to partisan gridlock. 

Under this view, business leaders have a responsibility to help solve broader societal problems because if they don’t, nobody will, he said.

“Although it would be great if Biden’s election signaled a new era in bipartisan collaboration on urgent social problems, early signs have not been encouraging. So I wouldn’t expect a change in the White House to lessen the growing conviction that businesses can and should step in where government is failing.”

Business leaders eager to score points will no longer have Trump as a punching bag for a cheap PR win. 

“But most business leaders are savvy enough to know that cheap PR wins are cheap and that a reputation for social responsibility is established not through a leader’s public comments on presidential actions but by developing a track record of socially responsible action.”

Jackson Nickerson

Jackson Nickerson
Jackson Nickerson

“The federal government has been in a political tit-for-tat stalemate for decades and, as a result, has failed to respond to the fact that the American dream is now unattainable for most Americans. This failure means that the government has not adjusted its policies and come up with a new social contract for America,” Nickerson said.

“Without a new social contract, Americans increasingly appeal to the only wealthy organizations that can tackle policy problems: corporations. The fact that we’re seeing growing appeals to corporations is simply an indicator of increasingly failed politics, which largely is driven by political parties to drive fundraising and control policy.”

The widening economic gap, the climate crisis and healthcare crisis are just some of the political problems that corporations are being asked to solve, Nickerson said.

To maintain legitimacy, it’s in corporations’ best interest to respond to these demands for socially responsible actions. However, corporations have failed to recognize they also have a role—and perhaps even an obligation—to influence Congress to function properly, he said. A properly functioning government is also in business’ best interest.

“Businesses want to know the rules of the game so they can make strategic investments. They are less willing to make these investments if the rules keep changing,” he said. “And, frankly, the irony is if we don’t change the fundraising incentives of the political parties, which drive wedge issues and lead to nationalizing every congressional election, our public policies will continue to vacillate as party control of the federal government keeps switching back and forth.” 

For instance, he said, the party in power provides healthcare, the other party when it comes to power later tries to take healthcare away. One party raises taxes and the other party later lowers taxes.

“Such policy vacillation is not like treading water. Instead, it causes the American dream to sink further for more Americans and reduces corporate America’s willingness to make strategic investments for growth.  With lower economic growth comes further difficulty in creating a new social contract and leads to even greater demands for corporations to increase their expenditures in social responsibility. This downward spiral is a classic vicious circle”

“Once business realizes it has deep economic as well social interests in a well-functioning Congress, they will see opportunities to pressure political parties and influence government to come together and solve real problems for the American public,” Nickerson said.

Until corporate America flexes its muscles and we collectively change the way our political system functions, then demands on firms to engage in corporate social responsibility will only increase—regardless of who is in office, he said.

Sara Savat, senior news director for WashU’s Office of Public Affairs, interviewed Jackson Nickerson for this blog post.

Being a “just” corporation means doing what’s morally right and fair for all stakeholders: employees, the community, customers, shareholders and the environment. But doing what’s “right” is rarely straightforward in our rapidly changing social environment.  

Today’s corporations face intense pressure to implement socio-economic practices, fueled by an increase in social activism and the ease of promoting causes through the internet and social media. Yet, all too often, executives find themselves in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation when their response backfires. 

Jackson Nickerson
Jackson Nickerson

In the paper “The Just Corporation,” Jackson Nickerson, Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at Olin, and co-author Sergio Lazzarini, an Olin graduate and the Chafi Haddad Professor of Management at Insper in Sao Paulo Brazil, argue that many corporations miss the mark because they fall into decision traps that lead them to misread the problems and stakeholder demands. The paper was originally published in Harvard Business Review Brasil in Portuguese. The decision traps include the following:

  • Blind spot traps arise when executives fail to see the big picture and anticipate how current just corporate demands will evolve.
  • Moral licensing traps occur when corporations attempt to paper over unjust actions in one domain by making socially welcome investments in another.
  • SCN traps (pronounced “sin”) occur when corporations have an “overly simplistic theory of change for what is in actuality a complex situation, a lack of competence for comprehensively assessing as well as delivering just outcomes and naivete in their thinking of how to help vulnerable stakeholders.” The result can be social welfare policies that fail to achieve the desired impact or, worse, produce negative ramifications, often for the most vulnerable.

The ‘Corporate Ladder of Justice’

Lazzarini and Nickerson a developed a decision-making model, which they call the “Corporate Ladder of Justice,” to guide just corporate strategies, while avoiding the common pitfalls other corporations face. The steps include:

Rung 1: Identify existing and emerging stakeholder demands. The world is continuously changing in myriad ways and so too are the demands of society.  While these demands have always been in flux, they seem to be changing and multiplying at a quickening pace, which magnifies the potential number and kind of blind spot traps. To overcome the potential for blind spot traps, Lazzarini and Nickerson recommend that executives start by stepping into the shoes of each stakeholder to fully understand their needs and demands.

Next, executives should shift thinking from specific and narrow categories demanded by stakeholders to a higher and more abstract meta-category.  Then, from this meta-category, reverse the process to identify all subcategories into which firm activities fall.

Finally, corporations should make corporate or industry association investments to measure both changing demands and desired outcomes. 

“Overcoming the blind spot trap through activities that generate evenhandedness, overcome blind spots and focus attention through measurement of changing demand and desired outcomes can help executives climb the first rung of corporate justice,” they write.

Rung 2: Compete fairly. Even when strategic manipulations intended to limit competition are not illegal, they can be viewed as unjust when they undermine equal access to market opportunities.

“Corporations that engage in manipulative actions to soften competition, restrict entry, limit substitutes, and use investments in socio-environmental projects as a moral license to gain bargaining power create unfair and unjust competition,” they write in their paper.

“In contrast, those corporations that gain competitive advantage and profitability by developing difficult to imitate superior innovations and capabilities for delivering unique products and services are competing on merit, which mitigate moral licensing concerns that support unfair competition.” 

Rung 3: Care for vulnerable stakeholders. To avoid the SCN trap, Lazzarini and Nickerson recommend that executives use two criteria to prioritize and respond to stakeholder demands.

“First, focus on stakeholders who are no more than one or two degrees of separation from the actions of the corporation, unless the supply chain keeps the most vulnerable ones (e.g., child and slave labor) distant from the corporation,” they write. Addressing peripheral demands and their causes limits deep understanding and can lead to moral licensing and SCN traps.

Second, follow an evidence-basedapproach to corporate socio-environmental projects.  Start with a well-crafted and vetted theory of change to clearly indicate how corporate interventions can improve the lives of vulnerable stakeholders and achieve expected outcomes. Employing scientific research techniques and partnering with academic research centers that are well versed in designing these kinds of studies can help corporations assess and adjust its theory of and investments for change.” 

Rung 4. Do or give efficiently. Should the corporation rely on or build its capabilities and competencies to take the action or should it provide resources to others to take just actions? It depends.

“The fourth rung recommends that executives make efficient organizational choices to care for vulnerable stakeholders. If sustainable actions are consistent with the corporation’s business strategy—as validated by its shareholders, especially when financial tradeoffs are involved—and require unique capabilities that other organizations do not already possess, then vertical integration typically is an efficient execution strategy,” Lazzarini and Nickerson write. 

“Alternatively, if others, like NGOs and public sector agencies, already have made these unique investments or they can aggregate substantial economies of scale and scope beyond what the corporation can provide, then outsourcing is a superior way to support vulnerable stakeholders.”

Why climb the ladder?

By shifting the corporate mindset away from “socio-environmental projects as a way to mitigate risk or increase profits” and committing to the principles of action outlined in the Corporate Ladder of Justice, Lazzarini and Nickerson said corporations will be better equipped to cope with escalating uncertainty in their socio-environmental demands. 

“The rapidly changing environment that is stimulating the call for just corporations also is creating conditions to destabilize business models that fail to adopt these standards, in ways that cannot be fully anticipated,” Lazzarini and Nickerson write. “In other words, corporations today face escalating pressures and adverse reactions from stakeholders that can’t be known beforehand.

“Failure to cope with these complex demands fuels public distrust in corporations, leading to escalating social media activism and exacerbated political and regulatory responses, all of which impose additional costs on corporations and society.  By voluntarily committing to climb the corporate ladder of justice, companies demonstrate their willingness to contribute to the social contract and attenuate extreme responses to the inequalities that inescapably emerge when they grow and expand their corporate activities.” 

Brookings Executive Education’s Master of Science in Leadership (MS-Leadership) was recently highlighted in the Washington Post Express. In the article, “Local graduate programs adapt to students’ needs,” by Ambreen Ali, the focus is on graduate degree programs that are adapting to meet the needs of the 21st century student, one who needs flexibility.


Nickerson and Morris

The article features Associate Dean and Director, Jackson Nickerson, and recent MS-Leadership graduate, Ray Morris.

“It’s a unique program. There’s no sequence, per se, but the courses fit together like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Jackson Nickerson, the program’s associate dean and director.

“This is the way grad school is supposed to be,” Morris says.



The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) provides stewardship over the construction, maintenance and preservation of the Nation’s highways, bridges and tunnels. FHWA also conducts research and provides technical assistance to state and local agencies in an effort to improve safety, mobility, and livability, and to encourage innovation (www.fhwa.dot.gov).

This spring, Jackson Nickerson and Cindy Charlton each traveled 800 miles from St. Louis, MO to Washington, D.C. to teach at the Federal Highway Administration.

Professor Nickerson taught the course Visioning and Leading Change and Cindy taught the course Leaders Growing Leaders. Each course was two days in length and were attended by Federal Highway Administration employees.

Brookings Executive Education (BEE) is calling this model of training BEE with YOU. Not only does BEE with YOU provide a new way to stretch training investments, it also promotes cultural change by having teams attend the same high-quality/high-impact learning experience.

Here is what participants had to say about Visioning and Leading Change:

“Very good course—would suggest FHWA continue to offer more of these course topics. Dynamic group of participants, which made course very compelling. It was great to see how we all face similar issues in the workplace.”

“Very knowledgeable subject matter expert who takes the concepts and theories of visioning and leading change and translates them to real-world applications. Course was engaging!”

The following are quotes from Leaders Growing Leaders participants:

“Very knowledgeable of subject matter and kept the participants actively engaged throughout the two-day session.”

“Main benefit was learning about a subject (coaching) that as a new supervisor, is not easy. This coaching skill is not something that you automatically know about.”

BEE’s innovative method for training seeks to provide exceptional, yet cost-effective education at a time of controversy regarding the best use of training dollars and budgets in the federal government. Recent articles on the topic from Government Executive include titles such as:

BEE is proud to deliver cutting-edge instruction to federal agencies in their very own classrooms. The opportunity to contribute to the improvement of one’s own government is an honor.

Learn more about BEE with YOU:


Jackson Nickerson is dispensing advice for executives in a new column targeting government managers.

Professor Nickerson’s bi-weekly column, under the heading: “Ask EIG: Leadership Insights for Federal Managers” (EIG stands for Excellence in Government), is posted on the website of Government Executive, the premier publication and website for federal managers and executives.

The column is a partnership between Government Executive and the management experts at Brookings Executive Education.  Nickerson is the Associate Dean and Director of Brookings Executive Education which is managed by the Olin Business School. Nickerson is also a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution an the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at Olin.

While the column focuses on questions specific to government executives, Nickerson says his advice will be useful to all business people. Strategic planning, leadership and management issues affect every business from startups to huge bureaucratic agencies.

Read his advice here and please comment. The doctor loves feedback!