Q & A With our Executive Director Joey Burton: Telling a Better Story About Business
New Institute for Business in Society Executive Director Joey Burton joined the University of Virginia Darden School of Business recently after 14 years at the University of Chicago, where he served the last three years as executive director of the Coase-Sandor Institute for Law and Economics. He also served as director of research and operations at the Center for Population Economics at the Chicago Booth School of Business and helped faculty secure substantial federal grants.
He joins Darden with a passion for advancing the positive role of business in society and discussed his background as well as his goals for Darden and the Institute for Business in Society.
Welcome to Darden. What are your initial impressions of the School?
Aside from its reverence for Thomas Jefferson? The first week I was here, I was asked to connect the document I was writing to Jeffersonian principles. I had to call a historian friend of mine for a primer.
This is a place that cares about ideas — students and faculty are deeply engaged with one another around a set of ideas that define this institution, whether that’s decision science, business ethics, leadership or, yes, Jeffersonian ideas about civic participation. But this is also a place that cares deeply about the practicing manager — what does the latest advancement in scholarship have to do with him or her? Darden faculty and students think that is an important question. And that has been refreshing.
What attracted you to the position of executive director of the Institute for Business in Society?
I have wondered for a while how I could contribute to telling a better story about business than the one our society has inherited. We live in a populist moment. The story of business, told by the right and the left, is that business is fundamentally out of alignment with the needs and aspirations of real people. And yet, the business leaders I know care deeply about how their decisions affect their employees, how their practices affect the communities they serve, and how their products and investments make the world better-off.
Darden faculty have produced real evidence that can bridge that gap. I have been so energized by the institute’s academic directors Ed Freeman, Greg Fairchild, Mary Margaret Frank and Andy Wicks — their own work has demonstrated the breadth and variety in business in society scholarship. I am so encouraged by Dean Scott Beardsley, who has prioritized business in society and leadership.
How has your background prepared you for this new position?
Whenever I think about my career, which hasn’t been a straight path, I am always looking for ways to connect my experiences to the next opportunity, and that means constantly redeveloping my narrative about why I have taken on the roles I have in the past, and what I learned from them.
I can honestly say that the Darden role was the first time I didn’t have to do that. This role felt obvious — it made my path from aspiring philosopher to economics researcher to university administrator make sense. I looked at the hiring committee — via Skype, of course — and said, without irony, “For all my life, I have wanted to be the executive director of the Institute for Business in Society.”
How would you describe the mission of the Institute for Business in Society and how do you see it fitting into the Darden School?
The Institute for Business in Society has to change the way business leaders think. They aren’t just managing a line of business, they are managing a complex source of social good. And the institute has to change the way the public thinks. Business isn’t a wild animal to be restrained. It is a dynamic source of social value that needs tools in order to adapt to the kinds of expectations we now place on business.
Thinking aspirationally, how would you like to see the Institute progress, or what would you like to see it accomplish?
I would like Darden to be the premier source for the development of those tools.
Broadly speaking, how do you think about the role of business in society?
We expect CEOs and their teams to solve the world’s problems. Some might see that as business crowding out good governance. But in the course of its everyday operations, a business responds to poverty, creates wealth, improves standard of living, enhances social cohesion, makes society healthier and better educated. We must train people out of thinking, “Wow. There is an example of business doing good,” and replace that with, “There is an example of people doing business.” Partnering with other social institutions to solve problems? That’s what business is.
What would you like to make sure everyone in the Darden community knows about the Institute for Business in Society?
The Darden community is so wonderfully supportive of business and society. Many of them came to Darden because they were interested in sustainability, or impact investing, or social entrepreneurship or in the way values guide business. They are not the ones I worry about. Thought leadership happens on several fronts outside Darden — in pure research, in public policy debates, on editorial pages, in boardrooms. Those are the fronts the Institute for Business in Society will try to reach.
This article originally appeared on the Darden School website.