Erik Gordon: The Path Less Traveled…to Success

May 19, 2020
Contact: Mike Wood mwoodmw@umich.edu
Erik Gordon

Erik Gordon

Erik Gordon is one of the University of Michigan’s most quoted professors in mainstream media, but his path to this status was not a traditional one. Hear how Erik’s meandering career path has led him to a faculty position at one of the most prestigious business schools in the country.

Mike Wood: Welcome back to another episode of Michigan News Beyond the headlines. I’m Mike Wood. I’m a video producer, and I also run the Michigan news studio on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Our studio puts U of M faculty on the air on major radio and TV networks around the world. But today, we’re going beyond the headlines.

[SOUNDBITE OF ERIK GORDON]

Wood: Eric Gordon teaches business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. And prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, was a frequent guest in the Michigan news studio, appearing regularly on Bloomberg Radio and TV, CNBC, NPR, and others.

[SOUNDBITE OF CNBC INTERVIEW]

Wood: That appearance on CNBC was just one of many that Eric has done. In fact, over the past few years, he is one of the most quoted professors from the University of Michigan in mainstream media and he’s here with us now. Welcome, Eric.

Erik Gordon: Oh, happy to be with you, Mike.

Wood: Eric, pre-pandemic, we’d see each other on a regular basis as you’d come to the Michigan news studio to appear on radio or TV. What’s kind of your mission when you get on these shows? What are you trying to do? Why do you think these are important?

Gordon: I think it’s the same thing as my mission at, U of M. My mission at, U of M, is to help people, we call them students, understand some things that are likely to be important to them. If—if I go on television or if I’m on NPR, it’s the same thing. I go on to help people understand something that I and, you know, an editor or producer thinks is interesting or important for an audience to understand. There are a few differences. I go into a classroom and I help 42 people understand something. You go on Marketplace Morning Report and it’s two or three million people. Now, half of them probably aren’t listening. So maybe it’s only one million, but it’s the same thing, but with a megaphone.

Wood: I know you’ve been teaching remotely, but have you been also able to do your media appearances remotely as well?

Gordon: Yeah, I have been. We—we in fact, we all are. Everybody is, even the co-hosts on television are doing it from their—their homes. So it’s actually kind of interesting. They all have nicer homes than I have. But, you know, it’s one of the adjustments we’ve all made, including viewers. Viewers have been very accepting of seeing video quality that’s not the same as when we’re in, you know, like the Michigan news studio.

Wood: We’ve talked about that you make these appearances on different radio and TV programs. How do you prepare for those appearances?

Gordon: So the first thing I do is I get old. And when you get old, you you learn a lot of things along the way. It also gets back to something we were chatting about earlier, sort of the broadness, you know. So I have practiced law. I have run businesses. I have been an investor. So it’s not just getting old. It’s getting old and having this careening around thing where I’ve done a lot of different things. But I also I—I learned to speed read the week before college started where I went to college. They taught you to speed read it as part of their orientation. And, you know, on a lazy day I read maybe 60 or 75 minutes; more typical day, 90 to 120 minutes worth of material a day. And I speed read. So it’s—it’s several hundred pages. So I ingest an awful lot of information. And then I try to distill it into things that I think are worth remembering, and I mean, there is a method to it.

Wood: And I know you come in prepared. You always have many sheets of paper and it’s kind of almost as like, okay, “They’re gonna try to pull that one on me”, and you reach up for one at the top of the desk and bring that down and—

Gordon: Yeah. So what we can’t show the listeners is the thing you and I have seen, I’ll describe it. I mean, I actually have poster board that I keep hidden at the Michigan news studio with masking tape. And I bring in eight or ten sheets of paper with my notes and put them on this board so that if I get asked this. I look at that piece of paper. I get asked the other thing. I look at another piece of paper on, and just hope I have something that will, you know, give me some backup. What’s usually on those little pieces of paper is numbers. I usually know the stories and know the ideas, but I like to have a little, you know, things with numbers. Twelve percent. Because it always makes you sound like you’re really on top of it to know the twelve percent.

Wood: Simple, but genius, it works. What was it like when the realization came to all of us, really? We had—just spring break had ended and the winter break and they said, “We’re going to postpone classes for a few days”. And then on Monday, “Professors, you need to figure this out”.

Gordon: Yeah, that was sort of weird. You know, on Wednesday, they said no classes on Thursday or Friday. Monday it will be virtual. So I, you know, my first thought was what equipment do I need to take home in order to do this? Should I take home my laptop? Should I take home my desktop? What do I need to order? I noticed there was a shortage of webcams. You go online and I guess every professor in the country was looking for a webcam. And, you know, the first 10,000 that ordered them got them, and the rest of them didn’t get it. I fumbled around using some of the conferencing platforms. We were offered one, two, three, four different conferencing platforms we could use. So I spent the weekend trying each of them out to see, which I think would work. The initial one that I picked, not going to name names here, but the initial one I picked worked great for me, didn’t work so well on the student side. So in that first week, I changed that. There was a lot of logistical stuff. You know, all of us, certainly all of us at the University of Michigan who teach faced the same challenge. All of the people who support us, the people like you at Michigan News, the librarians, the I.T. people, we all were in the same boat, which is we have a responsibility and a duty and an emotional tie to our students. And we got to figure out how to do this and do this really well. And that was really helpful. It was that—that idea of, you know, nobody’s doing this alone. There was sort of this unity of, “Boy, this is weird”, and we all helped each other.

Wood: That’s cool. You teach high level business, like strategy classes at the Ross School of Business here at U of M. And those involve a lot of back and forth discussions. And I know you pace up and down the aisle ways and, you know, are reading the body language of your students to make sure who’s paying attention or who maybe has the next idea. How have you been able to adapt that to teaching remotely?

Gordon: You know, it’s been a little weird because, yeah, I do have a teaching style that I think is best characterized as being terrifying because I’m very tuned into what’s going on in the classroom. And the material we cover is material that we cover by discussion. And I want to hear what the students are saying. I want them to argue with each other. I want them to argue with me. So all of that interaction and all of the subtlety that you pick up— you know, after you’ve been teaching a while, you can— you can almost you can almost sniff uncertainty. You can almost tell that some students, or some group of students almost have it, but don’t quite get it. And with that feedback, you adjust because you want them to walk out of the room really, really knowing the stuff cold and being able to use it. So, you know, when you look at them on a screen, you miss that.

Wood: How many students do you have in a typical class or in the class you are teaching now?

Gordon: So I teach smaller classes because they are advanced, and they’re specialized. So they will have 30 or 40 students. They’re not the big classes of 60 students or— or some of my colleagues teach classes of 120 students. So they’re you know, they’re fairly small by public university standards.

Wood: So you told me you’ve been doing some kind of high tech work arounds or whatever at home. What have you done to try to recreate as much as you can that, you know, back and forth that you’re known for?

Gordon: Well, one of the things I did is, I have a really big—a really big screen. Because in the first week when this came upon us suddenly, I was looking at a sort of a fairly normal computer sized monitor. And yet the thumbnail pictures of the students are teeny tiny. You know, I’m at an age where my eyesight isn’t fabulous to begin with. So one of the things I thought I needed to upgrade was just get a big screen so that I can actually see their, actually see their faces.

Wood: So how’s it been going? I mean, luckily, this was kind of near the end of the semester. And so I’m sure you already knew the students pretty well. But how has it been going? And what’s been the reaction from the students?

Gordon: Well, it’s going— it’s going, actually, quite well. I think the students learning outcomes, which is what we focus on, they seem to be doing well that way. Students are smart. Students are adaptable. Students are used to communicating with each other virtually. They’re not used to being taught virtually, but they’re used to communicating with each other virtually. And most of them pretty quickly got pretty good at it. The big disappointment for students, I think, is not in the teaching. I think it’s on the social side. And whether you’re an undergraduate student or you’re a graduate student, socializing is a, well, a big part of being a student. And sadly for some of them, they lost the last seven weeks of their college experience. They’re graduating and going away and didn’t have that last seven weeks of fun and even having an in-person graduation. Wearing their cap and gown, the photos with their families. They didn’t get that. We have students from all over the world, often at graduation, their families fly in and enjoy it. None of that happened. I actually think that was the bigger loss for the students. The learning thing, my students are just fine. If I were to give them the same kind of learning outcomes assessment that I gave them in prior years, I think they would score just as highly.

Wood: Because you teach entrepreneurship and those kinds of business classes, are there, like business lessons that the pandemic can teach your students? You know, whether it’s resilience or coming up with a plan B or—or just finding new ways to do stuff that maybe can help them start a new business.

Gordon: Yeah. I think there are. So you’re an entrepreneur. You’re going into the land of uncertainty, this great big dark forest of uncertainty. And—and you know that. You have to figure out how to cope with it. You have to figure out where you want to put your efforts to— to decrease the uncertainty where it’s a waste of time because you can’t decrease the uncertainty. Well, apply that to what we face now. So there’s a lot of uncertainty about the virus. Well, some of it is just not worth putting any energy into worrying about or thinking about, because we don’t know the answer. We don’t know what it’s going to look like 90 days or 180 days from now. So the sorting out of what you can do in the face of great uncertainty and why you should just ignore because you can’t figure it out. This is a living laboratory for my students who are interested in entrepreneurship.

Wood: What would you tell a upper level business student who’s just ready to graduate, ready to go out in the world and he comes to you and says, “Professor, this is the worst time, I’m never going to get a job, I’m in business and everything’s shut down”. What advice would you give that person?

Gordon: You know, I would tell them something that they probably don’t believe. Look, Mike, it’s— it’s these are terrible times. And there’s— there’s no getting away from that. We all wish we could close our eyes, wake up. And it was done. And just a bad dream. I would tell them and I have told them, “Wow, this is— I don’t wish this on you, but what happened, happened. It is what it is”. And this can turn out to be great for you, because if you get through this, you early in your career are going to have an experience that some people don’t get for 10 or 20 years. And when they get it, it clobbers them because they don’t know what to do about it. When this happens again in 10 or 20 years, you will know. You know, we went through this with the financial crisis where job offers were retracted and students thought it was the end of the world, you know, in the recession in the late 1980s. We went through this where job offers were retracted. Students thought nothing would ever be good. And here’s what happened to the students who came out in the hard times. They ended up becoming the best leaders because they knew about hard times. They became the best investors. Warren Buffett, the super famous investor guy who I wish I was, famously says that when the tide goes out, you see who’s in the water without a bathing suit. You know, if all you’ve lived through is good times, you’re not prepared for bad times and you have no idea whether you’re any good at it. When you make it through the tough times, you’re really well prepared. So I hope this never happens again to any of my students. But when it does happen, you have to look at it as a learning laboratory and say, OK, I am not going to go through this without learning everything I can. A really, really sharp investment guy told me many years ago. You know, he’s made money and he’s lost money. The one thing that he will not tolerate: losing money and not learning from it. So that’s what we have now. What we have now is we are in a pandemic and there’s nothing we can do about it. The stupidest thing would be to fail to learn from it.

Wood: In addition to your business background, I know you went to law school. You’ve worked for a big corporate law firm in New York. You’ve also been involved in business startups and a lot of other things. Why did you decide ultimately to be a college professor?

Gordon: Well, you know, other than that, I wasn’t able to hold a job in any other field.I— I grew up in a family where learning was important. My parents were fabulous at— at helping you understand things. When we were little kids, we understood things that, you know, we weren’t going to be taught until high school. And it was because my parents were just so great at helping you understand things. So I always thought that that was— that was a valuable thing. And at some point, I thought, “I’ve had some failures, I’ve had some successes, had a lot of experience, I— I think I can help younger people understand a few things”. I also thought that I brought something a little different to the table for students. So I’m at one of the world’s really great business schools, which means we’re surrounded by great colleagues, people who are really, really tops at what they do. Well, a lot of what they do is things like very advanced research and teaching from the research. I thought that I could bring a little something extra, a little something that’s peculiar because of the breadth of my experience. Most people on the faculty, you know, go to college and straight through to a Ph.D. and then become a professor or at the business school, you know, work for three, five, six, seven years, get some experience and then get a Ph.D. and come back. A lot of my colleagues have worked outside of the academic world, but I’ve worked for a couple of decades out there and I worked in some things most people don’t work in. You know early stage investing startups. So I thought, you know, when you look at the— at a place like Ross and you say, you know, what do you bring to a business school like Ross? They have three experts in everything that you can imagine in business. I bring experience. I bring a peculiar set of experiences. And I and I always believed that I did bring something that was of value and something that wasn’t in the large supply in business schools.

Wood: I know you’ve done a lot of things. You even told me in college you were— worked at the radio station and now you do a lot of radio appearances where you discuss business combined with your law experience and your startup experience. It seems like your career is kind of a combination of all the things you’ve done previously in this nice, perfect place for you right here, teaching students.

Gordon: You know, to some extent that’s true. You know, I sort of careened around from careers that make sort of no sense to people. When students come to talk to me about their careers, I always say I’m the person your parent doesn’t want you to talk to because I don’t have a tidy career. But business has become so complicated and so complex. It’s become so interdisciplinary that my sort of careening around from one thing to another starts to make a little sense as the world changed, you know. You know, 25 years ago, I probably couldn’t have gotten in the door of the faculty lounge at Ross because I wasn’t focused and specialized enough. But, but now we’re very big on interdisciplinary action based learning. While I’m interdisciplinary and I’m action based because I came from that world. So the timing worked out. So luckily for me, that there is a role for somebody who is not as expert at anything as my colleagues are. Anything, almost anything that I know about there have to be colleagues who know more about it, but knitting the things together, that’s something I bring to the table.

Wood: So how long have you been at the University of Michigan?

Gordon: You know, I’ve been here eleven years. It’s— I still think of myself as a fairly new person, but it’s been 11 years and I will say really good years. I came here with some trepidation. I came from another really fine university where I was well established. Life was pretty good. And I came here, you know, with some trepidation, one about the weather, two, about the economy of Michigan. And three, I wasn’t sure how it would work out at the— at the University of Michigan, and in particular at Ross with its— with its famous faculty.

Wood: I appreciate you— I appreciate all the effort you put into teaching and all, you know, really all the professors have in this weird time. And we’ll continue in the future as we evolve out of this. And I appreciate you sharing your story today.

Gordon: It’s my pleasure Mike.

Wood: And thank you all for listening. I’d also like to thank the whole team here at Michigan News for their support of this podcast, including volunteer audio engineer, my quarantine partner and wife, Lin Wood. She was at the mixing board for this episode. Nicole Smith and Hans Andersen help with digital strategy and marketing. And we couldn’t do it without the support from news director Laura Lessnau, and associate news director, Bernie DeGroat. If you enjoy listening to our podcast, be sure to hit that subscribe button so you’ll get each episode as they’re released. And if you listen on Apple podcast or iTunes, please leave a review. We’d love to hear from you. I’m Mike Wood. Be well, be safe, and I’ll see you beyond the headlines.