Alex Edmans uses rigorous academic research to influence real-life business practices - in particular, how companies can pursue purpose as well as profit.
Alex Edmans is Professor of Finance at London Business School. He aims to apply rigorous academic research to important practical issues, and communicate complex ideas in a simple and engaging manner. His main interest is on how to reform business so that it serves society as well as generating profit.
Alex has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, testified in the UK Parliament, and presented to the World Bank Board of Directors as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series. He gave the TED talk “What to Trust in a Post-Truth World” and the TEDx talk “The Social Responsibility of Business”. He writes for the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Harvard Business Review, has appeared on the BBC, CNBC, CNN, ESPN, Fox, ITV, Sky News, and Sky Sports, and runs a blog, Access to Finance, that aims to make complex finance research accessible to a general audience. Alex also serves as Mercers’ School Memorial Professor of Business at Gresham College, giving free lectures to the public. His 2018/19 lecture series is on How Business Can Better Serve Society.
Outside of finance, Alex is a keen athlete despite showing mediocre sporting talent whilst at St. Paul’s. When a professor at Wharton (in Philadelphia), he served as Head Coach for the American Cancer Society, training athletes running marathons for the ACS; captained an ice hockey team for three years; and fought a boxing match in the ring where Rocky was filmed. In London he’s an avid fan of (and occasional coach at) bootcamps, and has introduced mental wellbeing and physical fitness into the London Business School curriculum. Alex used to play keys/synth in rock bands in Philadelphia and London, and now plays at Holy Trinity Brompton, the second largest church in London (led by the father of one of his St. Paul’s classmates).
What guidance would you give to your younger self on the day you left St Paul’s?
Don’t focus on goals but enjoy the journey. As Paulines, we’re good at achieving goals – not just academic grades but also extra-curricular accomplishments which we can put on our UCAS form. I’d advise my younger self to savour the length, breadth, height and depth of life – to play sports and music because it’s fun, to learn something because it’s interesting even if not on the syllabus, and to waste time with friends.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“You can do everything you want to, and be everything you want to be, but not all at once”, from a Financial Times interview by Professor Laurie Hodrick of Columbia.
Let’s unpack this. The first part of the advice is empowering. You’re technically an adult when you leave St Paul’s, but your education doesn’t stop – you can reinvent yourself with disciplined practice. I used to be mediocre at both public speaking and sport, but public speaking is a big part of my job now and sport is a big part of my life outside work. And many things you learned at St. Paul’s are actually much more widely applicable than you previously thought. I never acted at St. Paul’s and very rarely debated, but English A-level taught me how to write clearly. I just needed to make the transition from written to verbal communication when I took up public speaking.
The second part of the advice highlights the need to focus. We can’t be all things to all people. We might be asked to serve on this non-profit board, to join that volunteer organisation, to attend this launch event – and want to accept all of them for fear of missing out. But to do things that no-one else is doing, you have to not do things that everyone else is doing. Life is so short that we should only do things that get you really fired up – not accept things that are just a moderate “yes”. To quote Derek Sivers, it should be either “hell yeah” or “no”.
Why did you choose your current career?
While at St Paul’s, I needed to wake up at 5:30am each day to come to school because I lived in Reading. I’m really grateful for the education I had at St. Paul’s, but it meant that I had very little free time, and had to give up many hobbies that I previously enjoyed. So I wanted to choose a career that gave me freedom and flexibility. As a finance professor, I earn less than I would as an investment banker (my initial career after university). But I have no boss and almost complete autonomy.
Professionally, this allows me the discretion not to focus exclusively on publishing academic papers or going to conferences with other academics, but instead influencing policy and practice, and writing in the mainstream media. I can work on whatever topic interests me – my PhD was on the effect of World Cup elimination on investor sentiment and the stock market; my more recent work is on social responsibility, a very different issue. You also can have a much wider impact. When I was a banker, I spent 7 months working on one company’s problems at that one time. In contrast, a talk or an article can reach millions and is timeless.
Personally, the lack of a boss gives me the flexibility to pursue sports, music, and travel. The only real obligation as a professor is teaching, which I love. It’s a huge privilege to meet hundreds of smart young minds each year, who will go onto to be the leaders in this world, and be able to influence how they approach business – hopefully as a way to create value for society rather than just financial returns.