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Our Favorite MBA Professors Of 2016

Best business school professors of 2016

In popular imagination, MBA professors fit two different archetypes. The first is the tweedy academic. You know what I’m talking about. Buttoned down and all business, they churn out acclaimed research and beatify sweeping models for a perfect world. Deep inside, you suspect they’re better at running their mouth than a business. In contrast, people also picture business schools trotting out the world-weary hoss. In a former life, they held big titles with big brands. This is the person who’ll sidle up to swap war stories on how business really gets done. Too bad it’ll be the same stories with different names come November.

Reality check: Few b-school professors fit either profile. Chances are, if you look behind their CVs, you’ll find lively personalities who majored in anthropology, played bass in a jazz band, and worked their way up from inside sales. At 18, let alone 30, few pictured themselves facilitating case discussions or leading treks to Shanghai. Like their students, they were mentored and championed. They seized on opportunities and shined at every step. In the process, they discovered their passions and defined their mission. Whether they were skippers or scholars, they committed to making a difference. Often, they found their outlet through their students — and their students found their voice through them.

What makes a great teacher? Some assail assumptions and push their pupils outside their comfort zones. Others are a comforting shoulder, a supportive sounding board, and a watchful eye. Either way, they leave their students more ardent and observant than when they started. In essence, they are often catalysts in the transformative nature of the MBA experience. That was particularly true of many of the top professors profiled by Poets&Quants in 2016. From Warwick to Wharton and Stern to Stanford, here are some of the b-school professors who stirred up the students and made a difference beyond the classroom.

 (Editor’s Note: These professors are not ranked in any order.)

Piers Ibbotson holds one of the masks used to help students better understand the communications issues of leadership. Courtesy photo

Piers Ibbotson / Warwick Business School: Business can resemble dramatic theater sometimes. You have your tragedies (Blockbuster), comedies (New Coke), and melodramas (Yahoo).  During the show, you’re bound to run into dithering Hamlets (Roger Smith), scheming Iagos (John Sculley), and puckish idiots (Donald Trump). For Warwick’s Ibbotson, a former director with the Royal Shakespeare Company, all the word’s a stage — and he uses his Create Space to explore leadership in unconventional ways.

Accustomed to reading a case study? Why not act them out, to help make the situations more pressing and real? Think leadership is just about grand visions and meticulous strategies? Expect a culture shock in Ibbotson’s class, where students study how to use their bodies to convey confiden’ce and compassion. Here, students wear masks to reflect the discrepancy between intent and interpretation. While some professors dream of banning smartphones and laptops from their classes, Ibbotson instead demands that students leave their shoes at the door.

Ibbotson, who has taught leadership at firms like McKinsey for over two decades, views business as a metaphor that finds clarity and voice through artistic expression. Does that make students vulnerable? Sure —and that’s exactly the point. “Once you’re over the threshold,” Ibbotson observes, “there’s no point (at which) you can’t work with people in a place of resistance, so you have to structure the work so that people can move into it and find themselves in a place where they’re comfortable and secure and feel supported and trusted enough to be able to risk something and find something out.”

Al Mink. Courtesy photo

Al Mink / American (Kogod): “Can you hear me now?”

Remember that line from Verizon’s horn-rimmed pitchman a decade ago? Chances are, that’s the first line students hear in one of Mink’s Business@American online MBA courses. You see, Mink was a bit unavailable this fall. On sabbatical? Not quite…

Instead, he indulged his inner Forrest Gump and decided, in the words of Simon & Garfunkel, “to look for America” (minus the cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s Pies). This wasn’t some spur-of-the-moment cry for help from an aging Kerouac. Instead, Mink biked 2,449 miles in 84 days to raise money and awareness for the Children’s Science Center, a DC-area nonprofit where a mobile van visits Title I schools to provide STEM education.

Indeed, you could’ve played “Where’s Waldo” with Mink as this retired Air Force Colonel trekked from Oregon to Virginia. However, don’t think students got off easy. Sure, there were moments when finding an internet connection was dicey. Whether he was lugging up the Rockies or coasting along Midwest prairies, he was able to run his class through a phone system that was synchronized to video. While most people are accustomed to surfing the net in cafes, Mink would sometimes teach from there.

Boy, was he glad he did! “I feel really fortunate to have been invited to teach this class because of the passion I have, and be able to make a difference, and be able to do it while I’m on a bike ride like this and have the support of the department at Kogod,” he says.

Professor Henry Mintzberg

Henry Mintzberg / McGill University (Desautels): The first rule of academia: “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Mintzberg did just that in 2004, when he authored Managers Not MBAs. The premise? MBA programs were teaching management backwards by focusing on science over craft and experience. “In management, if you don’t have the practice, the science doesn’t take you very far,” he told Poets&Quants. “And if you leave the MBA program with the impression that you can manage, you tend to lean on technique and numbers, and so you’ve got all kinds of people mismanaging because of that.”

While he could’ve stopped after making his point, he decided to take it a step further, co-founding the International Masters in Practicing Management (IMPM), a program that has been adopted by several programs worldwide. Designed for working managers, this five module program is predicated on trial-and-error, with heavy emphasis on reflection and journaling to find what works best.

While Mintzberg admits that “it’s hard to convince people to go to the IMPM instead of Wharton or Harvard,” he will go down in the history books as being the one who “had the guts to say the emperor’s not wearing any clothes.” Even more, he is no longer a lone voice in the wilderness. With imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, he can also take pride in similar programs, such as the London School of Economics’ Executive Global Master’s in Management (EGMiM) taking root. In the process, he can stake the claim that he was there first.

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  • mink@american.edu

    The bicycle ride across the USA and the teaching at Kogod GSB were each wonderful experiences. Combined, it was awesome. I hope to find other great adventures for worthwhile causes that will enable me to share insights with Kogod’s emerging business leaders without being shackled to a desk. Send me your suggestions — your adventure that simultaneously permits me to continue teaching may be the new entry on my bucket list.
    FInally, special thanks to Jill Klein at Kogod for supporting my non-traditional classroom, Shirley Chow at 2U for her insights, and Marc Either for applying his incredible writing skills to tell this story.

  • Density

    Professor Detert is an outstanding teacher and resource. He challenges participants to think critically and brings an enthusiasm and passion that inspires students to put out their best work. I took one of his classes while he was at Cornell prior to his move to Darden and it remains one of my all time favorites, Take the opportunity to take one of his courses if you’re able. Cheers!