Always, the intent of the master teacher is to leave an impression, make a mark, and impact a life. “Every time I walk into the classroom, I know that I am interacting with future leaders who will make a difference in the world and feel that this is my opportunity to contribute to something big,” says Zeynep Ton, a 36-year-old operations professor at Harvard Business School. Students have described Ton, who won the award for teaching excellence from the graduating class of 2010, as that rare professor who can “enrapture” a class with “enchanting” lectures.
Ton is equally passionate about her research, which focuses on the role of store operations in retail supply chains. Her work on this topic has been published in numerous journals, including Organization Science, Production and Operations Management, and Harvard Business Review. “As I was studying retail operations, I became aware of poor labor practices that affect millions of store employees,” she says. “Conventional wisdom in this industry is that satisfying customers and generating profits necessitates an approach that results in bad jobs. Retail is known for low wages, few benefits, little stability, and little opportunity for improvement. But my research shows that leaving employees behind is not a necessity but a choice.” Ton is currently working on a book that examines how operational decisions can be made to improve profits as well as customer and employee satisfaction in retailing.
Many of the star professors also have assumed career risks that could easily have backfired. When Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, now 37, first began looking into social networking at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in the early 2000s, colleagues were skeptical. “The typical reaction to my work was ‘you are crazy,’” he recalls. “’This is really funny. Teenage girls will really love it, but nobody else will take it seriously.’ At the time, it was a big bet.”
Nearly ten years later, that early research and his thoughtful and passionate teaching of the subject has made Piskorski a superstar professor at the Harvard Business School. As he quickly points out, there are now more than 500 million people on Facebook, a company with a valuation of $50 billion. As the resident Harvard expert, Piskorski has written many of the definitive cases on social media for his highly popular Competing with Social Networks second-year elective.
But it’s not merely that he teaches a subject considered hot; he brings lots of intellectual firepower to the topic and a dedication to teaching that makes his classes captivating to everyone in them. Piskorski says he first glimpsed the impact a teacher can have on his students when he went to high school in the United Kingdom. In Poland, where he was born, there were 45 students to every teacher. In the U.K., there was a ratio of six students to every teacher. “It was just an amazing, eye-opening experience,” he says. In fact, it ultimately convinced him that he wanted to spend the rest of his life teaching others. “I love to explain things to people,” he says. (See “Mikolaj Jan Piskorski: ‘I Love to Explain Things to People.‘”
Perhaps the ultimate accolade can be found in this unusual endorsement of Scott DeRue, 33, the baby-faced prof who teaches leadership at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “I hated his class,” said one student in DeRue’s Leading People and Organizations’ course. “He forced me to think about things that made me feel uncomfortable. He made me look at myself in a light that I did not want to see. I needed this class…”