2016 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Rory McDonald, Harvard Business School

Rory McDonald

Rory McDonald

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

Harvard Business School, Technology and Operations Management Unit

If you wanted to create the prototype for a b-school professor, Rory McDonald might come to mind. An enthusiastic teacher, engaged listener, and avid advocate for his students, McDonald is known for being accessible mentor who brings out the best in his students. Just three years into teaching at HBS, every student seemingly has a Rory McDonald story that involves large and small acts of kindness that may never be repaid. Cited by an astonishing 19 HBS students for 40 Under 40 recognition, McDonald is regarded as an up-and-coming scholar and commanding teacher known to invite his students over for dinner with his family. A Stanford Ph.D. who came to HBS from the University of Texas in 2013, McDonald most recently collaborated with the legendary Clayton Christensen on “What is Disruptive Innovation,” which was featured in December 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Age: 37

At current institution since: 2013

Education: PhD in Management Science and Engineering, Stanford University, 2011.

Courses you currently teach:  Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise (BSSE), Technology and Operations Management (TOM)

Professor you most admire: I’ve been fortunate to have some great advisors and mentors. I really admire Kathy Eisenhardt, who supervised my doctoral research, and also my colleague Clayton Christensen, who is very generous with his time.

 “I knew I wanted to be a b-school professor when…I was an MBA student at Stanford. It seemed like my professors really enjoyed what they were doing and loved talking about their research.”

“If I weren’t a b-school professor…I’d probably be some other type of teacher, maybe a high school math teacher, or perhaps a guidance counselor like my father.”

Most memorable moment in the classroom or in general as a professor: When I taught my first section at HBS, some students asked me who I would never want to have in my class. I told them my wife, Anne, because I really care what she thinks, and her presence would make me too nervous. So they concocted an elaborate plan—secretly inviting her to class one day and sending several students to distract me before class started. As students took turns introducing their guests, one introduced the class guest, Anne McDonald, who happened to be sitting front and center in one of the student’s seats. I can’t remember much about the discussion, but I’m pretty sure it was one of my worst performances as a teacher. Anne had this big smile on her face, and I couldn’t even look in her direction. We were both so glad that she got to see me teach (She told me I was definitely her favorite professor).

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Probably finishing my PhD at the same time we had our fourth child. I got to enter by dream profession, and we became a happy family of six.

What do you enjoy most about being a business school professor? Seeing superstar colleagues in the hallway and getting to know my students’ inspiring life stories

What do you enjoy least about being a business school professor? Saying good-bye to my students at the end of the semester. Luckily, some of them keep in touch.

Fun fact about yourself: I’ve taught in three different disciplines—business, engineering, and sociology

Favorite book: The Book of Mormon is my favorite book; Moneyball is my favorite business book

Favorite movie: Tie between Good Will Hunting and Frozen (my 5-year old daughter, Hazel, loves it!)

Favorite type of music: Electronic music and anything by U2

Favorite television show: Arrested Development

Favorite vacation spot: Anywhere we can get to on a family road trip

What are your hobbies?  Scouting (I’m a scoutmaster for one of my son’s troops), playing sports with my children, and beach volleyball

Twitter handle: N/A

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would…successfully harness technology to improve the student experience while maintaining that Dead Poets Society ethos of discussion, debate, and personal interaction.”

Students say…

“Rory McDonald has the hallmarks of a rising star at Harvard Business School: teaching the flagship “Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise” course, penning widely-read articles with disruption theorist Clay Christensen, and researching the highly topical venture capital industry.

However, Rory’s MBA students know him best as an incredibly dynamic and engaged professor. Rory is a master of case method teaching with a rare ability to cover all salient case points while simultaneously guiding classes to a carefully planned, crystal clear conclusion. At the end of each semester, Rory invites 180+ MBA students to his house for a home-cooked celebratory feast with his large, young family.

After my HBS section was lucky enough to have Rory as a professor during our first year, we elected him by near-unanimous vote to speak at our section’s capstone event before graduation. Rory embodies the best of HBS scholarship and teaching.”

Tyler Sipprelle

“Professor McDonald should be featured as a Top 40-Under-40, as he was able to transform the class I was most dreading (Operational Management), to a class I looked forward to attending every day. McDonald was able to take daunting concepts and render them comprehensible with an enthusiasm that is exceedingly rare. The Harvard MBA is the third graduate program I have attended, and I have difficulty identifying an instructor who has brought more energy to their work than Professor McDonald. Additionally, Professor McDonald is almost unparalleled in making himself available to his students. This ranges from time after class to answer lingering questions, to inviting the entire class of 90 students to his home for dinner. Should I ever personally enter into the teaching profession, I will endeavor to model much of my teaching style after McDonald’s as all educators should aspire to mimicking his classroom demeanor.”

Fred Wolens

“He was my professor in the Technology and Operations first-year course at HBS last year and was regarded as the most outstanding professor among all my section mates.  Rory is now in his 3rd year at HBS and is a rising star among the faculty. His first year at HBS, he was the highest rated professor among ALL professors in the RC (RC=required curriculum, or first year). He now teaches “Building and Sustaining Successful Enterprises” in the 2nd year and his course was immediately one of the most demanded among all second year electives. He brings an infectious energy to the classroom along with a depth of preparation and expertise that is unrivaled. Further, he is always available to meet with students for any reason, and does so with regularity at great personal sacrifice of time. There is no one I can imagine that deserves this award more than Rory does.”

Jeremiah Jewkes

“Rory was everything to HBS (Section B, Class of 2015). He was a welcoming face in a strange, new place.  He was instantly relatable and empathetic.  He was precise, engaging and inspiring.  He was great!

We met Rory Day 1 of our HBS experience, and Day 1 of his, though you couldn’t tell. Rory came prepared to convey the technical details of the material that day. But what made him truly effective: he conveyed how much he cared about us and our learning.  Authentic, believable. He won on day one.”

Ahron Oddman

“I remember my first few weeks as a first year student in TOM class. I was petrified. I knew nothing about the subject and even though I was doing alright in the other classes, I found myself somehow incapable to speak when Rory’s class started. Roughly at midterm, Rory asked to see me to discuss my participation. After understanding that I was no slacker, he decided to help me build up my confidence. He said, from now on, I would be called every time I would raise my hand, and that he would not push back on my comments at first. I would start speaking during the discovery phase, where it’s easier to find something to say, and we would build up to the conclusion phase, where one needs to come up with stronger opinions. We would do this together. And so we did. On the last class of the year, Rory picked me to defend one side of a case. I built up my arguments during the class. He did not fail to call on me at the time where the case reached its peak tension. I made my elaborated point, calm and assertive. When the whole section applauded, I looked at Rory: he was smiling, looking right back at me, showing me how proud he was. I will never forget this moment. Rory believes in his students, genuinely cares about them and proves it by performing dozens of selfless acts like this one. I believe he deserves to be recognized for that!”

Jessica Cohen

“Rory has been a tremendous teacher and advisor. In class, Rory has very high standards but makes sure that the entire class follows him and understands the difficult concepts. He is great at illustrating complex concepts to bring them to life. He is very structured which makes the learning easy and manages to keep the energy level and engagement very high during the entire class. His enthusiasm is contagious. I have never seen a class that engaged.

Outside of the classroom, Rory is a trusted advisor and mentor to many of us. He always takes the time to listen to us and guides us in our choices. I really hope Rory will get this award, he deserves it!”

Juliette Audet

“I had Rory as a professor the first year that he was teaching at HBS. What stood out to me the most about Rory was how much he truly cared about his students and how much time he was willing to put in to meet them and support. For example, he and his wife hosted our entire section – over 90 individuals – broken into smaller groups for dinner at their house over 2 – 3 occasions. But in addition to that, Rory would spend as much time with a student as they desired and offer to support them however he could. I personally present over 60 minutes chatting with him in his office where he offered to be an advisor for an independent study if I was interested. And, I know that I was not an isolated case. Rory demonstrated a level of engagement that I did not see from any other professor I’ve ever had.”

Jay Goyal

“Rory was my professor for Technology and Operations Management, and I found him to be one of the best professors I had while at HBS.

Aside from being an excellent professor, Rory helped me significantly with my career. During a meeting in his office, I said off-hand that I am interested in healthcare VC. By the time I got back to my apartment, Rory had sent an email to a friend in the business on my behalf. We connected and he has helped me navigate my internship and full-time opportunities. Rory also invited my entire section, over 90 people, over to his home for dinner that he and his wife prepared. His generosity is truly admirable.

Rory is truly an exceptional professor, and I am lucky to have taken his course while at HBS.”

David Siet

“In his first year teaching, Rory seamlessly captured the respect and admiration of us all early in the semester. And he was able to maintain that respect long after the year had ended. So much so that we requested that he be our professor for our final session as a section second year. As section president, I worked closely with Rory to prepare for the final session. It was then that I saw firsthand why he had exhibited such an awesome command of the TOM material. He took pains to develop a case and lesson plan just for that one session–drawing in the best of our memories during our time together. Thanks to Rory we were able to say goodbye to our time at HBS like few other sections have.”

Bilal Saafir

“I am a doctoral student at HBS and work closely with Prof. Rory McDonald on my research. Rory is a great researcher himself who explores interesting and important questions in strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship. That said, what I really appreciate about him is that he is always available for me to discuss my research projects. He listens very carefully and directs the discussion artfully so that I can see what needs to be done, why and how. The other quality that I really like is his positive attitude, personal values and his willingness to help others. I have repeatedly seen him engage with other researchers at HBS very effectively, and I hear great things about his classes from the MBA students. Overall, I would rate him as one of the best junior professors at HBS.”

Budhaditya Gupta

“Rory McDonald is an outstanding professor- both due to his high ability as a teacher and also his ability to connect with his students as a mentor.

Teacher- I was in Rory’s first class at HBS in 2013, and in comparison to other first time teachers I had at HBS, he mastered the case method extremely quickly. He was able to simplify technical material to enable non technical students to master the material he taught. The fact that Clayton Christensen hand picked him as his successor shows how highly rated he is by his peers.

Mentor- When visiting Rory’s office, it was common to see classmates leaving, not having been in his office to discuss class work, but to get advice and mentorship. His care for his students was shown by the fact that he invited the whole 90 person class to his house for Christmas dinner!”

Stuart MacWilliam

“Rory McDonald is impressive for his publications, awards, and contributions to his field, but I am especially excited to nominate him because more than any other professor, he has a remarkable impact on students.  Technology and Operations Management is not a field I was familiar with before taking his class, but it became my favorite course. Rory has the ability to move students from confusion to clarity with a few key questions, tailoring his analogies to specific students and connecting with each of us personally. He came to our section events and even invited us for dinner at his home, where we were able to meet his family and discuss life outside of school. I attended office hours not only for TOM advice, but also for career and life advice, which he shared generously and based on his deep knowledge of me as a student, community member, and aspiring leader.

Alyssa Schechter

“Rory is an incredible classroom professor- as 2015 Section B’s TOM (operations) professor, he was able to breakdown complex theories and issues into manageable, understandable ideas and guide our section in a learning discussion. What makes Rory great is his willingness to go above and beyond the classroom to support his students. Rory sponsored a number of individual projects for my section mates and even opened his home to host us all for dinner. When the time came to chose one person to lead our last session before graduation, Rory was the clear choice for my section. He spent a number of hours in preparation for this extracurricular event, delivering a brand new HBS “”case”” on Section B to send us off to our future. Rory McDonald was a huge part of my learning and experience at HBS and very much deserves the distinction of 40 under 40.”

Brianne Blakey

“Every person I know who has taken Rory McDonald’s MBA class absolutely raves about him. In fact, my MBA friends tell me that because of Rory’s popularity in teaching the required curriculum TOM (technology and operations management) class, his elective curriculum BSSE (Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise) class on disruptive innovation was one of the hardest to get into elective classes at HBS this semester. I can’t think of a more deserving prof. to receive this honor than Rory!

As a doctoral student mentor and advisor, Rory is incredibly generous with his time and feedback. My weekly meetings with Rory routinely go well over an hour. He is extremely accessible, always willing to meet with students, and is the rare professor whose door is always open for walk-in impromptu questions.

Rory is the rare professor who excels at both teaching and research. His recent article with Clay Christensen was published in Harvard Business Review, and his academic research has been published in the very top academic journals, such as SMJ and AMJ.”

Cheng Gao

“I had the pleasure of having Rory McDonald as a professor in my first year at Harvard Business School.  Needless to say, very quickly he became my section’s favorite professor.  Rory is incredibly intelligent, accomplished, talented, hard-working, and creative.  His energy, enthusiasm and passion are unparalleled when teaching cases.  However, what sets him apart from his colleagues at Harvard Business School, and why I believe he is most deserving of this award, is his compassion and humility.  Rory always made time to meet with his students outside the classroom, and allocated as much time as needed to address questions, suggestions, or to have frank conversations about career aspirations.  What impressed me the most about Rory was his ability to listen, understand, and be open to others’ perspectives, however unconventional or different they were from his own.  Rory elevates the learning experience at HBS and I feel privileged to have been his student.

Astghik Poladyan

“Rory orchestrates case discussion with the same youthful vigor he spikes with at his semi-pro beach volleyball tournaments.

That vitality lets him not only invite all 185 students to a feast he and his wife prepare (not catered) at his house, but win the eggnog-chug at said party, in full regalia, a 6-foot 200-pound elf. This dinner was invoked repeatedly as the moment when we became family.

After Rory taught us a case he wrote, we spontaneously drafted a letter to his Chair that everyone signed saying Rory was remarkable, let alone for a first-year professor! Several classmates remarked Rory wasn’t just their favorite b-school professor, but their favorite teacher of all-time. Rory still thanks us for that today, and I say, “No, thank you! You brought us together and got us jazzed about operations of all things!” Rory isn’t just the professor, he’s the man.”

Carl Brinton

“Rory McDonald is a true rising star at Harvard Business School. His compelling pedagogical style, genuine interest in his students’ development, and personable nature have made him among the most popular professors for MBAs. This year, Prof. McDonald taught a section of “Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise,” a course developed by and also taught by Clay Christensen. Prof. McDonald’s section was so popular that students had to rank it as one of their very top lottery choices, despite the fact that it was his first year teaching it. Prof. McDonald cares deeply about his students on both an academic and personal level: he hosts all his students for a dinner at his house and, more importantly, devotes an inordinate amount of time to meeting with students who turn to him for trustworthy advice. There is no professor who deserves the 40-under-40 award more than Rory McDonald.”

Alix Olian

“Rory served as the faculty advisor for my 2nd year independent project, and if it weren’t for his support and advice, I would not have been able to start the company that I run today. His incredible insight and unparalleled support and enthusiasm for his students’ success is like nothing that I have ever had before in a professor. While developing the idea for my business (a drone technology consultancy), Rory pushed me to apply many of the theories he works on to my company, and ultimately helped me create a more successful idea. Further, he never hesitated to introduce me to people who could help me build a better business.  I can think of no one more deserving than Rory for this award.”

Logan Campbell

“I’d be honored to nominate Rory McDonald from HBS for the 40 under 40. Rory was my professor in my Technology & Operations Management Class at HBS and was an incredible and engaging force. He transcended education and developed real and lasting relationships with my section. He is a phenomenal educator.”

Matt Perelman


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