David J. BenDaniel thinks of being a graduate professor as the third act in his career. Previously a theoretical physicist and a senior executive with Exxon and Textron, BenDaniel has come full circle in his role teaching management and entrepreneurship at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management.
“I’ve had the taste of being a corporate manager, doing deals, and having people report to me,” he tells Poets&Quants. “I had the opportunity to be sort of a fuzzy headed intellectual at an early stage when I got my Ph.D. Now, I’m trying to put these things together and be a good teacher and perhaps role model for students.”
TEACHING REFLECTS REAL WORLD REALITIES
He was easily both in the eyes of Nadine Thornton, a 2016 joint JD-MBA graduate at Cornell who was named among this year’s ‘Best & Brightest’ MBAs. During her time at Cornell, she served as his teaching assistant for two classes and admired his passion and deft use of experiential learning. Thornton admired him for his “interactive and Socratic” teaching style, no different than what students will someday experience when senior executives quiz them on their ideas, methods, and expected outcomes.
“Professor BenDaniel’s classes highlight the importance of learning investing from real investors and real deals. His classes are tough, but develop a strong understanding and sharper abilities in students who often hope to enter the arena of private equity or venture capital.”
Experienced, demanding, supportive and insightful, BenDaniel personifies many qualities associated with the best teachers. As part of evaluating its 100 ‘Best & Brightest’ MBAs, Poets&Quants asked nominees to share their favorite professor and how each made a special difference in their business school experience.
REAL WORLD STORIES MAKE CONTENT COME ALIVE
A distinctive feature of business schools is the presence of “rock star” professors, who’ve influenced thought or achieved heights that students can only dream of attaining. One such professor is the University of North Carolina’s Ed McCraw, who was responsible for Mastercard’s “Priceless” and Verizon’s “Can you hear me now” marketing campaigns. According to Brittany Gulledge, Carew’s attraction was more than his renown. For her, the stories he shared made the class content come alive for her.
“He used his experiences within the corporate environment and external cases to teach students about corporate reputation management. I personally love stories, and Professor McCraw told us stories from his experience and external cases. He tested us through role-playing current corporate scandals, such as the Volkswagen scandal and the BP oil spill. In our assignments, he pushed us to stretch our understanding and creativity. That class pushed my thinking to the next level.”
Like Gulledge, Georgia Tech’s Maggie Lovatt appreciates professors who can make concepts real for her. She touts Dr. Frank Rothaermel, who is seemingly cut from the cloth as BenDaniel. Lovatt describes Rothaermel as a “tough” professor with high expectations and a penchant for cold calling. However, he is also a man with “fantastic corporate connections” who backs his students and puts them in a position to shine in his strategy class.
“The second half of the class focused on helping a corporation solve a strategic problem,” she says. “My team worked with the Vice President of Pricing and Revenue Management at Delta Air Lines to answer the question “How should Delta compete with ultra-low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier.” (Spoiler alert, they shouldn’t!) Professor Rothaermel supported our team’s decision to tell Delta what we truly believed was the best strategy, even though it did not align with the company’s current strategy.”
FIND WAYS TO SIMPLIFY COMPLEX CONCEPTS
It isn’t easy to master the intricacies of the time value of money or a P&L statement. That’s why the most talented professors are often able to break down complex concepts so they are understandable and memorable —a specialty of two Georgetown professors: Allison Koester and Arthur Dong. According to Georgetown’s Devon Weiss, a classic poet who joined EY’s M&A operations department after graduation, both are able to relate key content to students in different ways.
“Professor Arthur Dong has mastered the art of simplifying complex problems and teaching students how to apply MBA fundamentals to generate innovative solutions,” Weiss explains. In contrast, Koester appeals to various learning styles and experience levels. “Professor Allison Koester is able to simultaneously teach accounting courses to students with both CPA and non-business backgrounds,” Weiss explains. “Her ability to explain concepts in a seemingly endless number of ways and from multiple perspectives leaves no student behind.”
In the process, top professors also bring value where students assume there was none. That was the experience of Yale’s Sarah Esty, who earned a dual JD-MBA degree in 2016 before working for the Democratic National Committee. She assumed that Heidi Brooks’ Interpersonal Dynamics and Leadership course would be trivial and “wishy-washy.” Instead of being fluff, the course became a seminal event in her MBA experience.
“Heidi has created a life-changing course that offers a chance to learn and practice critical skills like giving feedback, self-disclosure, active listening, and how to conduct difficult conversations,” Esty shares. “But even more than that, she is deeply empathetic and engaged with all of her students, and doesn’t just teach the course, but also participates as a full member of the group who is willing to put herself out there for our learning.”