You wouldn’t expect Richard Sloan’s classes to be such a hit at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Normally, Haas students lumber through financial statements and valuations on their way through Haas’s “Cleantech to Market” or “The Lean Launch Pad.” Let’s face it: Accounting is often the course that MBAs dread. That’s what makes this endorsement by MBA graduate John Moore, one of Sloan’s students in “Financial Information Analysis,” so striking.
“Strangely enough,” he admits, “Sloan motivated me to WANT to read 10-Ks in my spare time.”
BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN THEORY AND PRACTICE
How did Sloan achieve that feat? According to Moore, it stems from the carefully-honed strategy of a master teacher. “He knew exactly where his students would struggle and designed his exercises to reflect the challenges they faced. Plus, his real-time examples and Australian accent kept us engaged.”
The accent may be the finishing touch, but Sloan’s philosophy is grounded in a rigor that bridges the gap between theory and practice. That’s why his classes are a blend of cases that reflect what practices are relevant now and exercises that point to where the field may be headed. “We’ll follow companies like Apple, Tesla, and Salesforce throughout the semester,” Sloan tells Poets&Quants. “The students can have world class discussions to decide what we think will happen in certain situations. They get to make the decisions in real time rather than just getting some war story after the fact.”
Sloan’s classes are often described as “student-centric.” However, this label masks a key ingredient in their success: The teacher is only as good as his students — and Sloan enjoys a dream audience at Haas. “The students have a very positive and constructive attitude,” he shares. “They really seem to want to bring out the best in the professor, so I feel free to experiment in the classroom. That allows me to find and perfect ways to get the material across. When I do that, they reward it and that gives me the incentive to invest in doing even more.”
EMORY PROF WORKS THE PHONES TO FIND JOBS FOR LAID OFF STUDENTS
Professors are sometimes the most underrated part of the MBA experience. They are the value-adds who can turn an education from a commoditized degree to a transformative mission. Often, they go above-and-beyond in acts both sweeping and small. Take J.B. Kurish, a “charismatic” finance professor whose helpfulness has become the stuff of legend at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. When Adam Parker attended a summer event in New York City last summer, Goizueta alumni regaled him with tales of Kurish’s generosity.
“I heard stories from 2009 graduates who all had their offers revoked weeks before graduation due to the financial crisis,” he recounts. “Every single one of them landed on their feet due to the dedication of J.B. He tirelessly worked the phones, calling on former co-workers, alums, and friends of friends until he found his students jobs.” However, such accounts only reinforced what Parker already knew about Kurish. “This devotion to students—from 8 a.m. Saturday review sessions to opening up his Rolodex to find students jobs—makes J.B. Kurish my favorite MBA professor.”
You’ll find MBA students doling out similar stories about those professors who sparked their imagination, shaped their viewpoints, or lent a helping hand or sympathetic ear. Haas’ Ross Levine once delivered such a powerful lecture on the root causes of the 2008 financial crisis that students “broke out in applause at the end” according to student Kelly Deutermann. Dr. Emil Pitkin’s passion for statistics was so profound that it drove Wharton’s Kyle Brengel to major in business analytics. At Notre Dame, Joe Holt left an enduring mark on Sylvia Banda as well. “He is one of the smartest and most selfless individuals I met during my MBA experience. He challenged me to not simply think about the easy decisions I can make as a leader, but rather the right decisions.”
A TASKMASTER…WITH A HEART OF GOLD
What makes a great business professor? During our nomination process for the “Best & Brightest” graduating MBAs this year, we asked the Class of 2017 to answer just that. In the process, one theme consistently emerged: There are many avenues to excel in the classroom and make a difference in the lives of tomorrow’s business leaders.
Some bring out the best in their students by acting as demanding taskmasters. Stanford’s Keith Hennessey, the former U.S. National Economic Council Director during the second Bush administration, might fit that description. On his first day of class, recalls Kate Archibald, he tells students, “I will challenge you, I will make you work hard, and I will hold you to a high intellectual standard, but I will never intentionally embarrass you.” Hennessey more than lives up to these words, says Archibald — and his students follow suit. “The quality of participation in his classes is always extremely high,” she observes. “Despite the fact that the workload for his classes is uniquely demanding (or perhaps because of it), many students return to take a second class.”
At London Business School, you won’t impress Keyvan Vakili with arty acronyms and flighty phrasing that can muddle what students are really trying to say. Instead, his classes are seminars on how to speak plain and clear to the lay person. “As new first-year MBA students,” confesses Alana Digby, “we were prone to indulging in jargon, but Dr. Vakili pushed us to say what we meant and contribute something new to the discussion rather than paraphrasing each other with fancy language. At the time, the class was stressful, but Dr. Vakili gave us all a hugely useful skill through his coaching.”
THE UNDERAPPRECIATED ART OF STORYTELLING
This tough love only works when professors can pull back the reins and build their students back up. Boston University’s Melvyn Menezes has turned such an approach into an art form. A marketing professor, Menezes would pull his students out of their comfort zones, emphasizing preparation and demanding conviction when making arguments. Ultimately, this methodology steels confidence in his students. “Before presenting to the CMO of P&G in the final round of a Marketing Case Competition at Harvard,” recalls Antonio Jimenez, “my only thought was that I was not nearly as intimidated as I had been presenting in class to Professor Menezes.”
Other professors earn praise for the eye-opening caliber of their research and lectures. That was the case for MIT’s Simon Johnson, who was feted by Carolyn Escobar Kent for integrating “cutting edge” topics like blockchain startups into his lectures. “He puts an incredible amount of research and detail into his lectures and has an inclusive way of teaching,” she observes. “I can tell that he learns as much from teaching as we learn from him.” You’ll find a similar enthusiasm at Cambridge University with Philip Stiles, whose lectures on how behavior changes between individualistic and group settings is described as “riveting” by Anvi Shah. However, Shah adds that Stiles’ gift extends far beyond his knack for presentation. “What was more important was his gentle yet firm demeanor coupled with a strong intent of ensuring every student left the classroom with something that they would find useful to put into practice in their upcoming careers.”
It isn’t always the “what” that impressed this year’s Best & Brightest MBAs. Sometimes, the “how” sends an equally powerful message. In his “New Venture Strategy” class at Booth, Andrew Ward learned from James Schrager that storytelling can be just as powerful as frameworks and concepts. “Every week, Jim told 2-3 stories about everything from chess masters to his children in order to teach us different business concepts,” he explains. “The use of storytelling as a way of teaching allowed me to easily recall concepts Jim had taught us long after the quarter was over.” In fact, Ward has applied the lessons he learned from Schrager to help the program itself. “I have been using my role as an interviewer for the Booth admissions team to practice honing my storytelling abilities in order to make the Booth experience come alive for prospective students.”