FROM FEARING FINANCE…TO WORKING FOR GOLDMAN SACHS
For many top business professors, the transmission of knowledge comes with a dual responsibility: Teaching students how to think for themselves. That’s a specialty at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, where Vedant Tomer was exposed to Professor Ted Ryan in his “Ethics in Management” course. Initially, Tomer was skeptical that ethics could be taught. As the class progressed, he began to view Ryan as a guide who’d point out the key spots but would leave the takeaways to him. “Ted taught me to reflect on my “moral courage” as an ethical being and at the same time, be aware of my potential ethical vulnerabilities,” Tomer notes. “Ted taught us to guide our thinking in terms of the 3C’s of ethics. These three C’s — character, commitments and consequences — will forever guide my decision making in personal and professional life.”
While professors are often viewed as the proverbial “sage on the stage,” their true genius can be reflected in how they structure their courses and hone their messages. Behind the lectures, you’ll find hours of painstaking experimentation with packaging the content and anticipating where students will struggle. That’s why one of the biggest compliments that professors receive is that they “made it so easy” for students.
The University of Washington’s Joshua Rodriguez bestowed this honor on Thomas Gilbert this spring. A family man, Rodriguez admits that his exposure to finance was relegated to helping his wife with the household budget. That all changed when he stepped into Gilbert’s core finance course. “Thomas has an incredible way of conveying complex information in a very straightforward and easy-to-understand manner —he’ll even make a few jokes along the way to put you at ease,” Rodriguez cracks. “His energy and passion for the subject matter is infectious and I came to love finance because of it.”
How effective was Gilbert’s teaching? Rodriguez concedes that he had no interest in finance before Gilbert’s class. In fact, it was a subject that he’d been deliberately avoiding. Now, it is his career path. “60 days after walking into his class for the first time, I found myself interviewing at Goldman Sachs and not only getting the job, but also their coveted fellowship.”
“HE’S ALSO JUST A REALLY COOL GUY!”
The best business professors also bring a certain panache to the classroom, an elusive intangible that holds students’ attention and makes lessons stick. Like Gilbert, the University of Rochester’s Glenn Huels is renowned for turning complex subject matter into clear and digestible chunks for students. Huels’ talents go far beyond that. “His corporate background at Bausch + Lomb made the numbers come to life with tangible, real-world examples,” observes David Distant. “He’s also just a really cool guy! I’d never imagined a professor riding a Harley with their hair slicked back on a hot summer day, but Prof. Huels is anything but ordinary.”
Ordinary isn’t a label slapped on the University of Illinois’ Gregory Northcraft very often, either. In his “How To Lead People In Organizations” course, Northcraft gave George Paul a different perspective on the challenges faced by leaders. “He had a very unique teaching style where half the class was devoted to a team activity and the second half of the class was spent discussing insights gained from the activity. His approach helped me fully grasp how abstract leadership concepts are applied in a business setting. Role plays and the “learn by doing” approach also helped me appreciate how hard it can be to translate theory into practice.”
That said, top professors like IE Business School’s Jose Esteves aren’t above resorting to theatrics to keep students engaged. “He is the best technology professor you can ever have,” claims Lolita Munos Taub. “Jose is passionate and turns any non-tech believer into a tech lover. Jose is unashamedly himself: he walks around the entire classroom, swings his arms around like an orchestra conductor, gives direct and constructive feedback, and pushes his students to think bigger and deeper. He does it all while using fun multimedia and colorful PowerPoints that keep students engaged and thirsty to learn more!”
TEACHING IS A CALLING MORE THAN A CAREER
During business school, students are bound to hear this maxim attributed to Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” That may be one reason why many top professors focus so heavily on creating a classroom culture that fosters purpose, openness and respect — all while prizing communication, teamwork and results. At Vanderbilt, you’ll find these ideals realized in the classes run by Tim Vogus. “From day one, he creates a culture in the classroom that welcomes all opinions and perspectives,” reveals Caroline Collins. “His teaching style engages everyone in the room, sparking exciting discussion. Professor Vogus periodically solicits student feedback on the course, is transparent about the results and makes immediate changes.”
Such cultures aren’t compartmentalized to the classroom. Like business leaders, MBA professors are often the extensions of the cultures they work so hard to mold and maintain. Make no mistake: They aren’t teaching to enjoy those clichéd 9-to-5 clock outs with summers off. Washington University’s John Horn, for example, served as an unofficial board member for Markey Culver’s startup, helping her after hours with drafting strategic plans, refining the business model, and preparing to scale the operation. By the same token, Kellogg’s Jared Scharen credits Brooke Vuckovic with helping him pinpoint his values and develop an action plan for living them in her “Personal Leadership Insights” course. Outside of class, she has devoted extensive time to coaching Scharen to bring him a more “balanced and fulfilling” life. “To say I feel grateful for this time would be an extreme understatement,” he emphasizes.
Such grace and commitment are undoubtedly reasons why so many of the 2017 Best & Brightest MBAs look to their professors as role models. Their vigor, values and vision personify what so many students hope to be once they return to the rat race. At MIT, Sally Lambert worked to live up to the example set by Kara Blackburn, her “Advanced Leadership Communications” professor. “She was a role model for me in terms of how she drew out respectful disagreement in class discussions, which led to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the material. Fostering productive and respectful disagreement in team or group settings is not natural for me, and she provided me an example of doing it well.”
ROLE MODELS WHO PERSONIFY THE SPIRIT OF THEIR PROGRAMS
More than that, Lambert adds, Blackburn showed how being “approachable and vulnerable” didn’t necessarily undercut her ability to being seen as “strong, competent, and credible.” “In our first exercise, we each told the class a very short story about a person who had a deep impact on us,” Lambert reminisces. “Blackburn shared a personal and difficult story about her father’s current illness. She is an example of someone bringing her full self to work, and she showed how authenticity and powerful storytelling can strengthen relationships and foster a team environment of openness and trust.”
Tiffany Yu Chia Chen developed a similar bond with Professor Angela Lee at Columbia Business School. “As a women growing up in traditional Chinese culture, I always hesitate to speak up my opinion or stand by my belief,” Chen reveals. “Professor Lee taught me how to effectively overcome this and enhance my leadership skills during my Career Fellow training and throughout the time organizing Chazen study tour. She would always tell me, “People are looking for leaders, and you should not be afraid to be one.”
More than role models, the top business professors often embody the spirit of their schools. For Molly Duncan, Kim Whitler is Darden, the comforting smile and supportive voice that made her two years at the University of Virginia so transformative and affirming.
“Kim embraces each student for their unique background and what they can contribute to the classroom and the community,” Duncan says. “She is famous for her email novels that she sends each week to her classes, noting progress, strengths, and areas to improve. You can constantly catch her at Darden events, providing recruiting advice, or getting stuck in the hallways for quick catch ups with students. Every student who has had her has been lucky to both learn from her and to be loved by her.”
To read about other stellar professors from programs like Stanford, Chicago, Yale, Cornell, Michigan, NYU, and many more, go to the next pages.