Teaching MBAs isn’t for the faint of heart. Graduate business courses aren’t great awakenings – and they aren’t populated by wide-eyed freshmen. These are adults, practitioners even, who are gifted, battle tested, and accomplished. They know who they are…even if they aren’t sure what they want. These students have given up promising careers and paid a premium to sit in class. That means professors have their attention – but only time will tell if they have their respect.
TOP PROFS RANGE FROM A FORTUNE 500 CEO TO A REGULATOR WHO COLLABORATES WITH BERNIE MADOFF!
That’s what makes teaching MBAs so demanding – and rewarding. The top B-school professors aren’t leaving their mark on impressionable plebes. So it takes a special kind of teacher to reach demanding and discerning students. They must play the roles of sages who open up the possibilities; taskmasters who demand their students’ best; and confidantes who can offer a kind word or timely advice from hard-won experience.
This year, there wasn’t one grand formula for what makes a ‘Favorite Professor’ so effective. At Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Harry Kraemer bridges the researcher-practitioner divide. He can delve into his years as a Fortune 500 CEO to guide students on managing crises. At the same time, he can tap into a proven framework for harmonizing work and home life. At the University of Maryland’ Smith School, MBAs absorb lessons in white collar crime from David Weber, a former chief investigator for the Securities and Exchange Commission. One highlight of his classes: Students pose questions to a special guest who understands the weaknesses inherent to auditing and regulation all too well: Bernie Madoff.
It isn’t just in the classroom where these professors excel. Look no further than Harvard Business School’s Lauren Cohen, a Booth Ph.D. who has broken powerlifting records. Bernie Banks spent 33 years in the U.S. Army before joining Kellogg as an associate dean; his career was capped by being commissioned as a Brigadier General. And how is this for a pairing: Wharton “rock star” professor Adam Grant teamed up with “It” executive Sheryl Sandberg to author a book on overcoming adversity. A dream team indeed!
Together, these professors reflect that teaching still matters. In fact, teachers are one of the great differentiators that reveals the quality of a program and unleash the transformative nature of the MBA experience. Here are 10 professors – in no order – who reached their students and left their mark in 2017.
Cain and Abel. Hamilton and Burr. India and Pakistan. Well, those rivalries pale in comparison to the main event: Harvard Business School and Wharton. This year, Wharton trounced HBS in nearly every possible ranking. Somehow, their Cambridge pest still managed to snag all the headlines – when Stanford wasn’t misleading applicants on financial aid, that is.
So you might be surprised to learn that a truce was declared HBS alum Sheryl Sandberg and decorated Wharton professor Adam Grant. They weren’t just from different programs. Try different planets! Sandberg is everyone’s favorite executive. A winning combination of grace, smarts, and honesty, Sandberg has turned “Lean in” from a slogan to a vow. Grant is a top-rated teacher and researcher. A Renaissance Man par excellence, his research has upended convention by tying career success to a willingness to help others. In the process, he has emerged as perhaps the most famous b-school professor around – all at the tender age of 36.
Together, these heavyweights published Option B in 2017, a tour de force of research-driven advice and personal stories on overcoming adversity.
The two had been long-time friends based on Sandberg’s admiration for Grant’s Give and Take. After Sandberg’s husband passed away in 2015, the two increasingly confided in one another. Grant – a psychologist by trade whose life was forever changed by the loss of a mentor and the suicide of a prized pupil – shared data with her on how grief would run its course and make her children more resilient. As time passed, they began to collaborate; Grant broke down the research and Sandberg shared personal stories of her recovery and redemption. Sure enough, Option B became a best-seller, with the New York Times calling it “generous, honest, almost unbearably poignant.”
For Grant and Sandberg, the book was a means to show others the path to rebounding from suffering. Even more, it was a cathartic exercise that ushered both of them through acceptance and ultimately growth. “When people go through hardship, they’re not just more motivated to help others in many situations,” Grant explains. “They often want to help people in exactly the way that they have been hurt. Helping people through the trauma that you’ve faced is not only something that gives your life meaning, it gives your suffering meaning.”
If you met Lauren Cohen in a Boston gym, you’d naturally assume he was pancaking wide receivers on Sundays or body slamming heels on TV. In reality, he is a chaired professor of finance at Harvard Business School – a man who is both a world class teacher and a champion powerlifter.
Last year, Cohen ranked among the top vote-getters for Poets&Quants’ 40 Under 40 Professors. You could say his career choice was pre-ordained. As a 3rd grader, he dressed as a stockbroker for Halloween, replete with blazer and briefcase. However, few might guess that he would eventually break two world records in the squat, with 630 pounds being his best as a 181 pounder. Long ago, he was a self-described “short, chubby kid who was the head tuba player in the school band.” However, few could predict Cohen’s willpower – a virtue that enabled him to earn an MBA and a Ph.D. by the time he reached 25.
As a Wharton undergrad, Cohen dreamed of working as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, where he’d eventually climb his way to partner and settle down in the Hamptons. Funny thing is, he developed a passion for intellectual property and a distaste for non-practicing entities (aka patent trolls). Even more, the teaching life has given him an ever-changing perspective on finance – one that keeps him inquisitive and invigorated. “This is the best job in the world,” Cohen tells Poets&Quants. “I get to wrestle with ideas with these bright young people and they pay me to do this! It is awesome. I get to reinvent myself with every project. In this job, you can be someone different every day. You walk into a class or start a new project and it’s a new beginning. That keeps me young, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love coming to work every day.”
And his students heave picked up on the vitality he brings to the classroom. “Professor Cohen had a serious impression on me,” writes one anonymous student who nominated him for P&Q’s 40 Under 40. “His humility and approachable nature was a great reminder that despite having remarkable accomplishments and pedigree, one can and should still be a good person.”