2018 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Paolo Aversa, Cass Business School

Paolo Aversa

Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer)

Cass Business School, City University of London, University of Trento (Visiting)

Paolo Aversa was inspired to become a professor by Indiana Jones. You won’t find him being chased out of his classroom by angry students hurling spears and blowing poison darts his way. Instead, this strategy guru was nominated by nearly 40 students to be among this year’s ’40 Under 40.’

With passion and charisma to spare, Aversa often uses unexpected scenarios to make learning unforgettable. Many times, he ties his lessons to Formula 1 racing, whose data sets, examples, and even guest speakers offer unforgettable lessons in teamwork, culture, and innovation. And then there is his infamous “cake” exercise, where students learn everything from resource management to negotiation to competitive intelligence by trading ingredients with competing teams and baking a cake!

Beyond his unconventional – and highly effective – approach, Aversa fosters a classroom that challenges his students and brings out their best. “Paolo brings an intensity to the classroom that really focuses the cohort,” writes Brandon Moore, an MBA, in his nomination. “He pushes his students to back-up every recommendation with data. He made us all better, and the work I did for his class served as a great foundation for guiding the conversations that I have every day with some of the world’s most active strategic acquirers and VC investors.”

 Age: 35

At current institution since what year? 2012

Education: (title of degree, area of study, institution and year obtained): PhD in Management (area: Strategy), obtained at the University of Bologna (Italy) in 2011. Post-Doc at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 2012.

List of courses you currently teach: ‘Strategy’; ‘Advanced Strategy Analysis’; ‘Innovation in Hypercompetition: Lessons from Motorsport’.

Twitter handle: @aversapaolo

TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A PROFESSOR

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…I realized why I was attracted by Indiana Jones’ character. I was excited about the possibility of combining a respectable (academic) career with a life full of freedom and adventures. I decided I needed to get a life like that. Academia was the answer.”

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I usually focus on technologically-driven, hypercompetitive environments. In the last few years, I have been studying how to interpret changes in a competitive setting, and with some of my co-authors we have found that when the environment becomes more turbulent incremental innovation provides superior returns. If you’re interested in the idea but you can’t be bother to read the full study published in Organization Science, you can check a summary in Harvard Business Review, or simply listen to my recent TEDx talk.

“If I weren’t a business school professor…I would probably be working in motorsport, possibly in Formula 1, perhaps as a race strategist. Since I was a kid I have been the biggest Formula 1 and motorsport fan.”

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? The fact that I managed to transform one of my biggest passion (motorsport) into my job. I built a massive database on racing teams and my studies are often based on modelling and analyses of Formula 1 races and other motorsport series. And I use them in my teaching too—I even created an entire course on innovation based on motorsport and Formula 1. I take my students to learn from companies like Ferrari, Ducati, Lamborghini or Dallara. I make them understand the principles of teamwork and leadership by performing a ‘pit-stop’ (tire change) onto a real racing car. True passion is contagious, cannot be hidden, and students seem to notice it and appreciate it.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Improvable.

If your teaching style/classroom experience had a theme song, what would it be? “We Are The Champions” (Queen, 1977).

As a b-school professor, what motivates you? Seeing my students thrive. Observing them evolve not only in what they know, but also who they are. Strategy is not merely a subject, it is a discipline. It’s a way of living and looking at the world. Once they get that, they won’t be the same.

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: That scholars for more traditional subjects (math, history, philosophy, natural sciences) look at business scholars like we are weirdos—once one told me they see business disciplines as a combination of quasi-science and storytelling. It made me think.

Professor you most admire and why: Gianni Lorenzoni (my mentor and PhD Supervisor); incredibly smart, but modest and well-mannered beyond compare. A true intellectual, and a true gentleman, with the fresh and genuine curiosity of a child. Research-wise I am a big fan of Sidney Winter and Jim March. I consider them two giants of our discipline (and beyond).

STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? The fact that they are often ambitious and not afraid to challenge my arguments.

What is most challenging? The fact that they are often ambitious and not afraid to challenge my arguments. Too much of a good thing…

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student: Inquisitive.

Using just one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Superficial.

What is the most impressive thing one of your students has done? A few years ago, I taught a case about Maya Pedal, a small, social enterprise in Guatemala which builds useful machines (called ‘Bicimáquinas’) by reusing old bicycle scraps. These machines are adopted in remote areas—not reached by electricity—to perform simple but vital tasks like digging drinkable water from the ground, creating electrical energy, washing clothes, and helping families in everyday business. A student of mine from India contacted the company in Guatemala and exported the model (and the machine fabrication) to India, in a remote village where people’s life massively benefitted from these new gizmos. She did not say a word about it. I discovered it by chance a couple of years down the line. When I asked her about it, she said she felt like she used my class to ‘adopt a village’. It moved me.

What is the least favorite thing one has done? Any sort of cheating and lying in a professional and academic environmental for me is unacceptable. Also I hate those students who prop themselves up by belittling others.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Super-powers…Nah, I’m joking. S/he needs to master the instruments and perspectives, but also be able to improve them. As I had a classic philosophy training, logical reasoning and augmenting is also a key aspect for a top students. I need to feel convinced and inspired by them if they want an A!

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as…Tough. But I believe they know I don’t enjoy failing them—it upsets me, and it just creates unnecessary additional work and hassle. So I make everything possible to help them understand and absorb the knowledge to pass at the first attempt. Still, my exams are tough, so passing is within reach for most students, but it is not easy to get stellar marks.”

“But I would describe myself as…Tough…but fair. And sympathetic.”

Fill in the blank: “If my students can think independently and for themselves, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

Fun fact about yourself: I did almost any possible job a person can do. Including washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant, parking motorcycles, drawing caricatures on the street, and selling artificial limbs for amputees to doctors.

What are your hobbies? Adrenaline-intensive experiences. Drawing comics and caricatures. Playing guitar and singing. Doing sports that make me sweat. Diving. Travelling. Collecting vinyl records. Cooking Italian. I tend to be enthusiastic about many things but I’m not obsessed by anything.

How will you spend your summer? I’m going to glue myself on my Ducati motorcycle’s seat, and spend as many days and nights riding it. For the rest, international conferences, and maybe a short getaway to Italy and Greece.

Favorite place to vacation: Italy—it offers almost anything a person can desire in a relatively small area. Plus it feels like home. But in the end it’s not the place, it’s one’s eyes and the experiences that make a place special.

Favorite book: Fiction: The Name of the Rose (by Umberto Eco). Business and Economics:
An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (by R. Nelson and S. Winter).

What is your favorite movie and/or television show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? TV show: Formula 1 and MotoGP races (they make me dream of the road I did not take). Movie: Cinema Paradiso (a story of a young Italian guy who leaves his sign away from home. Go figure why…).

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: Classic rock and hard rock. Favourite artist: The Queen and Pink Floyd. I can’t decide between the two.

Bucket list item #1: Enter in the board of directors of a major motorsport team, perhaps a Formula 1 team.

THOUGHTS OF REFLECTION

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Waking up every morning and being enthusiastic about my job and life. It’s a rare privilege.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? My first paper acceptance. And my first paper award (as a PhD student).

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…

Of people who care about value but not necessarily money.

And much less of this…

 Fees. Unfortunately best business school are unaffordable to most people in the world. I wish top education would be available to anyone who needs it.

In your opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at doing what? Please explain. Think more and do less. There is a natural rush to action with too little reflection and constructive questioning. This often leads to massive oversight and pitfalls. We need more time for reflecting, discussing and planning before acting: “A little more conversation a little less action, please.”

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would like for you: Walking inside a classroom and feeling the same shivers on my back I feel today. Seeing my students becoming accomplished men and women, and seeing that what I taught them left the world a bit improved. Well, I would not mind some formal acknowledgment from my employer. How does “Paolo Aversa, Full Professor” sound to you?

Students say…

“Paolo was my lecturer for the Strategy module for the one-year Full-Time MBA course at Cass Business School. Paulo is an energetic and engaging lecturer who employed a number of imaginative teaching techniques to demystify the subject. His ability to challenge our thinking and manage class debate was exceptional and his lectures were undoubtedly one of the highlights of the year.

Paolo’s passion for his subject is infectious but his involvement in the MBA extends beyond the classroom – he was always available with words of encouragement and humour. Paulo demonstrates a genuine passion to see both the Cass MBA programme and its students become the very best they can be.”
Matt Wallin

“If my MBA was a professor, it would be Mr. Aversa. He wasn’t one of those lecturers you like because they are nice to you; you like him because he knows how to get the best out of you. I remember that I was one of the few who failed one of his coursework. I still remember his feedback because it was harsh, but that is one of the best feedbacks I’ve ever received because it pushed me to give my best. He actually said “amongst other things” that: he was disappointed because I got everything right but missed the most obvious point, which was right because I felt it was obvious.”
Krishna Lokossou

“Dr. Aversa has a unique, energetic style to teaching strategy that literally engages all the senses. Through his use of audio-visual demonstrations, Spotify playlists, distinguished guest speakers and even a baking competition to teach the value of resources and capabilities, Dr. Aversa enables students to practically get to grips with strategy.”
Gareth Alan Richards

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