Why Darden’s Professors Are The Best MBA Teachers On The Planet

Luca Cian and Lalin Anik

Luca Cian (left) and Lalin Anik are not only superstar profs at Darden. They are also close friends and colleagues


Their Darden trip, over two and one-half days with informal dinners, included presentations of their job market papers in front of faculty who judged them on their intelligence, confidence and ability to handle tough questions and challenges. They clearly passed the test. “They are conceptual thinkers who can explain the big picture and yet get into the weeds and say why it matters,” says Steenburgh, who sits on every search committee for faculty at Darden. “And they are also very likable, too.”

Steenburgh runs a “start program” for every new faculty member and adjunct instructor. He’ll teach a case and then lead a teaching practice. More than running an orientation of sorts for junior profs, he serves as an invaluable coach through every teaching cycle. “There are times when I have to push them and times when I give them a big hug,” says Steenburgh. “Everyone has to be an awesome teacher here. The bar for teaching is high. But you really need to be a triathlete at Darden in teaching, course development and research.”

Steenburgh will often teach the first class in the core, with all the junior faculty lined up in the back of the classroom intently watching and learning how to expertly orchestrate a lively discussion on a case. As a master teacher, who has written 25 case studies, his guidance is treasured. “He is a mentor, a leader, a guide, a friend,” says Anik, who first met Steenburgh at Harvard. “I look up to him. He puts his wings around us and the conversations are beyond the intellectual side. We talk about everything.” Cian is equally fond of him. “In the first year when Lalin and I were trying to figure out how to survive in class, he was always there on weekends, or after 9 p.m. before a class the next day. He goes above and beyond, and he has our best interests at heart.”


The demands of teaching at a school with a reputation for having the best MBA teaching faculty in the world with the need to do substantive academic research is a difficult balancing act for an assistant professor seeking tenure. “It is hard to be a junior faculty member here because the expectations are so high,” concedes Anik. “It is a challenge. We are surrounded by excellent teachers, excellent professors and educators so if you are average it’s hard. You need to know who you are, what you value and what you want to accomplish. I think the research expectations are high and they are getting higher.”

Shortly after their arrival at Darden, they showed up at a faculty meeting at which the expectations for professors was laid out by a senior professor. “I remember being told that you have to be a stellar teacher, a stellar researcher and a stellar citizen,” says Cian. “It’s difficult to be stellar at everything when you have so much pressure.”

That pressure is most immediately felt when the first quarter of classes for incoming MBA students unfolds in mid-August. For both young professors, their early classroom sessions are a trial by fire. Within weeks of their move to Charlottesville, they were tossed into the core MBA curriculum to teach the 729 introductory course on marketing. All told, the course runs over 20 classes with 20 separate case studies and a three-day strategic simulation. While Cian had taught undergraduates at Michigan and was a teaching assistant in some MBA classes, he had never led a case discussion. Anik, meantime, had never fully taught a class until then. “After a few classes you know what is going on,” says Cian. “But I had never seen the case method in my whole life. I never experienced it.”


To get their teaching sea legs, the pair followed a grueling regimen in their first couple of years. There would be a teaching group meeting on Sunday led by Steenburgh that on occasions could run as long as seven hours. “After that at 3 p.m., we would take a walk together to talk about what we learned,” recalls Anik. “Then we booked a classroom and we would spend from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. practicing. Luca would teach the entire class and I would play the role of a problematic and challenging student. Then we would take a break, and I would go up and go through the whole case again and Luca would be the student. If we didn’t feel comfortable with it, we would do it again.”

At home, Cian says he would sometimes stand in front of a mirror to practice his presentation skills. Late night phone calls between the two young professors were a common occurrence. As the nights wore on, the would go over the most nuanced details of a case. In that first year, when Cian didn’t yet have a car, Anik would pick him up at 7 a.m. for their classes. During the drive, they recall, one or the other would recite aloud all the central questions that would be covered in that morning’s class. Once class was over, they would debrief each other on how it went and then connect with Steenburgh to seek his feedback.

At times, they would have to teach concepts for which they had little to no knowledge. Cian remembers a seven-hour teaching meeting on a Friday where it was clear they would have to explain conjoint analysis—a market research approach to measure the value consumers place on features of a product or service—to their students. “As marketing students in PhD programs, we never had conjoint analysis,” says Cian. “We literally learned the day before. She came over to my house on that Sunday after playing soccer with the students. I said, ‘Let’s go over conjoint analysis.’


“It was incredible,” laughs Cian. “I have no idea how we did it. Going through Darden the first year was like going to war. We went into battle together basically. So she’s like my sister in battle. We survived. It was an experience that will shape us forever.”

Not surprisingly, every class they taught in that first year was not a rousing success. Cian remembers prepping for a difficult case on Heinz. The night before the class, he slept little more than five hours, worried that he couldn’t pull it off to his high standards. He was on the phone going over the teaching plan with Anik at midnight after she returned home from a concert in D.C. “I went to class after six million coffees and felt I spent 20 million hours on this case,” he says. “And at a certain point, I looked at my class and said, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ The class looked at me in silence so I knocked on the blackboard and said, ‘I hear only crickets.’

“I was upset because I had worked so many hours on this case and got nothing from the class. Afterward, some students came to me and said, ‘Hey Luca, we’re a little bit upset. We didn’t sleep yesterday because there was a fire alarm in our building and 80% of the class only slept a few hours.’ One thing I learned is that it isn’t on me all the time. Maybe something is happening with them. I try to analyze how much was my fault and try to improve.”

Anik has had similar experiences from time to time. “In your first year,” she says, “it’s very scary. Now we have figured it out and we meet them where they are to get on the same page and move forward.”

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