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2021 Best 40-Under-40 Professors: Anne ter Wal, Imperial College Business School

Anne ter Wal of Imperial College Business School is a 2021 Best 40 Under 40 Business School professor. Courtesy photo

Anne ter Wal

Associate Professor of Technology and Innovation Management

Imperial College Business School

Receiving three dozen nominations and making this year’s 40 Under 40 Professors list is Anne ter Wal, who is also a prolific researcher with more than 4,300 Google Scholar citations. ter Wal is an award-winning professor, who has won both research and teaching awards.

“I lead an EU-funded research program titled ‘Networking for Innovation’ to study how networking enables entrepreneurs and innovators to achieve business and innovation success,” ter Wal says. “Together with a diverse team of post-docs and Ph.D. students as well as local and international collaborators, I seek to understand how individuals go about building the connections they need and assess how different approaches to building and mobilizing these connections help individuals to innovate.”

Between the rave reviews we received from ter Wal’s former and current students and colleagues and his massive body of research work, it was easy to put ter Wal on this year’s list of the world’s best business school professors under 40.

Current age: 37

At current institution since what year? Since 2009

Education: MSc and Ph.D. in Economic Geography, from Utrecht University in the Netherlands

List of MBA courses you currently teach: Elective course “Strategic Networking”, a course I designed to help students develop the networking skills, habits, and practices they need to excel in their careers.

TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR

I knew I wanted to be a business school professor… after a few years at Imperial College Business School as a post-doc. Both my parents were in the educational sector, so chances I’d follow in their footsteps were probably quite high. Yet the choice to become a professor at a business school emerged gradually. My move from the Netherlands to the UK, and from economic geography to management, came about through a serendipitous encounter at a conference. Teaching at Imperial soon became a logical and exciting next step.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?

I lead an EU-funded research program titled “Networking for Innovation” to study how networking enables entrepreneurs and innovators to achieve business and innovation success. Together with a diverse team of post-docs and Ph.D. students as well as local and international collaborators, I seek to understand how individuals go about building the connections they need and assess how different approaches to building and mobilizing these connections help individuals to innovate. In a recent paper, published in the Administrative Science Quarterly, we find that creative duos – for example managers and technologists in R&D – do well to coordinate their networking; they perform best in jointly pursuing innovation if their networks span the same organizational groups but different individuals within each of the groups. This approach, which we named “dual networking”, best allows them to effectively challenge one another on each other’s domain.

If I weren’t a business school professor… I’d probably be a travel guide. Ever since I was a little boy, I have been eager to explore new places and to push the frontier. When growing up, Italy was our default summer holiday destination, but instead of going to same place time and again I was always pushing my parents to bring us ever more south. Not being a travel guide, pushing the frontiers of knowledge is a great alternative. 

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?

That’s a difficult one. There are many fabulous professors out there. The real excitement in teaching for me lies in bridging academic insight and practical guidance. When first teaching about networks, I sensed students had difficulty relating to the established structural concepts with which we academics describe networks. At the end of my four-day networks class, my efforts to translate academic insights about networks – including my own research on networking –­ into practical guidance culminate in 30-odd flipcharts with the key take-home messages all over the lecture theatre walls. It has helped to make the course and its content more accessible and memorable.

One word that describes my first time teaching: nerve-wracking. Having never been taught in a business school myself, it took me some time to familiarize myself and grow comfortable with the classroom context in a business school. I soon realized, luckily, that teaching at business school is not all that different from teaching elsewhere. It is universally appreciated if you do your very best to deliver relevant content in a compelling way.

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: I wish they would have told me about the joys of a diverse classroom. My research is about the role of diversity in networks, so I know it matters. But witnessing first-hand, when first teaching at Imperial, how good it feels to be in a highly diverse setting along many dimensions has been a real eye-opener, and a catalyst for me to continue studying how entrepreneurs and innovators can build diverse networks.

Professor I most admire and why: Over the years, I have had the pleasure to work with many great colleagues, both at Imperial and elsewhere. But the professor I most admire is Professor Ammon Salter who hired me at Imperial College back in 2009. He’s been a very important role model, for the type of engaged scholarship in close collaboration with practice and for his team-based mode of operating. It’s inspired me to try and attract research funding to be able to build a team of researchers around me.

TEACHING MBA STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? Sharing my passion for what I study. Sharing my passion for networks, technology, and innovation. I hope my students forgive me the occasional automotive examples that pepper my teaching. As a car enthusiast, I just can’t help it…

What is most challenging?

The most challenging is to keep students motivated and engaged, and comfortable to share their own experiences and views. Students don’t necessarily share the intrinsic interest in what you are talking about, but motivation and inclusion are key for learning. I walk away from a class with satisfaction if I feel I succeeded to keep all students engaged and that I created the right environment for them to contribute their experiences and to absorb the main insights.

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious.

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Disengaged.

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Fair, diligent, and providing constructive feedback. The real value in grading should lie in helping students develop. Tailored, personalized feedback is a critical component of the learning trajectory.

LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

What are your hobbies? I have been a car enthusiast for as long as I can remember. Apart from reading loads of car magazines, my passion for cars involves collecting 1/43 scale miniature car models. Much to my husband’s “joy”, there are over 300 model cars on display in our hallway or home office. These are mostly cars from the 1980s and 1990s, the everyday cars that populated our streets when I grew up.

How will you spend your summer? Our summer 2020 plans for a safari in Botswana were originally postponed to the summer of 2021, but understandably we’ll have to postpone that yet again. Travel restrictions permitting, we just hope to be able to spend some time in Italy to catch up with family. My husband is Italian, and my Dutch relatives hope to visit Italy over the summer too.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Italy, that’s for sure. Its mix of excellent food, weather, history, and people never fails to excite. Having said that, I continue to love visiting new places. It’s been a bit difficult lately, but in the years to come I hope to add many more new countries to the list of 45 countries I visited so far.

Favorite book(s): I love surrealism, both in art and literature. In my teenage years, I adored the wonderfully weird stories of Dutch writer Belcampo and The Waiter and the Living by Simon Vestdijk, but one of my all-time favorites is The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov.

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?

I enjoy watching movies but tend not to remember them very well… I generally enjoy watching crime series and I’m currently fully immersed in the BBC’s Line of Duty. I love all the twists and turns. And there are some interesting parallels between solving a murder and solving a thorny research problem…

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?

I often joke I grew up with Bob Dylan’s music, but it’s true. My dad loved his music and I have grown to love it too. I have seen him play live various times, but a recent concert in a small London theatre was an absolute highlight.

THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… I think the ambition to equip students with the knowledge and skills to combat the world’s grand challenges for the 21st century should be front-and-center. This will involve nurturing the ability to overcome major barriers to change and I hope my networks training will play a part in helping (future) leaders do this.

In my opinion, companies, and organizations today need to do a better job at… In my research, I often work with large corporations and I am always struck by how little training they offer their staff to help them develop the softer set of skills needed to get their work done. Engineers, scientists, and managers in R&D, for example, rarely get training in how to present, promote and share their ideas – in other words, how to network. It is often taken-for-granted, but most people would benefit from improving skills such as networking to help them get the right inputs for their work at the right time and to help them to navigate obstacles in its implementation.

I’m grateful for… the opportunity to live in London – one of the world’s greatest cities – and to work at one of its best universities. The reason I am still in London after 12 years, despite originally going three for a two-year postdoc, are simple: fabulous colleagues and a city that never fails to excite, not even during a pandemic. 

Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:

“I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the class today. Super interesting and I love how it all fits together. Almost like a Tarantino movie where seemingly separate story lines merge into one. That’s actually very exciting. Also enjoyed it because the articles for today really brought a human element to the theories which seem somehow easier to grasp as a result.”

“After having encountered lots of different teaching styles, I’d like to say a big thank you for your brilliant delivery of your class. I’m truly impressed by how you manage to engage a group of people with diverse research interests and backgrounds while offering insights that are relevant to all of us. The clear structure you provide these insights with makes it a real joy to follow and engage with the class, even when my personal interest isn’t innovation as such. I’m hoping to, one day when I start teaching, be able to deliver knowledge even half as clearly as you.”

“Anne is an academic star and an incarnation of research led teaching. First, his cutting-edge work on how networking enables the success of entrepreneurs and innovators is having a significant impact in academia, as well as in professional and entrepreneurial settings. He was awarded a prestigious and very selective European Research Council Grant, is publishing in the leading management journals and is being heavily cited in research outlets as well as general media. His impactful on business is also visible, among other examples, by having led to changes in R&D practices of a large multinational. The second element is his ability to develop innovative offering for the MBA anchored in his research. His course on strategic networking leverages directly his research to define learning goals, journey and outcomes. This makes it extremely effective in enabling the students master the networking skills, habits, and practices they need to excel.”

“As a professor, Anne couples a fantastic ability to conduct groundbreaking, insightful research with his talent to communicate it in a accessible, enticing way. I have witnessed multiple times his skill in adapting presentations to different audiences (students, professors, entrepreneurs etc.) to ensure that every participant enjoys and benefits from his research. At the same time, his clear vision, empathetic leadership and versatility make him the ideal tutor: after three years of working with Anne, I am still surprised by how he is always able to provide wise advice when most needed. I believe that Anne being a stellar scholar and a great person is the most honest, clearest reason I can give for his nomination!”

“Anne Ter Wal is an outstanding scholar within the field of social networks. He has recently received a large EU grant to study how entrepreneurs network. His research has been published in top management journals and received over 4,000 citations. Anne is one of our most successful teachers. Students love his passion for the subject matter, his ability to clearly explain complex concepts, and his teaching innovations. For his MBA elective he created a software tool which enables students to immediately see their networks and identify areas of improvements. In his PhD module he asked students to write a grant proposal, a skill that will turn out to be very useful once they become faculty. In his MSc module Anne came up with a very engaging coursework which involved one team setting a consulting project for another team and having the ‘client’ team challenging the recommendations of the other team.”

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