Crystal Farh is one of the most prolific researchers on this year’s 40 Under 40 list. In her early career, Farh has already notched more than 2,800 Google Scholar citations, including nearly 2,100 since 2016. Her research has also been mentioned or featured in major media outlets like The Huffington Post, Forbes, and New York Magazine. In addition to numerous research awards and grants, Farh has also been awarded the PACCAR Award for Teaching Excellence award.
Farh also earned rave reviews from nominators. “Crystal is a genius. She has won every major award and earned extremely high student evaluations even in courses that are challenging to teach,” one nominator said. “She develops phenomenal teaching materials and shares them with others. The days when I used her materials in my course were my students’ favorite days. I have watched recordings of her classes and cannot help but smile at the positive energy and fun she brings alongside deeply thoughtful content and nurturing care towards student questions. She is also an elite researcher, having already published eleven articles in top-tier management journals despite earning her Ph.D. less than a decade ago. She is my role model for what it means to be an ideal business school professor.”
Farh’s research mainly revolves around voice at the workplace.
“One of my core research interests is voice at workplace,” Farh says. “Voice is basically people speaking up to supervisors, peers, and other stakeholders with their work-related ideas, suggestions, and concerns that intend to improve the status quo. It seems fairly obvious that voice is an important way that employees can contribute to organizational success – yet it comes with all kinds of complications. People with worthy ideas do not always speak up, their voice is not always heard or appreciated, and their voice does not always have impact or result in tangible change.”
Current age: 37
At current institution since what year? 2015
Education: A.B. Psychology, Harvard College; Ph.D. Organizational Behavior, University of Maryland.
List of MBA courses you currently teach: Leading Teams and Organizations (full-time MBA) and Teamwork and Managerial Effectiveness (Executive MBA)
TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I first bought into the idea of being a business school professor when I took a course on the social psychology of organizations (taught by the late Richard Hackman) as an undergrad at Harvard. There was an assignment where we had to observe a real work team and apply theoretical perspectives to explain what we observed. My group chose to observe hospital teams. I remember the thrill of putting together the coding scheme, furiously scribbling notes on a clipboard, then poring over theory to make sense of what we had seen – it was hands-down the most exhilarating academic experience of my life. That experience led me to say “Yes!” to eventually getting my Ph.D. and embarking on my academic career.
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?
I’m so glad you asked! One of my core research interests is voice at workplace. Voice is basically people speaking up to supervisors, peers, and other stakeholders with their work-related ideas, suggestions, and concerns that intend to improve the status quo. It seems fairly obvious that voice is an important way that employees can contribute to organizational success – yet it comes with all kinds of complications. People with worthy ideas do not always speak up, their voice is not always heard or appreciated, and their voice does not always have impact or result in tangible change. Last year, my colleagues and I published a paper in the Academy of Management Journal on token women’s voices in traditionally male-dominated teams. A key finding of that paper is that when the token woman spoke up with task-related suggestions and the team acted on those suggestions, teams performed better on tasks that required out-of-the-box thinking and creative problem-solving. Yet when I talk with my women and minority students, a common struggle they raise is that their voice often goes unenacted, especially in majority-dominated contexts. If acting on the voices of minorities are so valuable for performance precisely because they offer a different perspective from the majority, then there is a fundamental problem if those voices are also the least likely to be enacted in the first place. My current research focuses on understanding this problem and discovering ways to equalize the gap between minority and majority experiences with voice. Stay tuned!
If I weren’t a business school professor… I have a love for vocal performance. I got my first taste of it in the 4th grade, when I was cast as Maria von Trapp in the school musical of “Sound of Music.” In the 11th grade, I starred as the title character in the school musical of “Kiss Me Kate.” I went on to sing in an a cappella group all four years of college, and I’ve sung in church choirs for as long as I can remember. So if I weren’t a business school professor, I’d probably be a Broadway star hopeful, a church choir director, or a wedding singer.
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?
I would say passion. I am fortunate to teach on a lot of topics that I study, so I am a high-octane individual when it comes to the classroom. I get energized thinking about the material, and I design classroom experiences that bring to life for my students what I’m excited about. I would also add inclusion. I make it a point to learn names and something personal about each student. Who they are matters to me. I also believe that everyone has something relevant and valuable to offer that extends our collective understanding of leadership, so I am intentional about structuring classroom discussions so that we hear from all students, and I architect safe spaces for students to share their personal life experiences with each other.
One word that describes my first time teaching: Humbling! My first teaching experience was as a Teach for America corps member in Oakland, California. For two years, as a seventh-grade math and science teacher, I learned a lot about my own strengths and limitations and was also confronted with some of society’s greatest inequities. It was in this “crucible” that I gained important insights about teaching. My seventh graders were extremely bright – but if I could not engage them with a tangible experience, if I could not demonstrate how the lesson connected to something they cared about, if I for one moment lectured for the sake of hearing myself speak, they would check out and start throwing paper wads (or worse) at each other. As it turns out, when it comes to effective teaching, some things do transfer, regardless of whether the audience is seventh graders or executive MBAs. What I learned in those two years through trial by fire I bring with me into the classroom every day.
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: I’ve realized over the years that as a business school professor, you are not just an expert. You are a leader. You lead in the questions you study and the issues you bring to light with your research. You lead in the way you craft and guide learning experiences in your classrooms. You lead in your service to the institution by bettering its ability to serve its stakeholders. Your every move has the potential to inspire and lift others up. Each year, I learn a bit more of just how big of a responsibility – and how great an honor – it is to be a business school professor. Recognizing that responsibility and honor gives me renewed purpose in this job that I love.
Professor I most admire and why: There are many professors whom I have had the privilege of working with and learning from in my academic journey! For this question, I’ll name Kay Bartol, the Smith Professor of Leadership and Innovation at the University of Maryland. Kay was one of the first professors I worked with as a first year PhD student at Maryland. I remember her tireless dedication to developing my ideas, reading countless drafts of my writing, providing feedback on my work at all hours of the day (and night!), and cheering me on in my research presentations (even now!) with a big smile in the front row. It can be a tremendous labor of love to train a PhD student, and the way Kay mentored me has been a model for the way I work with my own PhD students. Kay also publishes fascinating research in our field’s top journals on timely topics and has served as President of the Academy of Management. Her leadership across the domains of teaching, research, and service inspires me to think bigger about who I could be and the impact I could have as a business school professor.
TEACHING MBA STUDENTS
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?
Their stories; their courage; their passions; their accomplishments. Without fail, my students inspire me to study things that matter and to be a better person in my professional and personal life. I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of their leadership journeys and to have a front-row seat in cheering them on.
What is most challenging?
Leadership is a lifelong journey, and yet, I only get my students for a quarter? It seems that there is never enough time for me to get to everything that is important to my students and important to me.
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Students who act on and are willing to be transformed by what they learn in class. It brings a *huge* smile to my face when, out of the blue, I get an email from a former student on how they’ve used a decision-making process they learned in class to navigate a workplace crisis; or when someone, in my end-of-course evaluations, shares how the reflection exercises led them to discover their reason for leading; or when a graduate lets me know that they landed a dream job because they successfully leveraged a framework in their case interview. Knowledge without action is useless.
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Those who don’t invest in the hard work of reflecting on how their life experiences have shaped them into the leader they are today. When students shortchange these reflection exercises, we are all robbed of the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by them.
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Flexible… and maybe too lenient. This is why I ask my fabulous TAs to grade my case write-ups and exams. I find it hard to be objective once I’ve formed attachments to my students.
LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies?
What hobbies? I spend all the time I have outside of work with my husband and kids. I find each member of our family endlessly complex, and the dynamics between us are fascinating to observe. I love engaging the kids in developmental adventures and discovering their unique selves. So… if family-watching is a hobby, that would be it. I also enjoy hiking on ocean bluffs, singing, and exploring new eats around town.
How will you spend your summer?
Learning R to keep up with my Ph.D. students; working on research projects; soaking up the precious and rare Pacific Northwest sunshine; getting my daughter excited about starting kindergarten!
Favorite place(s) to vacation:
Kauai Island. And Hood Canal, Washington. I love being close to water, spotting marine life, and harvesting clams, mussels, and oysters for a could-not-be-fresher seafood experience.
There are so many brilliant books in the world. One that has been on my mind lately is “Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage,” written by my good friend Laura Huang of Harvard Business School. I spend a lot of time in class urging my students to discover their unique, authentic, leadership voice; yet so many (myself included) feel they need to keep their authentic leadership under wraps, because of the constraints that social perception, biases, and harmful stereotypes others place on them. Drawing on her own life experiences as well as evidence-based research and riveting stories, Laura provides a hopeful message and actionable advice on how to take strategic steps and turn those constraints around into sources of advantage.
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?
There are so many inspiring movies in the world. A few that focus on teams and leadership that I have enjoyed and draw inspiration from are Miracle, Remember the Titans, and Hidden Figures.
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?
Recently, I dedicated “The Champion” by Carrie Underwood featuring Ludacris to my full-time MBA students. To me, the song is a celebration of the persistence and resilience that so many of us display in our every day lives, that in turn shape who we are as leaders. When I look at my students, past and present, I see champions. Another song that comes to mind is “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. I am a voice researcher. I am well-aware of the fears that so many of us have when it comes to speaking up and displaying who we are through our voice. This song – which I often belt at the top of my lungs with my 4-year-old daughter – reminds me that we should not let our fears of what other people think of us distort and prevent us from saying what we know is right.
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…
This year, more than ever, we have seen the need for business schools to be at the forefront in developing leaders who are able to listen to voices that are not their own. Our gut instinct is to reject or dismiss perspectives and experiences that feel unfamiliar to us. We tend to seek out and amplify the voices that already surround us, instead of reaching out to invite others to join the conversation. Listening is what enables leaders to bring people together to tackle the grand challenges of today. When we listen, we see the humanity in ourselves and others. When we listen, we gain the fuel and insight to get to where we need to go, together.
In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at…
Fostering cultures where all employees (not just leaders) are empowered to develop ideas for improvement; all employees (not just leaders) feel safe to speak up with those ideas; and all employees (especially leaders) are open to acting on what they hear. Companies and organizations that achieve this engage all organizational members and move the needle toward a better tomorrow.
I’m grateful for…
In moments of personal achievement, I find it important to look around and honor the people, circumstances, and opportunities that enabled my success. In my case, there are too many to count – God has been so generous to me. I’ll start with a huge shout out to my MBA students, a truly remarkable group of individuals whose ambition to do good and compassion for others inspires me daily. Thanks to my husband as well as my parents and extended family, whose unwavering love and support has enabled me to balance a job that I love with two young children at home. Thanks to my fabulous colleagues at the University of Maryland, Michigan State University, and UW, who have generously given so much of themselves in coaching and mentoring me along my academic journey. This is truly an honor that I share with all of you.
Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:
“Professor Farh is a really engaging, relatable, and intelligent instructor. It is very apparent that she carefully chooses what to present to her class each week and is highly prepared to facilitate discussions, not just lecture for 90 minutes. I look back on this class and realize how much I learned about myself and reflected over 9 weeks. Thank you, Prof. Farh!”
“This is a course I looked forward to because of Crystal’s energy and optimism. She is a shining example of how I look at a university professor: smart, knowledgeable, and energetic for the material. Thanks for bringing it to life for us!”
“Crystal is fantastic in general. She’s super responsive to questions and discussing topics in class that might be outside of her original lesson plan. Additionally, she brings an infectious energy to the topic and it makes the course so much better. Finally, to say Crystal has taken to the virtual environment is an absolute understatement. Her layouts are clear and she leverages a variety of technologies to foster groupwork and discussion that normally would only be possible in person. This is by far the best virtual course I’ve taken so far.”
“Crystal shared her own experiences as an Asian-American woman, and she also found articles for us to read. And, whenever a student followed up about a particular topic after class, she always sent out an additional reading and email explaining the thought behind the student’s comment.”
“Professor Farh’s energy, personality, and passion is obvious which creates an atmosphere that is infectious. Her presentation skills are top notch and just as important is her ability to engage the students in a fun and productive way. The coursework is by far the most relevant to my profession, and the skillset I have learned from Professor Farh can be applied immediately.”
“This class is by far the best class I’ve taken during the MBA program. It is the only class where I feel there is a direct linear relationship between how much time you put into the class and how much value you get out of it. Crystal asks us to focus on our individual stories and find ways to leverage our natural skills and develop as leaders. She does a wonderful job of asking to dig deep and she motivates us to do that by engaging us in quality in-class sessions that require active thought.”
“Crystal has mastered how to teach the most important and difficult of skills: organizational leadership. And she brings joy to her classes while doing it.”
“Crystal is so skilled at combining research, activities and out-of-class reflection. She has supported the development of each member of the class of 2019 by helping us envision our personal leadership strengths and where we can improve.”
“Crystal was a fantastic LTO professor—bringing in the right amount of student discussion, activities and academic findings to bring management to life. In her leadership elective, she encouraged reflection and personal growth. Outside the classroom, she’s gone above and beyond to help educate faculty (at students’ request) about how to remove biases and balance participation in the classroom. Oh, and did I mention she had a baby this year? PACCAR Hall is a better place for having Crystal in it.”