Early each September, Chicago Booth School of Business finance professor Steven Kaplan begins memorizing the names and faces of all 205 of his students so that, by the time classes start at the end of the month, he can greet each student by name.
“When I walk into class, I can say, ‘Hi George. How are you doing?’ The students are shocked that I know who they are,” Kaplan says in a new book exploring the techniques of some of the most influential MBA professors teaching today.
Kaplan didn’t abandon this technique when his classroom was forced to go virtual in 2020. Instead, he organized small group lunches and breakfasts so he could still get to know all his students personally.
SEVEN ESSENTIAL AREAS FOR BUSINESS SUCCESS
“Even electronically, he was able to develop this learning community,” says George Siedel, author of Seven Essentials for Business Success: Lessons from Legendary Professors, published this summer by Routledge. The book showcases techniques developed by award-winning professors, aiming to inspire teachers, business leaders, and prospective MBA students looking for the right program.
Siedel, business law professor emeritus at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, tells Poets&Quants that the book has been something of a passion project. He’d been kicking around the idea since the 1990s when he met legendary Harvard professor C. Roland “Chris” Christensen who visited Ross for a faculty seminar. Christensen encouraged Siedel to pursue the project, but other professional duties pushed it to the back burner.
Siedel has been at Ross for 48 years, including five years as associate dean. In that time he interacted with many great professors at other schools. It made him think about his old idea. He dedicated Seven Essentials to Christensen, who died in 1999.
The book identifies the seven essential areas that successful managers and business owners must understand – accounting, business law, finance, management, marketing, operations, and strategy. Then, Siedel takes readers inside the classroom of a legendary professor from each area.
“I’m just a farm boy from Ohio, and I’ve been awed by some of the fantastic teaching I’ve seen in executive education and in MBA teaching. So this is just a labor of love basically,” Siedel tells Poets&Quants.
A PEEK INSIDE THE CLASSROOMS OF SEVEN TOP MBAS
To write the book, Siedel conducted extensive interviews with each professor, visited their classrooms, talked with their colleagues and students, and watched hours upon hours of YouTube videos of the professors in action. He chose professors at the top of their disciplines from the seven top-ranked schools by U.S. News & World Report in 2018, the year he started the project in earnest: Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and Harvard Business School.
“I think the thing that surprised me most is how humble all these professors were and how uncomfortable they all were with the attention. They were obviously pleased to be included in the book, but they were also very humble about their skills,” Siedel says. “Professor Rifkin, for example, an allstar strategy professor from Harvard, wanted me to critique his teaching and for me to help him, which is ridiculous.
“The other thing that surprised me is just their intense desire to learn. They don’t think of classrooms as places where they download knowledge. They look forward to going to class everyday to learn from the MBAs,” he says. “You know, MBAs bring in a lot of up-to-date, business experience, and it’s impossible for a professor who’s doing research to keep up with all that. So they view that as a continuing learning process.”
TEACHING WITH PASSION & PURPOSE
Each professor-centered chapter features the nuggets MBA students look for when searching for a program: Student insights, course structure and content, as well as the professor’s resume and credentials. Chapters also feature the more abstract philosophies behind the teacher’s methods. Siedel gets to these through one-on-one Q&A interviews and descriptions of actual classrooms in action.
At Wharton, there’s legal studies professor Richard Shell, who created the P3 program: Purpose, Passion and Principles. “The goal is to get MBA students to reflect on how they define success, how they define happiness, and how their definition of success relates to their life goals,” Siedel says. “That has had a huge impact on students in the program, just the chance to step back and look at their life in general.”
At Stanford, there’s accounting professor Charles Lee, who tells students to ask themselves the same questions a security guard would ask if they encountered them late at night: Who are you? What are you doing here? And where are you going? “He advises students on thinking beyond your resume and to think about their underlying values and purpose in life,” Siedel says. “He’s an accounting professor, but he encourages students to think about the big picture issues that really go beyond specific subject matter that MBAs are usually focused on.”
And in terms of sheer impact, at Chicago Booth, there’s the finance professor who remembers every student by name, Steve Kaplan. Through his program, the New Venture Challenge, Booth students have spawned around 300 businesses, created thousands of jobs, and raised billions of dollars in new venture capital. Businesses created through the program include GrubHub, Braintree Venmo, and Simple Mills, the second largest natural baker in the country. “Students have a really wonderful learning experience, but they also leave that program, and they have businesses that they’ve started at Chicago,” Siedel says.
Other professors featured in the book include management professor Gretchen Spreitzer of Michigan Ross, Kellogg marketing professor Florian Zettelmeyer, Sloan operations professor Georgia Perakis, and HBS strategy professor Jan Rivkin. Two of the classrooms Siedel highlights, taught by Perakis and Zettelmeyer, are EMBA and executive education courses considered among the most popular in the country.
A BOOK FOR STUDENTS, TEACHERS AND BUSINESS LEADERS
Siedel says the book has three target audiences: Business school professors who want to incorporate these methods into their own classrooms. Business leaders who want to do a better job of developing talent in their organizations. And potential MBA students exploring the type of program that is best for them.
In Chapter 2, Siedel distills the key concepts taught in the core discipline classes at each of the seven schools, acting as a checklist for what students should expect from an MBA program. This was information that Siedel found was often not on school websites, but valuable for prospective MBA students’ research.
“It’s really the only book that has in-depth coverage of selected professors and takes you into several MBA classrooms, into an EMBA classroom and into an executive education classroom,” Siedel says.
“I hope that rookie MBA professors and PhD students are able to use the teaching processes of the seven professors, although I have gotten feedback that even established professors will find this useful,” he says. “I also hope it’s useful to business leaders in helping them realize that they play an important teaching role when developing their talent. Some business leaders are simply not very effective communicators, they’re not very effective teachers, and they lose a great opportunity to develop the staff at their own companies.”