2022 Best 40-Under-40 MBA Professors: Megan Lawrence, Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management

Megan Lawrence

Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management

“Megan Lawrence is the mentor everyone seeks out during business school. She will cheer you on in times of success, provide advice during times of apprehension, and give the tough love when she knows you can be better in and outside the classroom. Professor Lawrence has transformed the core curriculum strategy course since she took it over 6 years ago. The course now incorporates a diverse array of case protagonists and industries, in addition to ensuring the global perspective is included. Megan is the educator that all business school professors should strive to be; she knows the education she provides in the classroom will have a direct impact in the business community for years to come.” – Liza Moskowitz

Megan Lawrence, 37, is Assistant Professor of Strategic Management at Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management.

Her research focuses on understanding firm adaptation and evolution, especially how firms select and implement organizational processes over time. She has had a particular interest in the role of various forms of experience on a firm’s timing and ability to implement changes in its processes and structures. Her work is published in Organization Science and Strategic Management Journal and has received best paper awards at multiple conferences.

BACKGROUND

At current institution since what year? 2016

Education: B.S.E. in Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton University; DBA in Strategy at Harvard Business School

List of MBA courses you currently teach:  Strategic Management (core strategy), Core Strategy for the Master of Management in Healthcare 

TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR

I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… Prior to pursuing my doctorate, I worked on the electronic trading desk at Merrill Lynch then Bank of America, and it was through working there that the pieces came together for me about the business school professor path. I think I had been interested in a professor-type career off-and-on in college but hadn’t ever found anything that I thought I could research “forever.” In working through the financial crisis and interacting with a lot of different clients, I found myself spending my down moments at work being curious about the challenges of management and, perhaps, why things are the way they are in firms. Somewhat unrelatedly, I spent a lot of time working with our quantitative clients, often working in partnership to try to better their performance through experimentation and education. Once I realized I could put together some of the curiosities and desires to improve the challenges of management with an education piece, albeit of students instead of clients, I knew it would be a good fit.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I study firm adaptations at the level of the processes and structures and examine the implications for firm performance. Often what this means is that I examine how firms learn new practices or processes and what factors contribute to differential learning rates and overall performance. Also, my work tends toward trying to quantify the knowledge that exists within the firm and how it moves through the firm through coordination and directed knowledge transfer efforts.

Several of my projects work with data from large companies, and I’m perhaps most proud of the discoveries in those projects that have been at the intersection of novel academic research and tangible business impacts that improve firms’ abilities to implement, track, and improve the processes they use daily. As an example, I worked with a Fortune 100 retailer to better understand the performance of a new practice implemented in stores and proposed that performance in learning a new practice can be measured both as a level difference between stores and as a rate difference. Specifically, stores of employees with greater exposure to the old practice performed worse initially (which is a level difference in performance) but also were able to learn the new practice more quickly (which captures a rate difference in performance improvement). I think companies often miss the nuance of dynamic performance when implementing and learning new practices within a firm, and the measurement of multiple types of metrics here can be the difference between a perceived success and perceived failure of adaptation for the firm.

If I weren’t a business school professor… I might still be working in finance, though perhaps no longer on a trading desk.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I’m generally very curious and observant, and I think this has benefits in the classroom and in research. 

One word that describes my first time teaching: (Over)-Prepared?!  Perhaps a less generous word might be ‘scripted’ – a big thank you to those first few sections who enjoyed fewer interesting tangents and side-learnings because of THE PLAN. 

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: A lot of research ends up being an effort to very precisely answer some cleverly designed small questions. It is then the hope that these papers build toward some of the big puzzles / research interests. 

Professor I most admire and why: Jan Rivkin at Harvard Business School. In addition to being an incredibly sharp and insightful researcher, he is a fantastic human being. He is a thoughtful and intentional listener who always makes time for important conversations and is never too busy to send along encouragements. Finally, he is a truly gifted facilitator/teacher in the classroom. 

TEACHING MBA STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? I love the diversity of experiences they bring to the classroom. The conversations are inevitably interesting and unique by section, even for the same base content, just because of who is in the room. We catch them at this moment in their lives when they can spend time processing the lessons of the classroom both through their own past experiences and their anticipated future experiences. There is nothing like it.

What is most challenging? Teaching via the case method has its ups and downs and requires a lot of trust between me and the students. Some days it really feels like the serendipity of comments is exactly additive, and there is just enough nudging to result in deep learning and engagement. Other days, I walk away from the classroom feeling like we were just a little off-key. Every year, I spend time after classes trying to figure out how to have more of the great discussions and fewer of the ‘meh’ ones. 

In one word, describe your favorite type of student:  curious

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: self-centered

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Tough but fair.

LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM

What are your hobbies? I am kept fairly busy outside of work by my two little people: Caroline (3) and Henry (6). However, I have persuaded them to like some things that I very much enjoy such as hiking and really any good mini-adventure in and around Nashville. Finally, I’ll always make time for a run, yoga, or a Peloton workout. 

How will you spend your summer? Doing research for the most part. My family will do our yearly vacation in Maine and also spend July 4th in my hometown (Peachtree City, GA) where they have a golf cart parade and amazing fireworks every year.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Generally, I love to explore new places each time we have a chance to travel. However, my husband and I have taken our kids to Southwest Harbor, Maine, for several summers now, and it has become a beloved tradition for the four of us.

Favorite book(s): Here is where my economist side really shows. I have loved all of Emily Oster’s books on pregnancy / parenting / family. Claudia Golden’s Career and Family gave me such insight into the journey of women in work over the past century and frankly an enormous appreciation for the opportunities I have had that did not exist in the not-too-distant past. Finally, my advisor Felix Oberholzer-Gee recently wrote a book called Better, Simpler Strategy which gave me the distinct feeling of being in his office as a doctoral student and learning from his ability to simplify and ask just the right questions.

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? The Lion King. Both the movie and the Broadway show. This has been my favorite movie since sometime in college, and I think it is the nostalgia for the movie at this point that keeps it at No. 11. For the Broadway show, the costumes are jaw-droppingly stunning, and I cannot recommend seeing it enough. 

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? I listen to a lot of different types of music depending on when and why I’m listening. I will say that I love a good anthem. I’m the person that plays Olympic and World Cup songs without an ounce of irony when I want to get things done. And, I have a 3- and 6-year-old, so my home life is currently lived with a constant soundtrack of Encanto

THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Diversity and representation. While I think the composition of our classrooms has made some movement along these dimensions, I am hopeful that the future business school has an exponential increase in options for teaching materials and methods that reflect that diversity inside and outside of the business school walls.  

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Integrating experimentation into their organizations. There has been an explosion of the idea of doing experiments in recent years, but it is my opinion that firms should be expanding their beliefs around how and where they can conduct experiments in their businesses. I somewhat inadvertently got my first experience with experimentation in my prior career when I needed to help clients figure out options for their trading execution strategies. In that case, it felt like the best way to get an ‘answer’ for how to create more value.  I have since seen that there can be enormous value to experimentation across an organization, from creating more valuable processes to locally adapting products in a marketplace to transferring knowledge within the organization. 

I’m grateful for… My husband and kids, my parents, my friends, my health, my community…so many things!

DON’T MISS: THE ENTIRE 2022 ROSTER OF THE WORD’S BEST 40-UNDER-40 MBA PROFESSORS

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