Q&A With Wharton Vice Dean Nicolaj Siggelkow: ‘It’s Getting Harder For Some Schools To Fill Their Classes’

Nicolaj Siggelkow, David M. Knott Professor and Professor of Management at the Wharton School, is the new vice dean of the Wharton MBA program. Courtesy photo

In a career decorated by numerous research and teaching awards, there is one of which Nicolaj Siggelkow is perhaps most proud: The Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.

The University of Pennsylvania grants eight of the awards each year, based on colleague and student nominations. Four are given to professors in health-related disciplines while four are given to faculty in other schools and departments. Siggelkow, the David M. Knott Professor and Professor of Management at the Wharton School, won his in 2018. He is one of nine Wharton professors to earn the honor since 1987.

“That was a special one,” Siggelkow tells Poets&Quants. “Not to say that I don’t like my Wharton teaching awards, but being recognized at the university level for teaching was especially gratifying,’ he says.

Siggelkow, an economist, has taught at Wharton for nearly 25 years. Effective July 1, he began a new role for the storied business school: vice dean of the MBA program.

BUSINESS SCHOOL AS A FORCE FOR GOOD

“The exciting part of being in this job right now is there is a realization that the biggest problems that society is facing will not be solved without businesses getting involved. Businesses have to be part of the solution, otherwise, we’re not going to get where we need to be – be it environmental, equity and inclusion, or otherwise,” Siggelkow says.

“Wharton takes that really seriously and is making it part of our mission: To really create leaders that have a positive impact on the world. Dean (Erika) James is putting money, effort, and resources behind that. To me, that is exciting.”

Siggelkow grew up in Germany, but left after high school to study economics at Stanford University. Paul Milgrom, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2020, was his honors thesis advisor. Siggelkow also earned an MA in economics and PhD in business economics at Harvard, where his thesis advisor was another famous economist – Michael Porter. He joined the Wharton faculty in 1998.

Wharton students gather inside Huntsman Hall. Courtesy photo

“What always fascinated me about the job of a business school professor was the ability to do quite a lot of different things — there’s teaching, research, teaching to executives, working with companies,” he says. “Even within the research, I have always been somewhat of a variety seeker: I’ve done case-based work, simulation work, empirical work, and that has always been a joy.”

At Wharton, he is the co-director of the Mack Institute For Innovation Management and is a prolific researcher in competitive strategy, the evolution of fit, and more.. He sits on the editorial review boards of several leading management journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, Strategic Management Journal, Strategic Organization, and Academy of Management Perspectives. He is a winner of the Administrative Science Quarterly Scholarly Contribution Award for the most significant paper, a Fellow of the Strategic Management Society, and a recipient of numerous teaching awards at Wharton.

In addition to his duties as vice dean, Siggelkow will continue to teach executive education courses as well as two MBA courses this semester: Strategy & Competitive Advantage and Strategy and Environmental Sustainability.

Poets&Quants sat down with Siggelkow recently at his office in Jon M. Huntsman Hall at The Wharton School. We talked about his goals for this new role, the pressures on the MBA degree, and classroom innovations coming out of the pandemic. Our wide-ranging conversation is presented below, edited for length and clarity.

What do you think, or hope, that students say about you as a teacher?

I’m relatively notorious — or I guess “renowned” would be the positive word for it — for cold calling students and putting them on the hot seat. That’s something that they’ve actually enjoyed: To be held accountable and to be prepared for class.

In strategy, there are rarely right or wrong answers. It’s not quite like accounting where the numbers are either correct or not. The quality of the answer comes more from, ‘Why do you say this? How can you justify it? What evidence do you have, what logic?’ That is, in part, what I’m mainly trying to do in my strategy class. It’s more like a way of thinking.

Of course, there are tools or frameworks that we teach, but also how to systematically think about an issue and how to marshal evidence and support your opinion. That’s why I put students on the hot seat and push them.

That seems like a great compliment, actually.

I always very much enjoyed, when I look at the ratings students give at the end of the semester, that there’s not just a high rating on the quality of course instructor but also on the amount of work that had to be done.

NEXT PAGE: Siggelkow’s goals as new vice dean of the Wharton MBA + The MBA value proposition

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