P&Q’s MBA Professor Of The Year: Jeffrey Sonnenfeld

Yale SOM Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld

A couple of months ago, Yale School of Management Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld walked out of his home, only to see a large Z painted on his driveway. The Russian military symbol, affixed to tanks and other vehicles used in the war against the Ukraine, had to be interpreted as a warning to Sonnenfeld.

He duly reported it to the police, but the long-time professor and senior associate dean for leadership studies at SOM shrugs off the incident. “I got a lot of threats from MAGA (Make America Great Again) people at one time, but I never had my home vandalized before,” he says nonchalantly. “I don’t know if Putin has operatives here.”

That a business school professor in New Haven, Connecticut would have come to the attention of Vladimir Putin would seem unusual if not impossible. Then again, Sonnenfeld is not your mainstream faculty member laboring in the obscurity of a scholarly journal read by a handful of academics. After Donald Trump refused to accept his defeat in the 2020 presidential election and falsely claimed victory, Sonnenfeld played a major role in organizing corporate CEOs to publicly take a stand against the attempted coup.

Last March, after Russian troops invaded Ukraine to begin its savage war against the country, Sonnenfeld began tracking companies that had claimed to pull out of Russia in protest of the invasion. At first, there were little more than a few dozen corporations in the boycott. Within days, there were a couple hundred. Sonnenfeld, who personally knows more corporate CEOs than any other academic on the planet, watched in amazement.

MBA PROFESSOR OF THE YEAR: YALE SOM’S JEFFREY SONNENFELD

“I never would have guessed who the first movers were: big tech, big oil, and professional service firms,” he says. “You wouldn’t have thought they would put themselves out for public scrutiny with large writedowns and pronouncements. It was stunning and I hadn’t seen it happening. And then there was a group of companies that would rather jump off a cliff than engage in social issues.”

Inherently curious, Sonnenfeld wanted to know more so he began digging into the economic and business boycotts. “I got involved with some of the big tech companies and three or four of the professional service firms and thought they could make their positions more clear,” he recalls. “In talking with them, they were upset with well-intended NGOs giving equal credit to companies that had clever public relations spin and were creating a do-gooder haze that was undeserved. They asked me to separate the real thing from the pretenders. It was an injustice and it was discouraging people from making important moves.”

With the help of current and former MBA students and staff, Sonnenfeld began publishing updated lists of companies that had announced their withdrawal from Russia, even grading them from A to F as if they were students in one of his classes. The professor awards a corporation his top grade, an A, if it has pulled out of Russia completely and permanently. Companies that get a B have suspended their operations in the country. “A ‘D’ is frankly given for clever public relations and an F is for companies that don’t even care about PR and are staying put in Russia.”

‘YOU HAVE NO PEER’

The impact of Sonnenfeld’s advocacy has been as worthy an accomplishment as the work of any other business school professor who has won a Nobel Prize. In fact, it would come as little surprise if Sonnenfeld would eventually be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in what has become the biggest economic boycott of a country in history. Until the professor can claim that prize, Poets&Quants is proudly naming Sonnenfeld the MBA Professor of the Year for courageously making a real difference on an issue of utmost importance.

An intellectual whirling dervish of energy, conversation, and commitment, Sonnenfeld is the sixth professor to earn the honor. Past winners include Alex Edmans of London Business School (2021),  Harvard’s Deepak Malhotra (2020), UVA Darden’s Lalin Anik (2019), Stanford’s Jennifer Aaker (2018), and Darden’s Greg Fairchild (2017).  Yet none of our previous winners have had the impact on the world stage as Sonnenfeld who is now among 25 Americans, including First Lady Jill Biden and GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, on a Russian “stop list”, barred from entering Russia.

What has made his efforts so quickly effective are his close ties to corporate leaders who are frequently convened in CEO Summits orchestrated by Sonnenfeld. Last month, he held what was the 135th CEO Summit under the theme Is Coming Home Again Smart or Even Possible: Global Markets and Self-Reliance. The unsolicited reviews from corporate chieftains speak volumes for both his intellect and organizing skills.

“I can’t get over how good you are at pulling together the event today,” wrote Goldman Sachs Senior Chairman Lloyd Blankfein. “A+ in convening power, A+ in content, A+ in performance. You have no peer and you get better each time. And it’s all you for eight hours.So A+ in energy and endurance. And I’m a tough grader!”

Blankfein was one in a CEO chorus of praise. “You did a masterful job leading the group through a multitude of complex topics and you did so with pace and focus that kept everybody engaged,” added AlixPartners CEO Simon Freakley in an email to Sonnenfeld. “This is a tough crowd to keep in rapt attention and you did it masterfully.”

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