The impact of leading business school professors

November 5, 2021

By: George J. Siedel

Truly effective and inspiring business professors have a sense of authenticity and purpose that extends beyond the classroom to benefit society at large.

How do award-winning business school professors teach and conduct research across a variety of disciplines in ways that contribute to both the advancement of business and the common good? How do they inspire students and effect societal change?

In 2018, I began a research project in which I attempted to answer these and other questions relating to the achievements of legendary professors. I interviewed award-winning professors and visited their classrooms in a variety of settings (undergraduate, MBA, executive MBA, and executive education). I had conversations with their colleagues and students, and I analyzed their teaching videos.

At the outset of this research, I anticipated that these professors would be entertainers, with a flair for drama and humor. I discovered instead that the key to their success is a rigorous teaching process in which they adopt six common practices. They prepare thoroughly for class, build learning communities, highlight the big picture, balance complexity and simplification, make learning as interactive as possible, and continually emphasize the importance of the material.

Each of these practices has several components. To make the learning interactive, for example, the professors I interviewed flip the learning experience, use new models of active learning, assign projects to small teams during class, and utilize active listening skills. Luckily, these practices can be adapted for use by other teachers as well.

But there is a more elusive quality that these professors also have in common that extends beyond teaching techniques—a quality often referred to as authenticity. As educator Parker Palmer profoundly put it in his essay “The Heart of a Teacher,” this is the “secret hidden in plain sight: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique: good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” [his emphasis].

In my research, I identified four elements of authenticity that are key to the success of leading professors. These elements include a passion for their subject, a deep concern for their students, a dedication to continuous learning from their students and from research, and a focus on a higher purpose that has a positive impact beyond the classroom.

The fourth element, a focus on a higher purpose, aligns with business schools’ increasing interest in having a positive impact on organizations and society. As AACSB emphasizes in its 2020 Principles and Standards for Business Accreditation, “business schools are a force for good, contributing to the world’s economy and to society.” For the professors featured in my research, this impact is a product of their sense of purpose—a purpose that extends beyond the classroom and benefits future leaders, organizations, and society at large.

The Impact of Passion and Purpose

What can professors with passion and purpose accomplish? Here are examples drawn from the experience of professors representing a variety of core business school areas:

The Veritas Forum. Accounting professor Charles Lee is the faculty sponsor of Veritas Forum events held at Stanford University in California. The forum itself has been held more than 2,000 times at more than 200 universities worldwide since 1992. When Lee attends these events, not only at Stanford but on other campuses, he engages in dialogue with university leaders to encourage students to think about, in his words, the questions a security guard might ask when you are out late at night: “Who are you? What are you doing here? Where are you going?”

The Purpose, Passion, and Principles Program. Business law professor Richard Shell co-founded and serves as the faculty advisor for the “Purpose, Passion, and Principles” (P3) Program at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During this eight-week, student-run program, students reflect on how they define success and happiness. As one student notes on the program’s website, “At a crossroads in my life, P3 has proven to be an important forum to slow down for introspection, to reflect on my values, to recalibrate my compass, and to anchor my actions with integrity.”

The New Venture Challenge. Finance professor Steve Kaplan started a new venture program that enables his students at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business to develop business plans and receive funding for their startup companies. The program has resulted in the creation of 330 startup companies, which in turn have created thousands of jobs. In 2007, Kaplan received the Richard J. Daley Award from the Illinois Venture Capital Association for directing “significant effort toward improving our city, our state and the country.”

Center for Positive Organizations. In recent years, a new management research field has emerged called positive organizational scholarship. Gretchen Spreitzer, a management professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, has played a leadership role in the field. In addition to her research on positive organizations, she served as co-director of the Center for Positive Organizations, which helps leaders “enhance engagement and performance and inspire their employees to innovate, find opportunity, and strive for excellence.”

Program on Data Analytics at Kellogg. Concerned that business schools were not doing enough to educate MBA students and business leaders about analytics, marketing professor Florian Zettelmeyer became director of a new data analytics program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois. After gathering input from the business community, Zettelmeyer developed a series of lectures that evolved into a popular executive program. “At its core, analytics is a leadership problem,” he says. “The hardest part of making analytics work is not the data science or technology.” Rather, he explains, the biggest difficulty is knowing when and how to apply analytics to solve all the major challenges organizations face.

Leaders for Global Operations. Operations professor Georgia Perakis served as the faculty co-director of the Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge. This work symbolizes her passion for blending teaching and research with the real-life problems faced by companies. When the LGO program received the George Smith Prize from INFORMS in 2014, the selection committee noted that the program “was created to bring about a renaissance in U.S. manufacturing” and that it had succeeded in developing “a generation of leaders who are adept in their craft and are innovating their operations.” These outcomes well represent Perakis’ own mantra, which she summarized in her 2017 talk to Sloan graduates: “Have an impact.”

The U.S. Competitiveness Project. Jan Rivkin, a strategy professor at Harvard Business School in Boston, co-chairs the U.S. Competitiveness Project with his HBS colleague Michael Porter. The project is designed to “improve the competitiveness of the United States—that is, the ability of firms operating in the U.S. to compete successfully in the global economy while supporting high and rising living standards for Americans.” He also plays an active role in the Young American Leaders Program—an offshoot of the Competitiveness Project that provides next-generation leaders with the tools they need to develop the cross-sector collaboration required to enable people across all segments to share in the country’s prosperity.

Faculty at a wide variety of other schools also can have a significant impact, even when faced with time and resource challenges. One way they do so is by leveraging their current activities. For example, the Financial Times launched a crowdsourcing experiment in which business schools worldwide provided examples of their projects relating to societal impact. Most of the results were linked to three areas that are central to the work of faculty at all schools—teaching, research, and student projects.

The Power of Authenticity

In recent years, a few commentators have taken potshots at business schools, ignoring the positive impact of their students and graduates—and, of course, their faculty. Business school professors in every discipline are well-positioned to impact their communities and, in so doing, to establish the authenticity that is characteristic of outstanding teachers.

The good news is that there are great faculty at business schools of all types, regardless of size, location, or mission. And they all can have an impact.

This fact brings to mind the words attributed to aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Through the positive impact of their work, business school professors serve as role models, and through their actions they teach students to strive to address the “endless immensity” of complex problems the world now faces.

George Siedel is an emeritus professor and former associate dean at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. This article is adapted from his book Seven Essentials for Business Success: Lessons from Legendary Professors.

This article was originally published in AACSB Insights on October 26, 2021.