Teaching adults is an art, especially in business school. Forget impressionable sophomores or idealistic full-timers. Executive MBAs are seasoned and accomplished — and they can sniff out a phony fast. Forget the joy of learning. They come to class seeking immediate returns, constantly asking themselves, “How will this help me cut costs, ease complications, and position me for advancement?”
Already beset by packed schedules and unrelenting demands, an EMBA program adds another 20-30 hours of work to their evenings and weekends. Sad truth is, each hour they devote to school takes an hour away from their loved ones — time they can’t get back. That’s what EMBA professors face each day. It takes a real gift to reach students wrestling with such burdens and distractions. These professors must be able to grab and hold attention, stimulating the imagination and never forgetting to reinforce the “why” and the “how.” This setup doesn’t call for a sage on the stage, but an upbeat facilitator who can channel the collective talent and expertise to the class.
Wharton’s Ziv Katalan is one professor who is seemingly able to balance the many competing demands of an EMBA classroom. For Gene Gard, a 2016 graduate who was among this year’s Best & Brightest EMBAs, Katalan was the total package: insightful, flexible, and personable.
“He is frighteningly brilliant, with a deep, deep understanding of his subject matter and an eidetic memory to boot,” Gard says. “However, there’s no Ivory Tower syndrome — he completely lacks pretension and is completely committed to maximizing his students’ useful takeaways from his courses. He minimizes what I would call ‘academic overhead,’ which is time students spend on things that don’t directly inform their knowledge and long term perspective of the subject matter. There is a fine line between ‘giving away’ the answers and making students work for the knowledge, and many, many professors struggle to find balance there. Ziv gets it just right.”
EVERYONE SHOWED UP WITH THEIR READINGS AND HOMEWORK DONE
Katalan was just one professor lauded by this year’s top EMBA graduates for their teaching excellence. While all were regarded as experts, the best achieved their respect and influence in a variety of ways. Classroom energy was one differentiator for Washington University’s Glenn MacDonald, who was hailed by Kathleen McCoy, a neurosurgery resident, for his passion. “He was able to motivate us as a class and get us excited about understanding the concepts presented,” McCoy explains. “I definitely spent an immense amount of time studying and reading for this course, but I loved the subject matter and its presentation made me eager to learn.”
They also brought a certain presence to class that made students take notice. Duke’s Dr. Katherine Schipper, for example, is described by David Postill as “the smartest person I’ve ever met” and someone who innately had “an ability to make all the senior executives in the room show up with all the readings and homework done.” The same is true of USC’s Nandini Rajagopalan, who knew how to keep her students on their toes, says Daniel Tarbutton, a marine helicopter pilot who once flew Presidents Bush and Obama. “She set high expectations for the class and held us to the standard,” Tarbutton says. “Everyone in the class knew better than to show up unprepared for a case discussion, as you never knew when you would be called upon.”
Such environments have a way of bringing out the best in students, says the University of Pittsburgh’s Cynthia O’Malley, who appreciated how one professor, Frederik P. Schlingemann, acted as a motivator who pushed her to be better. “I wanted to understand the concepts and applications, because he absolutely believed and conveyed the importance of application of financial management concepts to business success,” O’Malley says. “He challenged me to not only figure out the calculations, but also why the calculations were useful when applied at my organization. He challenged me every day to think out of the box and go above and beyond my course work, because he knew what I was capable of and wanted me to extract the greatest value from the course.”
THOUGHT-PROVOKING ENOUGH TO CHANGE HOW YOU SEE THE WORLD
To create this value, some professors meticulously configured their classes to maximize return for students. That was the case with Daniel Isenberg, a guest professor of Global Entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School. According to Andrew Asnes, Isenberg’s strength was in connecting the theoretical with the practical. “He brought in great guest speakers who illuminated the cases we studied,” Asnes says. “He also created a class structure which forced and encouraged engagement between and amongst classmates.”
In the process, some professors were able to change students’ view of the world. That was one contribution made by SMU’s Tassu Shervani, who was the professor cited by SMU’s Brian Scott Cossiboom, vice president of operations for the George W. Bush presidential library. “He sees the word in a very unique way,” Cossiboom says of Shervani. “After spending five minutes with him in the first class, you can tell why business executives and students alike flock to him. His ability to provide learning and insight to complex environments is inspiring. His wisdom allows students to easily translate classroom material into application in a professional setting. He is a real gem.”
Others, like Purdue’s Filip Caeldries, used their classes as a means to leave a long-term imprint. “His business strategy classes were an ideal mix of top-level business analysis and global competitive strategy,” observes Jennifer Harms, a systems integration lab manager at Northrop Grumann. “The discussion on sustainable competitive advantage and the impact of businesses on society were extremely thought-provoking. The analysis and thought process we went through to address our companies’ long-term viability and create a sustainable growth plan is a methodology that I expect to continue to utilize throughout my career.”