Most people think of Adam Grant as a best-selling author and global thought leader. You’ll find him profiled in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Time — when he isn’t busy co-authoring a book with Sheryl Sandberg, that is. Companies shell out big bucks to hear him speak — and we’re talking firms like Google, Disney, Goldman Sachs, and the NBA. The guy is a rock star, gifted, in demand, and revered. Every day, he is driven by a passion: He loves to teach — and it shows.
Just ask his undergrads at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. The program’s top-rated professor for seven years running — an achievement he highlights in the first line of his biography — Grant is described by Kayvon Asemani, a 2018 Best & Brightest Business Major, as the “perfect teacher” — a mix of content mastery, classroom delivery, and genuine caring. It is the latter that left the deepest impression on Asemani.
STAR PROF GETS INVOLVED IN STUDENT INTERESTS
“He knows every student by name, and he offers several days in his busy schedule to hold office hours with students to answer their biggest questions and connect them with others,” Asemani says. “He also strives to make his classroom a community by helping students build relationships with each other.”
More than that, Asemani adds, Grant offers his expertise and support to students outside the classroom. “Last school year, in the midst of all of the political controversy, sexual misconduct, hate crimes, and racial tensions, Adam would take breaks in his own curriculum to address these issues, get the students to discuss these issues, and mobilize us to act on what we were talking about related to each situation.”
Grant wasn’t alone in inspiring the Class of 2018 through his capabilities, consideration, and charisma. Over 30 years, Cindy van Es has emerged as a fabled figure among alumni at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. The reason? She takes a personal interest in her students — and brings out their best with her advice and mentoring. Daniel Abaraoha remembers his first meeting with van Es, one that made him feel welcome as a freshman who was 1,000 miles from home.
DIFFERENT APPROACHES, SAME RESULT
“It was only supposed to be a 15-minute introduction where I go over my schedule,” Abaraoha says. “Next thing you know, it’s been close to an hour, I’m laughing over some story she’s telling, and I’m late to my economics discussion. It happens every single time I sit down in her office and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Students know she cares, she’s genuine, and of course very resourceful. That’s not to mention she’s an amazing lecturer who manages to keep about two-hundred students engaged to learn statistics, which is a feat and I will never understand how she does it.”
How do they do it? That’s the great mystery surrounding the great teachers. Fact is, the best ones each reach students a little differently. Some make topics come alive to students or relevant to what’s happening around them. Others invest heavily in relationships, knowing trust and understanding are the foundations to stir change. Either way, it is easy to spot the handiwork of the best business faculty. Their students are inspired by their passion and imbued with their spirit. They embrace what they hadn’t considered and take it upon themselves to answer the questions they’d once posed. In a nutshell, top professors engage, entertain, and empower. They teach students to think; they make them believe; and they spur them to care.
Each year, Poets&Quants asks the top 100 Best & Brightest business majors to name their favorite business professor — and share what made them so special. From there, P&Q selects the best responses to honor those faculty members who stand out by truly going above-and-beyond.
“NEVER LET(S) ME GET AWAY WITH ANYTHING BUT MY BEST”
One way they do that is by truly challenging their students. That was a favorite strategy of Andy Hannah, an adjunct professor of analytics and entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Pittsburgh. He leaned heavily on hands-on, real world learning, says Rachael White, with his Applied Data Analytics course including client projects handled by teams of a dozen. While he supplemented his exercises with lectures, his end goal was clear: He was pushing students to think for themselves.
“Andy focused on not just teaching us what analytics is but also getting us to be excited and intellectually curious about how analytics is being used in the business world today and how it can be used in the future,” White explains. “In addition, Andy avoided giving us a straight answer to any questions we had as a team. Instead, he pushed us to find the answer ourselves by working through and talking out the problem we were facing. This helped to increase our analytical and critical thinking skills, which we then were able to apply to other coursework and job experiences.”
At the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, Kate Jung learned first-hand how unforgiving the real world of business can be. In a business consulting course with Raj Rakhra, her team was penalized for turning in a presentation just a few minutes late. Jung hasn’t repeated the mistake since — and she credits Rakhra for preparing her for the demands and opportunities to come.
“Raj never let me get away with anything but my best,” she admits. “In his course, Raj challenged his students with experiential learning in consulting and constantly pushed us to create meaningful strategies for our clients. I came away from his course feeling like I had truly made an impact in the real-world. Beyond this, Raj would often share insights about his career at Microsoft and how students can prepare for a rapidly changing workforce. Under his guidance, I honed critical skills for my future career — from professionalism to critical thinking.”
A GOOD TEACHER CAN MAKE ANY TOPIC ENGAGING…EVEN TAX LAW
Some professors have even made the step from confidante and mentor to role model. That was the case for Professor Karie Davis-Nozemack, who teaches the Legal Aspects of Business at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business. A former attorney, Davis-Nozemack continued to guide Evie Owens long after she finished her course.
“She reminds me of a modern-day Elle Woods with her style, passion for the subject, as well as charismatic personality,” Owens says. “She made law class interesting and dynamic, and instilled a feeling of empowerment as I looked to my future as a woman in business.”