2022 Best Undergraduate Professors: Esther Sackett, Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business

Esther Sackett
Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business

“Despite the fact that the class was held entirely online, it was evident that Professor Sackett deeply cared about the well-being and success of each and every student in the course. She makes every student feel heard and supported, while still pushing us to engage critically with the course material. … I not only learned skills that will apply directly to my future career , but I also learned a great deal about my own personal leadership and teamwork styles. The combination of personal and professional development made her class one of the most valuable courses I have taken through the business school… Professor Sackett’s genuine care and attention to her students makes her stand out above and beyond as an exceptional faculty member.” – Students in the Leavey School’s ACE Leadership Program

Esther Sackett, 38, is Assistant Professor of Management at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business.

Prior to academia, she spent six years working in the healthcare industry, doing program development and evaluation in hospitals and with nonprofits. Her research investigates the interpersonal dynamics of collaboration and motivation at multiple levels of analysis. She has been published in journals such as Organization Studies, Research in Organizational Behavior, Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, Frontiers in Psychology, and Management Teaching Review. She was a finalist for the Interdisciplinary Network of Group Research (INGRoup) Hackman Dissertation Award.

At Santa Clara University, she has been recognized for her innovative and student-centered teaching style, having received an Outstanding Faculty Award in 2022 from the ACE Leadership Program – nominated by and voted for by students.


At current institution since what year? 2019
Education: PhD in Management & Organizations from Duke University, Fuqua School of Business; MPA in Health Policy and Management from NYU, Wagner School of Public Service, BA from Ithaca College
List of Undergraduate courses you teach: Management of Organizations, Flourishing at Work


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I realized I could make a career out of studying the things that frustrated me – but fascinated me – about the workplace.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? The majority of my research is at the intersection of collaboration and motivation – how do people navigate their multiple goals within and across the teams they are on? One of the biggest insights that I try to emphasize in my work is that it is necessary to think about teams as being embedded in larger motivational systems. On any team, team members’ behavior is affected by all of the goals they are pursuing – not just the goal of a particular team. Yet, we often think about goal alignment too narrowly. I’m trying to change that.

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… probably still doing work in healthcare program development and evaluation, which was my career before pursuing my PhD.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? My number one priority is their well-being, and I make sure they are aware of that (especially given the challenges of the past few years). Showing students know that you’re paying attention and that you genuinely care about them may seem like a small thing, but it goes a long way.

I see my role as a facilitator of learning, rather than a deliverer of content, and I try to cultivate a learning environment where students can also develop personally and professionally. Part of being a good contributor to a team or an organization is learning how to balance work with the rest of our lives and proactively communicate with others to manage expectations. I recognize that my students are whole humans beyond the classroom, with personal challenges, families, and other commitments. I trust them to make appropriate choices for themselves and emphasize the importance of communication and asking for help, rather than being punitive. This leads to mutual trust and better learning, too.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Intimidating!

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: Business students actually care a lot about social impact – don’t assume it’s going to be a struggle to engage them in important conversations about the role of businesses in the world. Also, be prepared to explain to random strangers that you are not an expert in investing when you tell them you are a business school professor!

Professor I most admire and why: So many! But here are a few: Amy Edmondson, whose work on teams in healthcare is part of what led me to pursue my PhD. Matt Cronin, a friend and mentor, who is not afraid to dig into messy and complex theoretical ideas, and his work on representational gaps inspired a lot of the work I do. Dolly Chugh, who is endlessly inspirational in her public engagement and her ability to make her work approachable for all.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? I love that the material I teach has immediate relevance for them – they can apply lessons on teamwork, communication, leadership, and decision-making (just to name a few topics) immediately to their other classes, their jobs or internships, or even to their personal lives. It’s so fun to see a lightbulb go off for them when a theory or concept “clicks” and they are able to make sense of a current or past challenge in a new way.

What is most challenging? Especially in an intro-level course, it can be challenging to find the right balance between teaching the “canon” of management topics and wanting to add new topics to keep course content fresh and current as the world (and businesses) change. You have to be creative to find ways of weaving in relevance to important issues like sustainability, or DEI, so they are seen as cross-cutting, rather than one-off topics.

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Arrogant

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Fair and constructive (I hope)!


What are your hobbies? How long can a hobby be dormant before it’s no longer considered a hobby? Some of my go-to answers have always been playing music (I play piano, euphonium, and trombone) and songwriting, but I’m realizing I haven’t really done that in about 10 years(!). These days I would say it’s cooking, hiking around the Bay Area, and yoga.

How will you spend your summer? Summer is usually a combination of attending conferences, working on research, visiting family, and travelling for fun.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: I don’t have a standard vacation spot; I love to travel and explore different parts of the world. Some recent favorite vacations were in Iceland in 2021 and Peru this past summer, to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Favorite book(s): I don’t necessarily have all-time favorites – different books have been important to me in different phases of life. But, I love anything by David Sedaris! Recently, I enjoyed “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir (specifically the audiobook – the narrator is fantastic!). I’m also going to mention some podcasts, as some of my favorite stories lately have been in that format: The Sporkful is fantastic, as is Finding Fred (about Mr. Rogers).

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? As far as new shows, I have been loving Abbot Elementary! Some other recent-ish favorites are The Good Place, Schitts Creek, and Ted Lasso. I think at their core, they all have themes of human connection and personal growth.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? I love a lot of types of music, but I tend to gravitate toward music that is pop-ish and piano forward, like Sara Bareilles, or with jazz, blues, or bluegrass influences like Lake Street Dive and Punch Brothers. So…things I can sing along to but that have interesting or unexpected elements to them.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… I would love to see more faculty trained in how to effectively facilitate group projects. More often than not, students are thrown into groups and told to “be a team” without any understanding of what that means or how to do it, and it results in bad experiences and a disdain for teamwork. If faculty had more tools and roadmaps for how to facilitate effective teamwork, they could scaffold better student experiences!

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… understanding that managing work-life balance and burnout should not just fall on employees. Offering wellness perks like meditation classes or subscriptions to apps is great, but an organization’s structure, culture, and incentive systems have a substantial impact on whether employees can truly flourish, and those systems require constant maintenance.

I’m grateful for… a wonderful network of friends, family and colleagues, and a job that gives me a massive amount of autonomy and flexibility to pursue projects that feel authentic and meaningful to me. I’m also increasingly grateful for the influence of science and democracy on social policies, both of which I have had the luxury of taking for granted for the majority of my life.


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