2022 Best Undergraduate Professors: Sarah Otner, Kingston Business School

Sarah Otner
Kingston Business School

“Sarah made us feel comfortable from the very first session. Straight away, I was engaged in her learning atmosphere focused on experimentation and play! She then combined theory and practical examples to create relevant applications. Several exercises like word charades made us reflect and helped us learn more about each other. We also carried out strengths-based interviewing and practiced difficult conversations, both involving several role-plays to help push us beyond our comfort zones. On behalf of our cohort, I wholeheartedly recommend Sarah, recognizing her excellent teaching.” – Mark Devlin

Sarah Otner, 38, is Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) in Organizational Behavior at Kingston Business School in London. She is an expert on social status and prizes, whose research has attracted over £250,000 in competitive funding from a variety of sources including Innovate UK, Challenge Works, the Economic and Social Research Council, and the Russell Sage & Alfred P. Sloan Foundations.

She has been a nominee for The Karen Legge Prize from Society for the Advancement of Management Studies, The Sebastian Hoenen Research Prize from The SEI Consortium, WeAreTheCity’s Rising Star Award, and The Robert K. Merton Award in Analytical Sociology.

She is winner of the Early Career Research Award at Kingston. Her students have nominated her for the “Innovation in Teaching” (Imperial) Teaching Excellence Award and The European Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Social Sciences and Humanities.


At current institution since what year? 2020


  • Ph.D., Management (Organizational Behavior), The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
  • PGCertHE, LSE
  • M.Sc., Organizational & Social Psychology (Research). High Merit. LSE
  • A. B., Psychology, Harvard College (cum laude)

List of Undergraduate courses you teach: Organizational Behavior, Leading Organizations


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I took a summer “taster” program at Harvard Business School – an intensive introduction to the core elements of the MBA curriculum as well as the case method of instruction – and I never wanted to leave. However, I didn’t want to be a student any longer, so I started investigating how else to stay in the classroom: as a teacher. I saw business academia as the perfect blend of scholarship and service – and I still think it is.

What are you currently researching, and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? My most recent research funding was a grant to study prizes in the perfume industry. We are looking at these awards from all angles: Who wins them? What do they do with those awards? What do educational institutions and professional bodies teach about these competitions? It is very much a work in progress, but so far, we have been amazed that although the formal industry is centuries old with major prizes awarded for over 70 years, very little is known about them. The time I work on this project is the closest to “flow” state that it gets!

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… An architect. I have been gifted with creative vision, but unfortunately, neither the technical skills nor the fluency to articulate it. I have many mood boards, but zero CAD (computer-aided design) skills. More realistically, I would make a great wedding planner. I had a very thorough “Monica from Friends” binder for our day, and I am so proud of what my husband and I delivered for our family and friends.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? My adaptability. I tell my students from the very first day that this is their course and their learning experience: I have been teaching this for over 16 years, so I don’t need this course – they do. That means that I am less defensive about timelines and specifics and can truly tailor each section of each course.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Over-prepared. I was thorough, but I had way too much content for the allotted time and spoke far too quickly. Lesson learned.

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: Business and Management is intrinsically an applied discipline, so impact and engagement are paramount in everything that we do. This multiplies the demands on your time and energy, sometimes at the cost of quality. I am always working to improve in this area.

Professor I most admire and why: Every time I watch a presentation by Professor Adam Galinsky (Leadership & Ethics, Columbia Business School) – of any type, to any audience – I come away with notes for my own teaching. He is energetic, engaging, and universally beloved. He is also a very productive researcher, generous mentor – and great at dinner parties. I would also love to have the teaching portfolio that Professor Anita Elberse (Harvard Business School) has built – such a perfect nexus of passion and expertise!


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? Students who choose to study business often are well-informed about the opportunities and challenges that globalization provides. Every time they ask me “Why doesn’t X work like that in Y context?” it forces me to interrogate assumptions and re-build our knowledge, together.

What is most challenging? It frustrates me when learners don’t stay “in the moment” of being a student. Being overly focused on the next job and applying knowledge to a future career wastes the many opportunities that the university setting provides.

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Brave. The type of student who chooses an elective module on rapid app building without ever having written a line of code. That student is really open to learning.

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Oblivious. We provide so many opportunities, both inside and beyond the classroom, that it disappoints me when they have low uptake.

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Detailed. Before I release grades, I present an analysis of the cohort’s performance – including excerpts from actual submissions (used with permission) – and students really resonate with that peer benchmarking.


What are your hobbies? My husband and I like to assemble and frame jigsaw puzzles: The largest completed is 2000 pieces (of Iguaçu Falls), and we have just started a 3000-piece one (of the Flatiron Building in New York). We also love escape rooms and food-focused travel.

How will you spend your summer? Installing solar power! I also need to teach my dog (a 4-year-old chocolate Labrador) to walk to heel because she still pulls as though we are water-skiing. Perhaps I should give in and train for CaniCross.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Although I prefer to visit new places rather than return to a single spot, the one place I always want to re-visit is Japan. My first visit was on a Rotary Youth Exchange in 1999; my most recent visit was for the cherry blossoms in 2019. I have at least three different itineraries planned and piggy-banked.

Favorite book(s): I love cerebral detective fiction; last summer, I devoured M. W. Craven’s “Washington Poe” series. I think Stuart Turton has the most original mind in literature. Over the course of the pandemic, I connected socially through author-read memoir – Miriam Margolyes, Shellye Archambeau, and Viola Davis have provoked the most reactions in me.

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show, and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? I caught an episode of “The Good Doctor” while on a research visit to Italy – and was so hooked that I binge-watched the first season. At one level, it is a well-researched medical drama with incredible technology and gripping storylines. At another level, it has the most diverse cast and production team in television history; I am optimistic that Roger Ebert was right to predict it is changing entertainment programming.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? “Name That Tune” is my utterly useless superpower, and my expert category is 1980s synth pop. But my “happy” music is the soundtrack to the dance classes of my youth: C&C Music Factory, Haddaway, Techtronic, SNAP!, Whitney Houston. Basically, if it is being sampled in contemporary Top 40 singles, then I like the source.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Practical assessments. Some of our students opt-in to consultancy modules wherein they solve a real problem for a real business. These are so exciting for me to coach, and incredible development opportunities for the students involved. Unfortunately, undergraduate degree requirements and timelines [in the UK] restrict teachers’ choices.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Retention. Although I recognize that new graduates may experience six major career shifts over the course of their working lives, and although I value the flexibility that a portfolio career model can provide, research shows that the foundation of both individual and organizational performance is low turnover.

I’m grateful for… Good quality, affordable healthcare. The older I get, the more I realize that mens sana in corpere sano (“A healthy mind in a healthy body”) actually works both ways. I cannot be productive when I am sick, and I cannot stay healthy when I am burned out. Now, I endeavor to avoid these negative extremes.


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