Being an Academic versus an Executive

Recently, I was invited by the Marketing Strategy Special Interest Group to deliver the keynote address at the European Marketing Academy Conference (EMAC). This annual conference brings together a thousand or so marketing professors from all over the world. My presentation was about the relevance of research done by business school professors for practicing managers. It was a spirited discussion for over an hour to a packed room, organized through the kindness of my colleague, Professor Kapil Tuli of Singapore Management University.

Given the position of strategy head that I had occupied for three years after a 25-year career as an academic, the audience was curious on how being an academic differed from being an executive. You must keep in mind that most academics dedicate themselves relatively early to their career. As a result, even if business school professors have had experience working in a corporate job, it was at a relatively low level in the organization. What insights could I share on being an academic versus being a top-level executive that would help them understand the corporate mind. It was hoped that this would enable designing research projects that have greater impact on managers.

Let me elaborate on three differences between academic and executive life, before concluding that being an academic was the best training I could have had for the job I was entrusted with.

Bias for Action

First, managers, especially successful managers, have a strong bias for action. They face many dilemmas during their day, which require decisions. The higher in the hierarchy that an executive is, the greater the pressure on them to make decisions in a haste. And, these decisions are made in a relatively public manner as they must be communicated to subordinates who are waiting for them to guide their own subsequent behaviour. As a result, senior executives do not have the luxury of time that academics enjoy. Let me illustrate this through a story.

About five years after becoming a professor, some IMD MBA students were doing a project on expanding a travel business into different European countries. The faculty advisor to them, Professor Jan Kubes, organized a meeting with the late (and brilliant) professor Jacques Horvitz and myself in the hope that we would be able to help with our marketing expertise.

I launched into the type of market research they should conduct across the five largest European companies to assess the differing potential of each country. Jacques simply said do not go into this and this country. Instead, first focus on these two countries. I recall being shocked that he could answer with such confidence without any data! But, in hindsight, I realize he was right. He had been the head of Club Med marketing and had extensive experience in the industry. In any case the poor students had only two or three weeks to complete the project and my research design would have required three months at least.

Now I realize that early in my career, my response to any managerial query was to elaborate a market research design. While not undermining the value of market research and the fact that managers suffer from an over-confidence bias, executives often do not have the luxury of time. They need to constantly trade-off the value of obtaining new information against the time to acquire it.  For academics to successfully publish in leading journals, the imperative is different. One needs to demonstrate any argument with strong logic, a robust methodology, and quality data. Further, ruling out alternative possible explanations is crucial. This makes for rather long timelines between idea to publication, sometimes years, and forces a more deliberate pace. Accuracy is valued over timeliness.

Specialization versus Generalization

The second difference is in specialization versus generalization. A person usually begins their corporate career in a specialized function such as marketing, finance, or human resources. But for many ambitious executives, sooner or later, the goal is to become a general manager, leading a division or country with profit and loss responsibility. Ultimately, the hope is to lead the company. One of the best ways to prepare oneself for this is to rotate through the various functions and get some familiarity with them all. This readies one for overseeing specialists as a general manager.

In contrast, successful academics who continue to publish their research in the leading journals tend to become experts in narrower domains. They know more and more about less and less. Often, they become associated with a single idea that they have elaborated in great depth, through many publications with various co-authors and students. The findings of each paper lead one to the next research project which examines another unknown dimension of the phenomenon under investigation.

Most successful research professors have no aspiration to lead the organization. In fact, prolific researchers frequently ask to be kept out of administrative duties so that they can focus on research. Once, in a mischievous mood at London Business School, I quipped who becomes a dean? “Someone who has failed at both research and teaching.” In leading business schools, the most successful researchers continue in that vein, while the most successful teachers pursue a lucrative executive education career. Administration becomes the vehicle for the remaining to gain power in the organization. Undeniably, there are exceptional deans that do not fit this description, including my current dean.

Collaboration and Emotional Intelligence

Finally, to be effective, executives need to lead and collaborate. A corporate career requires the ability to work with large numbers of colleagues who are not chosen by you. Success depends how well one manages these relationships and interactions. Therefore, executives develop a level of emotional intelligence (EQ) that faculty are famous for not having, and often pride themselves for lacking.

A faculty member develops a course, selects the materials, and delivers it alone. Research may be conducted alone, or with a small select group of collaborators who have chosen to work together. These co-authors may not be at the same institution or even the same continent. Research collaboration does not necessarily require face to face interactions. My most successful research collaboration, with Professors Lisa Scheer and Jan-Benedict Steenkamp, resulted in three papers published before we met for the first time. Even in the early 1990s, we were able to collaborate over two continents via email and courier services.

Faculty are said to lack emotional intelligence, but I believe this is not innate to them. Unlike executives, the above job description does not require faculty to develop EQ. It is only in the classroom that they need some of this skill. Yet, given the power differential between the professor and the students, it is relatively limited in scope. With experience, faculty do become excellent at managing classroom interactions.

Executive education, where the threat of grades by the professor does not hang over the participants, requires greater managing people skills. And, the best proponents do master this competence, albeit in the face of the professor’s referent and expertise power. In summary, being a faculty member is a lonely occupation, and as such, one can survive and thrive in this profession without substantial capability to manage people. I am sure if the nature of the task changed, many faculty would develop EQ.


After arguing that executives and academics hone different capabilities, I still believe being an academic was the best training I could have received to succeed in corporate world. At first sight, the job of being strategy head for a large diversified group may seem rather different from my academic role. But, I was not the typical academic. For twenty years, as an external consultant, I had been working with top executives and helping them think through their strategy.

But more importantly, as an academic, one is trained to think in terms of concepts and the circumstances (what we in academic research call “moderators”) under which a potential action would be successful.  The same strategy could be successful or unsuccessful depending on the associated conditions under which it was being implemented.  Since the group I was with operated in so many different industries and countries, this depth of thought to the “conditionals” was essential. Because of the variety of environments and constraints under which different companies manoeuvred, one could not simply pursue the same action in different companies and expect similar results.

I ascribe my success as a consultant to so many companies, operating in a variety of industries and countries, to this training and predisposition to seek moderators. Whenever, someone referred to any particular variable as causing success or failure, I instinctively thought when does it not? This helped develop a more complete and complex understanding of the phenomena. In my observation, most managers are not trained to think in this manner. Since any implementation requires concerted effort of large numbers of employees, it biases executives to simpler answers that can be easily understood and communicated. It is this “moderator” thinking which also helped me craft the papers in Harvard Business Review for a practitioner audience.

So, while the academic and corporate spheres ask for different capabilities, the academic training of a doctoral program is highly relevant and transferable to the corporate domain.



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