Cait Lamberton: 'Be confident enough in your own value to ask questions when you encounter something new or different'
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Cait Lamberton is an assistant professor of business administration at the Joseph Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh in the US where she leads project courses at undergraduate, MBA and PhD levels. Her research focuses on consumer behaviour and she is a faculty member of the Katz Center for Health and Care Work’s behavioural health fellows programme.

Before joining Katz, Prof Lamberton worked in the commercial vehicle, transportation consulting and fragrance industries, and studied for an MBA and PhD at the University of South Carolina Moore School of Business.

In her spare time, Prof Lamberton enjoys going to concerts, baking, gardening and supporting local non-profits focused on social and environmental justice.

1. What is an average day at work like?

Sometimes I roll out of bed, get a big cup of coffee, and dive in – and by 2pm, I’m still in my pyjamas, having done two conference calls, analysed some data, and launched a study. Other days, I pick up some Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to work and spend the day meeting with doctoral students, kicking around ideas with colleagues, and watering my neglected office plants.

2. Where is your favourite place to teach?

The University of Pittsburgh has a Cathedral of Learning. It’s a glorious building, with soaring stone ceilings and 24 nationality classrooms – each designed by a different nationality group living in Pittsburgh. The Austrian room is a tiny crystal jewel box. The Armenian room feels like something a thousand years old, possibly in a different world. The English room is begging for a crackling fire and a few Tudors. They’re fun, but they also make you remember that the history of thought is long, rich and diverse.

3. What would you do if you were dean for the day?

Buy lunch. Proclaim the business school a dog-friendly workplace. Celebrate productivity, in whatever form it takes.

4. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

I’m proud of the work I’m doing related to taxes. In the US, the speech of corporations is much easier for policy makers to hear than the voice of an individual. My work argues that allowing taxpayers to express their preferences about the way their tax dollars are spent returns a sense of agency and value to the taxpaying process, and raises satisfaction and compliance with payment. Along with my co-authors, Jan-Emanuel de Neve from London School of Economics and Mike Norton from Harvard Business School, I’ve been able to share the work with members of government and with the behavioural insights team in the UK.

5. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

Don’t settle. Often, I think strong people tell themselves they can do without the things that matter to them. So they say: “It’s OK – I’ll work this mediocre job; I don’t need to be challenged.” Or: “I’ll stay in this problematic relationship; I don’t need a deep connection.” But I learnt that real strength comes in finding what you love and fighting for it.

6. What advice would you give to women in business?

Define success for yourself. It is profoundly unimportant whether it matches anyone else’s idea of success. If you let other people choose the game you play, even if you win you won’t really be happy. Be confident enough in your own value and skill to ask questions when you encounter something new or different. Asking, assessing and learning will lead to much better outcomes than pretending you already have everything figured out and stumbling through, feeling insecure the entire time about whether you’re actually making the best decision. And it will be much, much more fun.

7. What is the worst job you have ever had?

My worst job was also perhaps my best job. After college, I worked at a truck mirror manufacturer. As part of the job, I got to interview truckers at truck shows. In exchange for a beer coupon, they told me what they thought about mirror glass. I learnt that people will often surprise you. What could start as a conversation about mirror glass could turn into a meditation on travel, or the way people treat one another. And it showed me that you can never assume that you know what someone thinks or feels – you have to ask. The sore feet and the beer coupons, though, I can do without.

8. Who are your business heroes?

My heroes tend to combine intellectual rigour, political acuity and activism. Elizabeth Warren, the American academic and politician, captures all of these elements, and does so in a difficult environment. Not only does she have a deep knowledge of both historical and current business issues, she articulates her points with boldness and power. I’m an unabashed fan.

9. What inspires you?

My older brother inspires me. About 18 months ago, he got very sick. Though he had a full physical recovery, during the life-saving effort his brain was oxygen-starved for an extended period of time. As a result, he now has a brain injury that has severely limited his ability to move or communicate. Every day he goes to therapy, and he works. He works to look at a card that says “yes” or “no” to answer questions. He works to move his arms or legs. He works harder than I have ever worked. He’s progressed farther than the doctors believed he would. Sometimes, some new connection happens and he can do something new. If he can do that, I have no excuse. Every day we get to try, and maybe this time we’ll make a connection we didn’t make before. Every day matters.

10. What are your future plans?

I anticipate exploring topics such as co-operation and competition, continuing to try to unravel the effects of envy, and highlighting the ways that public policy can support individual happiness. I’m also talking with folks in government to see if we can work together on some of the challenges they face. Whatever I end up doing, I’m thankful for the opportunity to interact with people who are not shy about their desire to use their intellects to make the world a better place. To borrow a line from Robert Frost: “That has made all the difference.”

Get alerts on MBA when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article