Paula Caproni
Paula Caproni: "An MBA is a useful degree in many professions"

Paula Caproni is a professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business in the US, which she joined in 1989. She teaches on the MBA and executive programmes and is the director of professional development for the EMBA programme.

Prof Caproni worked as a waitress in her parents’ diner in Massachusetts before moving into academia. She has an MBA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Isenberg School of Management and a PhD from Yale University, and has taught at the Helsinki School of Economics, now part of Aalto University.

In her spare time, Prof Caproni enjoys reading and visiting Florida and Italy. Her book, Management Skills for Everyday Life: The Practical Coach is designed to help executives enhance their job effectiveness, career potential and general wellbeing.

1. When did you know you wanted to teach?

When I took my first organisational behaviour course at the University of Southern Maine. I still teach some of the same self-assessments I took in that course because they have proven valuable to me throughout my career.

2. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

At Yale, Prof David Berg said: “You can’t help but be socialised but you can choose where you’ll be socialised.” At the University of Massachusetts, Prof Linda Smircich said: “Even when you’re alone crying in your room, it’s essentially a social act.”

Both those statements opened my mind to social constructionism (who we are is always, in large part, influenced by our social environments). That perspective continues to be useful to me today in my writing, teaching and life in general. I try to be in and create environments that bring out the best in people.

3. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

I believe my career really began to blossom when I started to see mistakes and failures as necessary steps along the way to success – and great ways to learn important lessons. And when I began to ask for what I wanted (eg opportunities), rather than wait for them to come to me. I didn’t learn these things until I was in my late 30s or early 40s. I want the students and managers that I teach to realise these things earlier than I did.

4. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

Writing the Management Skills for Everyday Life: The Practical Coach book because I wrote it as a way to more fully and systematically incorporate diversity and globalisation into management education.

I’m also very proud of the programmes I develop in executive education. I’ve come a long way since I was a teenager who was fired as a waitress. Clearly, failure can be a good thing.

5. Who are your business heroes?

For me, real business heroes are executives who maintain corporate success in such a way that they don’t have to make headlines – and they certainly don’t make headlines for doing unethical things. Right now, I’m impressed with Tony Hsieh, the chief executive of Zappos, the online shoe retailer, because he has built an incredibly successful company by promoting a culture of extraordinary customer service, employee creativity and happiness. Amazon recently bought Zappos for $1.2bn.

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

If I were a super-dean (not a human dean with limited time and resources), I would look at every class taught to see how it could be even more global in perspective. I sincerely believe that globalisation doesn’t mean just travelling around the world. We are all ambassadors for our countries and whether we realise it or not, what we do and say in our everyday interactions with people from different cultures says a lot more about our global perspective than how many frequent flyer miles we have.

I would also continue to do whatever possible to make sure that women made up 50 per cent of the MBA programme. Right now the average percentage of women in the top 10 MBA programmes in the US and globally is well under 40 per cent.

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

Watch Sheryl Sandberg’s Ted talk about why there are so few women leaders. Then read the New Yorker article from the summer of 2011 about Sandberg and her talk. And get your MBA. An MBA is a useful degree in many professions, not only business. It’s a very helpful degree for professions in non-profits, medical fields, the arts – any field that requires leadership, strategy and financial responsibilities. It’s a challenging degree, but once in the programme you get through it and you have the degree, the knowledge and the friendships you gain there forever.

8. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

Over the years, I learnt to pick my battles. If there was a hurdle to an opportunity I wanted, I decided whether it was really important to me. If it was, then I just worked very hard to prove myself and found some sponsors in that area who gave me access. I let people know (sometimes repeatedly) that I wanted those opportunities.

I’m now working quite centrally in areas that are still dominated by men and my goal is to help change that by bringing more women in. We also have a group of women faculty called “neighbours” and that has been helpful both professionally and personally. I’m honoured to be in one of the few business schools that has a woman, Prof Alison Davis-Blake, as a dean. And Prof Mary Sue Coleman is the president of the university.

9. Where would be your favourite place to teach?

I’d love to create an executive education programme for women leaders globally. I’d also like to teach courses in a community college because I started in one and am very loyal to the opportunities they offer. Several well-known academics got their start at community colleges. I also know that there’s a very high dropout rate and I’d like to help change that.

10. What is your plan B?

Write practical books from the beach in Florida or mountains of Italy. And maybe create a cooking show in which I invite interesting academics to talk about their research while cooking their favourite meal. Imagine learning about biases in decision making or positive organisational psychology while learning to make a new dish from Thailand . . . 

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