Having the opportunity to learn from the best and brightest minds in business is one of the top motivators for many applicants considering an MBA degree at an elite business school. The professors and lecturers you’ll encounter have worked in the trenches, and bring an incredible wealth of real-world experiences into the classroom setting.
In our new limited series of professor interviews on the SBC blog, readers will get to know a bit more about these brilliant academics, what fields most excite them, the trends they foresee, what they enjoy most about teaching at their respective universities, and how it all comes together with their students.
Today we’ll introduce you to Suzanne B. Shu, Professor of Marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
Education: Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, Cornell University, 1990; Masters of Engineering (Electrical), Cornell University, 1992; Masters of Business Administration, University of Chicago, 2003; Ph.D. in Behavioral Science, University of Chicago, 2004
Courses Taught: Marketing Management (core MBA marketing course); Marketing Strategy & Policy (core EMBA marketing course); Behavioral Economics in Marketing; various Ph.D. courses
What triggered your interest in your subject matter?
My work is in the field of behavioral science and decision making. After finishing my Bachelors and Masters degrees in Electrical Engineering, I never even knew there was a formal area of study in decision making until I wandered into a course on it during my first month of being an MBA student at the University of Chicago back in 1997.
The course was being taught by Richard Thaler, who just won the 2018 Nobel Prize in economics for his research in behavioral science. I was immediately intrigued by the material and decided that it was what I wanted to study from that point forward.
What’s changed since you entered the field?
Since I started studying behavioral decision making in the late 1990’s, much has changed. The field has become enormously popular in daily life due to the success of books like Nudge and Predictably Irrational. This creates a lot of interest among both managers and policy makers for the research that we do. It’s really wonderful to have so many direct applications of our research happening around us all the time.
Another big change has been the growth in interest for my own particular corner of that research field, which is consumer financial decision making. I knew when I started my PhD that I wanted to better understand the psychology of how consumers make all kinds of financial decisions (e.g., loans, retirement income, credit card debt, etc.) but the field didn’t really exist when I was getting started. Now it’s a large body of research with hundreds of academics working in this area.
Any surprising or unique applications of your field of study?
While perhaps not surprising, some of the applications that I’m most excited about are the use of our behavioral principles in policy and medical areas. Much of what we do is to explore how changing small elements of the decision making environment can help people behave in ways that they want to behave but aren’t always able to.
For example, consider someone (like me!) who would like to exercise more to lose weight. We’ve explored how small changes, like restructuring your goals to have “skip days” in your exercise routine, can help people be much more successful with their efforts.
What do you like about the school you are teaching at?
UCLA Anderson has an amazing mix of faculty and students that make it a wonderful place to do the work I do. On the faculty side, we have an entire research area devoted to behavioral decision making, so I’m surrounded by other dedicated researchers working on topics very similar to mine.
I feel extraordinarily lucky on this dimension since behavioral decision making is still a relatively new area in a lot of business schools and I wouldn’t be able to find a similar environment elsewhere.
As for the students, I find that our MBA students come in with a real excitement for figuring out how to convert our classroom discussions into immediate changes in their daily work environments. That focus on application of ideas to real business problems makes teaching really enjoyable for me.
How do you leverage technology in your classroom?
At Anderson, we’ve begun integrating online learning into more of our courses, and that’s been a big change over the past few years. Several of my courses are now hybrid classes where lectures can be delivered on video and we spend our in-class time really diving deeply into case discussions.
This is a great balance because the technology is used for delivery of foundational concepts so that everyone enters the discussion with the relevant background and we can get immediately into figuring out how to apply those concepts to the problem at hand.
Those in-class discussions are my favorite part of teaching since they give everyone the chance to bring their own expertise and ideas into the exercise; it’s not just me talking to the class, it’s everyone working together to solve a problem.
What can you do in the classroom to best prepare students for the real world?
I attempt to accomplish two things while teaching and preparing students. First, I want them to learn how to think and deliver carefully constructed, well supported arguments.
In the material I teach, I tell students there is not always only one right answer – many recommendations can be good recommendations, as long as the process for generating that recommendation is solid and well supported by the available data.
Part of your goal is to be able to deliver a set of arguments that will convince other managers that your recommendation is the best one to follow at that moment.
Second, I want to provide students with a set of frameworks and tools that help them break apart and analyze their business problems, so that it’s easier to generate and support the recommendations they make. They hopefully leave my class with a toolbox from which they can draw when analyzing any situation.
Can you speak to interesting trends in your field?
One new topic that’s inspiring research and discussion in my field is the general issue of inequity in consumer environments. Research in economics on the growth of overall societal inequity has helped spawn some of this new work, but I’m particularly interested in inequity issues at the more micro level of the individual.
For example, a consumer entering into a relationship with a financial services company must deal with a variety of fees and costs, which are measured against the benefit received from the product or service.
What determines whether the consumer perceives those costs as fair or unfair? How do perceptions of what is under the control of the consumer, versus what is under control of the firm, affect those fairness judgments? And is it possible to give the consumer more control over certain outcomes so that they can feel more ownership of the relationship? These are topics that are likely to become more important in the coming years.
What’s the impact you want to leave on your students? … On the world?
I want to teach my students to balance their strong numerical skills with strategic thinking and an overall understanding of human psychology when making business decisions. Business schools do an excellent job of training our students to understand financial models and economic principles.
Sometimes, however, it’s important to step back and realize that the world is not full of robots – we aren’t all perfectly rational or unemotional in our decisions. Thinking through human beings’ needs and motivations, including their emotional reactions to information, allows managers to do a better job of understanding their customers and successfully marketing their products.
Best advice for an aspiring business mogul?
Many aspiring business people seem to assume that marketing is simple – you just go out and tell people about the product or service you’re offering, and they’ll make a line at your door. The truth is that marketing is not easy to do, and there are many more opportunities for things to go wrong than there are for things to go right.
Good marketing requires an intricately detailed understanding of who your target market is, including their personal motivations and decision psychology, at a much more sophisticated level than most startup entrepreneurs tend to appreciate. At their core, every successful businessperson needs to be a thoughtful marketer, regardless of the business they’re in. Acquiring the frameworks and tools to be a successful marketer is a worthwhile investment.
Thank you so much Professor Shu for sharing your insights and experiences with our readers! You can read more about her work in articles such as, Carpe Diem? Maybe Tomorrow-The Psychology Behind Putting Off What Can be Enjoyed Now; Instilling Ownership Feelings Leads to Greater Care of Common Resources; and When It Comes To Marketing And Advertising Not Just Any Visual Will Do.