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Frank Rothaermel is professor of strategy and innovation at the Scheller College of Business.
Frank Rothaermel is professor of strategy and innovation at the Scheller College of Business.

Faculty Profile: Professor Frank Rothaermel Helps Others Find Their Winning Strategy

Professor Frank Rothaermel has made a career out of helping firms and students alike find their competitive advantage. The German native who once played semi-professional hockey enjoys the challenge of making the strategy content and cases he teaches in the MBA program at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business relevant for today’s students and the modern economy.

“The economy is very different for today’s student than it was for me in the 90s,” the tech savvy professor of strategy and innovation said. “One example is ecosystems of innovation and platform markets such as Facebook or Google, where we often see winners-take-all. My MBA students keep me at the forefront. My biggest motivation is to help them fulfill their professional dreams.”

Rothaermel, the Russell and Nancy McDonough Chair in Business and Sloan Industries Study Fellow, has been helping students at the Scheller College since he was hired to teach the strategy core class in 2003, previously taught by the late Lloyd Byars. Rothaermel has taught every full-time MBA student at Scheller College since that time. He also teaches students in the evening MBA and executive MBA education programs.

Rothaermel’s research was recently published in the fall issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review, the leading outlet for practice-relevant advances in management and technology. He and co-author Ha Hoang, professor of management at ESSEC Business School in Paris, offer a roadmap for companies looking to team up and ensure the best outcomes from strategic alliances.

“Frank is a thought leader in the field of strategy and innovation,” said Scheller College Dean Maryam Alavi. “We are very proud to have him among our stellar faculty members at Scheller College. His achievements in both research and teaching help prepare our students for leadership roles in a progressively competitive global marketplace.”

An Impressive Toolkit

Rothaermel’s big break into academia came as an undergraduate student. “I was recruited by the chair of economics who was also advisor to the German government to work as an aide making copies and carrying books to the library.”

From there he spent a year in Sheffield, England as an Erasmus Scholar and then earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. His master’s thesis focused on macroeconomics, researching the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and how to transform former communist countries into market economies.

Rothaermel moved to the U.S. in 1993 to attend Brigham Young University. While pursuing an MBA at the Marriott School of Management, Rothaermel switched his focus from economics to strategy. “I was exposed to the work of Michael Porter who had a great influence on my thoughts about competitive advantage and strategy, including firm differences in performance.”

“I didn’t always think about academia,” said Rothaermel who consulted as a financial analyst and turned down a fast track leadership position in Germany with a sizeable offer from EY (then known as Ernst & Young). “I thought I was going to be a consultant after my MBA program, but I was drawn to research and changed my mind.”

Rothaermel went on to earn his Ph.D. in strategic management at the University of Washington, and met his wife there who was a graduate student in Seattle as well. Together they have six children: three older boys, and three younger girls. Rothaermel quipped “Any first year economics student would see that this is a perfect equilibrium.”

A Sustainable Strategy

Rothaermel, whose research interests lie in the areas of strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship, counts himself fortunate to have worked with some great colleagues and doctoral students over the years. He is the author of a leading text, Strategic Management, and has published over 30 articles in prestigious academic journals such as the Strategic Management Journal, Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Organization Science, and elsewhere. Rothaermel has passed Google Scholar’s 10,000 citations mark and, based on having published papers in the top 1% according to citations, Thomson Reuters identified Rothaermel as one of the “world’s most influential scientific minds in economics and business.” The affirmation and respect of colleagues, and the success of his students are testaments to the positive impact he has had and his dedication to his research and teaching.

“Our recent MIT Sloan Management Review article was born from the desire to share our ideas and work on strategic alliances in a compelling and accessible way,” said How to Manage Alliances Strategically co-author Ha Hoang, a professor of management at ESSEC Business School in France. “I always knew that Frank had energy and enthusiasm for his work, but with that collaboration I saw firsthand the dedication to teaching that also drives him.”

Nancy and Russell McDonough, IE 1956, benefactors of the Russell and Nancy McDonough Chair in Business that Rothaermel holds said "We could not be more pleased than having Frank occupying our named chair. He is a recognized international leader in his field.”

The McDonoughs mentioned that they are glad that both current and previous deans speak highly of his classroom work. “That is important to us. The class where he forms students into small teams that work with real companies solving real problems sounds great. It reminds me of one of Harvard Business School's most popular and well thought of courses so many, many years ago.”

They continued, “Frank is a dynamo, with a nice personality, and he is a caring, very involved parent which we much admire."

Additionally, Rothaermel has received numerous recognitions for his research and teaching, including the Sloan Industry Studies Best Paper Award, the Academy of Management Newman Award, the Strategic Management Society Conference Best Paper Prize, the DRUID Conference Best Paper Award, the Israel Strategy Conference Best Paper Prize, and is the inaugural recipient of the Scheller College Byars Faculty Excellence Award and the Institute-wide Georgia Power Professor of Excellence Award.

Full Immersion

Rothaermel credits his MBA and industry experience for his ability to relate to his students in the classroom. “I don’t just come from a pure academic background. I know what the students are going through and what they are thinking.”

Speaking to over 225 prospective students at the MBA open house in November, Rothaermel told them that “the MBA helped me transform myself and pursue my professional dreams. You learn how to manage any situation.”

Professor Marco Ceccagnoli, area coordinator for the strategy and innovation group, said “I regularly hear comments from students referring to Professor Rothaermel as a super-high energy, enthusiastic, kind person that cares about the students and whose ability in engaging the students and effectively delivering key strategy concepts is second to none in the world.”

“I make an effort to get to know all of my students and what they want to do,” Rothaermel said. “I have a high respect for each student; my goal is to help them fulfil their professional aspirations. I love teaching fresh cases such as Tesla Motors, my favorite, and like to have all students participate in the discussion.”

“My first class with Frank Rothaermel was an MBA Strategic Management class. Impressed by his teaching, I took another MBA class and two Ph.D. classes that he taught,” said Shanti Agung, Ph.D. MGT 2011, co-author, and friend.

Now an assistant professor at Drexel University, Agung observed that Rothaermel is an outstanding educator. “His notable teaching style is the Socratic Method through which he guides students to grasp theory and use it to comprehend business practices.”

Agung recalled that Rothaermel often said “using theory in analyzing business decisions is important because it provides structure from which you can comprehend facts. Theory provides a structure to make sense out of information.”

“Accordingly, Frank brought to the classroom a routine for critical thinking, cutting edge of academic knowledge, relevance with cutting-edge practice in industry, and rigor in analyzing reality. Because those are important for a successful career, they are part of the remarkable impact that he has on his students.”

Kevin Boldt, MBA 2017, said “Professor Rothaermel's class offers students the opportunity to formulate strategic recommendations during both lively classroom discussion as well as through real-world projects with Fortune 500 companies.”

He continued, “Professor Rothaermel's strategy class serves as the capstone event of the first-year MBA experience at Scheller where students gain a strong understanding of the external and internal dynamics that affect firms' performance.”

In Rothaermel’s innovative classroom students take part in a fully immersive learning experience. As one of the first experiential learning programs in the U.S., since 2004, Rothaermel has led a Strategy Live Case Project jointly with the Jones Career Center, involving dozens of companies that are actual or potential recruiters of MBA students. In particular, the Strategy Core Course ends the first year in the MBA program, and aims for students to build on and integrate the functional core area courses and help students to understand how firms gain and sustain a competitive advantage.

Running through the entire 15-week semester, student teams align with a partnering company and their executives in order to apply the analysis tools and methodologies learned in class to respond to a "strategic challenge question" posed by the company. Participating companies have included Accenture, AT&T, Bank of America, Deloitte Consulting, Delta Air Lines, The Home Depot, North Highland, Procter & Gamble, PwC, UPS, and The Walt Disney Company, among others. Many of the participating companies have implemented recommendations provided by the MBA teams. Students have also received internships and fulltime job offers as a result of their work on the projects.

Maggie Lovatt, MBA 2016, appreciates professors who can make concepts real for her. She touts Rothaermel, who she describes as a “tough” professor with high expectations and a penchant for cold calling. However, he is also a man with “fantastic corporate connections” who backs his students and puts them in a position to shine in his strategy class.

“The second half of the class focused on helping a corporation solve a strategic problem,” she said. “My team worked with the vice president of pricing and revenue management at Delta Air Lines to answer the question ‘How should Delta compete with ultra-low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier’ (spoiler alert, they shouldn’t!). Rothaermel supported our team’s decision to tell Delta what we truly believed was the best strategy, even though it did not align with the company’s current strategy.”

This perspective is shared by industry leaders: “Frank's passion for the art and science of good strategy is contagious and his insights are invaluable,” said Cynthia Kantor, senior product line executive, Greater Atlanta Area - Oil & Energy, GE Power Services.

Advice for New Faculty

Rothaermel has found a sustainable strategy for success in his own career and has some great advice for junior faculty establishing their own. “Take time to focus and build your intellectual human capital,” he said.

“I believe good teachers are not born, they are made. I was OK, but not that good.” Early on Rothaermel invested in his teaching style studying the pedagogy of and completing training in the case teaching method at the Harvard Business School.

These days Rothaermel is more gratified in his work than ever, “If I had to exit tomorrow I’d be content.”

In his work ahead he hopes to teach MBA students for at least another decade or so, and, with his awesome colleagues, continue to build the strategy and innovation faculty group at the Scheller College, one of the premier research groups globally at the intersection of strategy and innovation. He enjoys mentoring and advises new faculty; for example, he likes to say “Live more in the present. When you are in the classroom, be in the classroom. Don’t think about revising your paper. When you are in a faculty meeting, think about the issues at hand. In your research – be there, one hundred percent, and give it your all.” Rothaermel has been giving his all since the first day he arrived at Georgia Tech as an untenured assistant professor back in 2003.

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Susan Ambrosetti
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