In the April Issue of Connect, Fabrizio Ferraro, Professor of Strategic Management at IESE Business School, discusses his enjoyment of case teaching, why cases work so well in sustainable leadership, plus much more.
Fabrizio, what is it you like about writing case studies and teaching with the case method?
Teaching with cases is just so much more fun! Not only for students but also for instructors. Personally, what I really value is the fact that the case method always creates a learning opportunity for both students and instructors. I had never used cases before joining IESE, but it is hard to imagine not teaching with the case method now.
Writing cases is also an excellent opportunity to learn more about specific companies and practices. This has helped me not only in my teaching but also in my research activity. Sometimes a case was a first approximation to a research project; in other cases, it was a spinoff from a research project.
How does the case method come alive in the classroom, and what skills does it teach students?
A successful case, in my opinion, polarises the class around critical decisions and prompts students to take different positions. Cases should be centred on decisions and can help students develop various skills (decision making, analysis, communication, etc.).
I am especially interested in cases that help students learn how to make sense of complex situations quickly. Thus, I prefer longer cases with more data, as they provide a richer learning experience (although this approach isn't as popular these days).
How do cases lend themselves to teaching sustainable leadership?
Sustainable leadership provides a clear example where leaders face extreme complexity and uncertainty. Furthermore, decisions are not purely technical but are often shaped by political and ethical concerns. Therefore, following on from my answer above, I am convinced that this is a natural place to teach with cases.
One of the key challenges in using cases for this topic is how to go beyond a superficial treatment of the sustainability issue. Once again, let's push back against the trend towards shorter cases and/or explore novel formats more appropriate for complex challenges such as sustainability.
What's your favourite case, and why?
I am torn between two cases I enjoy teaching, as they are quite different.
My most recent case on Impact Investing, Arcano Partners: Scaling Impact with a Fund of Funds, creates polarisation around this vehicle for impact investing and for the broader debate on what impact investing is, what it can be, how it can scale, etc.
In my teaching on strategy implementation, I love to end my classes with the case Pennies From Heaven: Strategic Turnaround at J.C. Penney. We need more cases on failure. This one helps my students (especially top executives) reflect on how even very experienced leaders can get it really wrong!
If you could be transported into another profession for one week, which would you choose, and why?
It took me some time to answer this one - as I have been lucky enough to do what I wanted to do! Also, when I do qualitative research, I get to live in several other professions for more than one week. I am fascinated by what is going on in numerous fields around biology, and perhaps being a scientist or an entrepreneur in that field would be fun.
How do you relax?
I love reading novels, watching movies and TV shows. I also try to stay active by biking and rowing (albeit increasingly less these days). In terms of novels, I read all kinds, and have also recently shared a list of contemporary science-fiction that provide interesting insights for leaders.
Do you have a favourite quote or guiding principle?
I've grown increasingly interested in Hellenic philosophy, particularly Stoicism, and I find one of its core principles, as expressed by Epictetus, to be especially valuable: "We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former includes our judgment, our impulse, our desire, aversion, and our mental faculties in general; the latter includes the body, material possessions, our reputation, status - in a word, anything not in our power to control." As a result, we should not overly concern ourselves with the latter.