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Teachable Moments

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's best-selling business book The Black Swan makes a statement about the unique perspective of a practitioner. The book mentions Harvard University professor emeritus Robert Merton and Stanford University professor emeritus Myron Scholes, who together won a Nobel prize in 1997 for a formula used to value financial derivatives. Referencing that formula, Taleb writes, "Traders, bottom-up people, know its wrinkles better than academics by dint of spending their nights worrying about their risks." The statement encapsulates the idea that the nuances of some academic theories might be best understood by the people who put those theories into practice.

Business schools have come to value the practitioner's perspective, and they are increasingly making room for those viewpoints on their staffs. Bloomberg Businessweek identified 25 top executives who teach. The list includes names such as Oracle (ORCL) Chief Financial Officer Safra Catz, who lectures on M&A and accounting at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, and the chairman and chief executive officer of Anadarko Petroleum (APC), James Hackett, who lectures at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business in Houston.

The list also includes recently retired executives who have a wealth of uncommon career experience. For example, we added former Deere & Co. (DE) Chief Executive Officer Bob Lane, who was part of a team that opened Deere's first plant in China, and he led the company as it increased revenue outside of North America to $7.96 billion, or about 35 percent of total revenue. Lane now teaches an executive education course at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. His class makes stops in China and India, and his students are primarily executives at North American and European companies that are expanding into emerging markets for the first time.

Practitioners who teach have their failures as well as their successes on display for students. At the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, Groupon co-founders Eric Lefkofsky and Bradley Keywell are slated to teach a class this winter on building Internet startups, months after Groupon restated revenue and lost its second chief operating officer in six months. The two adjunct professors may not be able to discuss the details of those experiences in class for legal reasons, says Booth 2012 MBA candidate Daniel Shani, who took their same class earlier this year. But, he says, they are candid about prior missteps, and often use those moments as teaching examples.

"The one theme that they kept revisiting was the notion of failure," Shani says. "They were always very open and quick to admit to failures of past businesses and Groupon to date, and were willing to use them in discussion."

Practitioners also serve as a sounding board for students seeking practical career advice. Cie Nicholson is the chief marketing officer at Equinox, a privately held fitness company that owns clubs in New York City, Chicago, and Southern California. Nicholson lectures at her alma mater, Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. Before Equinox, she handled marketing for a Bay Area startup and prior to that worked in marketing at PepsiCo (PEP). She routinely describes to students how she executed each career transition—from large public company, to startup, to private company. "I think that is something that is very tangible for them," she says, "and they get a lot out of it."

Photographer: Getty Images

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