May 2024 | 

Kevin Kaiser, Finance Professor with a Fan Club

Kevin Kaiser, Finance Professor with a Fan Club

In this second installment of our Wharton Spotlight series, we interview Professor Kevin Kaiser, PhD. Kaiser joined Wharton’s finance department in 2017 and is now serving as academic director and teaching in four Executive Education finance programs in addition to MBA courses.

Wharton@Work: Tell us about your experience in Executive Education. There are some notable differences between teaching MBA students, who typically have limited work experience, and mid-career (or later) executives. Do you have a preference? What are some of the challenges unique to Exec Ed?

Kevin Kaiser: When I was getting my PhD in Finance from Northwestern, I taught in a few Executive Education programs. From there I went to INSEAD, where they put me in Exec Ed right away. Honestly, it wasn’t easy at first. I went straight from getting my undergraduate degree to a PhD, so my real-world knowledge was limited. That made teaching seasoned executives challenging. But I love a challenge! l worked hard at improving, and the teaching eventually became a lot of fun. While I love teaching undergraduates and MBAs, I find teaching in the Exec Ed classroom to be a unique challenge. But saying I have a preference would be like saying I love one of my children more than the other – I couldn’t say that.

In 1997 I left INSEAD to work for McKinsey and then to run a company for a few years. That hands-on experience taught me a lot more about management, but the classroom and academia eventually drew me back. I returned to INSEAD where I took on one of their three flagship general management programs, which I directed for 12 years before coming to Wharton in 2017.

W@W: What programs are you currently teaching, and do you have a favorite?

KK: I am academic director of Shareholder Activism: Activating Change for Value Creation, and co-academic director of Distressed Asset Investing and Corporate Restructuring. I also teach in Venture Capital and Private Equity: Investing and Creating Value. I love them all, and have had a great time building the programs and working with other faculty. They are all unique, and they all have to do with the health and well-being of the world economy, so they are vitally important for society, for the individuals who attend, for the economy, and for Wharton. My favorite program is the one I am teaching in on any given day.

W@W: It doesn’t take long for participants in your programs to find out that many of the others in the room have attended at least one of your other programs. We’ve heard the phenomenon called the Kaiser Fan Club. To what do you attribute your exponential popularity with Exec Ed participants?

KK: Halfway through my first semester of teaching, at the University of Michigan in 1986, I noticed there were a lot of students in the classroom who weren’t enrolled in the course. It was macroeconomics — not a subject many students have a passionate interest in. Eventually I asked some of them why they were there, and they said it was recommended by other students who said it was fun. That was the beginning of a pattern I have noticed each time I teach.

Many years later, I asked one of my colleagues about it, and he gave me an answer that still resonates. He said, “It’s not because you’re a great teacher. You’re very good, but that’s not it. They’re coming because of your unorthodox view of the world that you weave into every element of your class. People find it fascinating and they want more of it. That view challenges them to think in new ways.”

W@W: Can you describe that worldview and how you developed it? It obviously goes well beyond the finance topics you teach.

KK: Here’s the core: everything is connected. From an early age, it was common sense to me. The more I learned, the more connections I was able to make. Physics runs the universe, for example, so it has to be related to finance and everything else. I can’t teach finance without also discussing biology and evolution. Once you grasp those connections, they explain everything. Finance plays a role, but it’s just one piece.

W@W: How does that worldview continue to develop? Your classes always include timely references in addition to seminal research.

KK: I’m learning through travel and exposure to new ideas both personal and professional. It has been super helpful for me to recognize how people with different backgrounds see the world in many of the same ways. We have so much in common despite our cultural and geographic differences. These experiences continue to help me connect the dots.

W@W: Where are you likely to be found when you’re not teaching?

KK: If I’m not teaching, I’m usually preparing to teach or doing some private consulting. In my limited free time, I’m on the water or a mountain, paddle boarding or snowboarding. I love traveling, especially with my family. Every year my wife and I spend weeks covering the globe. Recently we’ve been to Peru, Australia, Iceland, Greece, and France (where we were based for 25 years while I worked at INSEAD), among other countries.

W@W: Are there any books you can recommend for people who want to start making those connections for themselves?

KK: SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed by Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield is a favorite. They don’t discount Darwin, but it’s not just about the survival of the fittest. Cooperation is more important than competition. This book really helps to connect the dots.

I also make the case in my own book, The Blue Line Imperative (written with S. David Young, professor of accounting and control at INSEAD). Another book that I think helps to see the connections is Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And finally, Material World: The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization by Ed Conway helps to see how humans and value creation are woven into evolution.