Better Know a Prof: Tom Hunsaker

By Marissa Burkett, Guest Writer

Professor Beau Tom Hunsaker, the man behind the new international immersion practicum aimed at MA-GAM students, is highly accustomed to change. The son of a businessman, he and his family moved around the United States regularly, from Colorado to Utah, California to Georgia. Upon graduating high school in Atlanta, Hunsaker moved out west for college and began a long career that traversed many iterations of the same goal. “Once I figure something out,” says Hunsaker, “I get bored with it, I’m on a constant quest for the next challenge, the newness it brings and the intellectual vigor it brings. That’s what gets me excited.”

After undergrad, Hunsaker spent time working and travelling, eventually falling in love with Latin America. Fluent in Spanish, he earned a dual MBA and MA concentrated in Economic Development from the University of New Mexico and then took off on a professional career path that spanned Fortune 500s, entrepreneurial ventures, and multiple continents eventually leading him to Thunderbird. “After exiting a series of companies in which I was partner, I decided to go back and get my Ph.D. I was unique in that I was co-funded by both the management department and the sociology department. I focused on business and analytics by day and behavior and social movement by night. I think what probably informs the research and work that I have done since is the question ‘Where does strategy meet behavior? I’ve been at Thunderbird ever since.’”

Since arriving at Thunderbird in 2010, Professor Hunsaker has shared his wealth of knowledge and experience in competitive and global strategy, interpersonal management, and performance leadership, and offers a unique viewpoint on the business environment and the relationship of humans to it. The new international immersion practicum, with Hunsaker at the helm, aims to bring all of these facets together in a concentrated, client-facing learning experience that will prepare MA-GAMs to apply theoretical concepts to business situations long after graduation.

What do you believe you, specifically, bring to the new international immersion practicum?

Life has given me the opportunity to be a very student-centric professor and focus very deeply on the student experience. I think that applied learning is the future of education. Last year, I wrote an article for AACSB asking universities to reconsider their role in the value chain and look at what’s really critical to the student experience and what really provides value to the student within that value chain. I think that experiential learning is a big part of that. If I had to name what I bring to the program, I would say 1) I am a strong advocate for applied learning, 2) A wide breadth of experience allows me to have a wide breadth of understanding, 3) I feel like I relate to and can empathize with students and where they are in both the consulting process and the process of discovering their way, 4) I have extensive experience consulting for organizations operating on four different continents. Hopefully, these four attributes bring a lot to the program.

Also, I think it’s advantageous that I have seen multiple steps in the business world in very intimate ways. I know what it feels like to show up at a large firm and be a number, but I also know what it’s like to be handed a marketing budget with a mandate and use my vision to drive that, plus the process of starting companies. When you’ve lived those experiences, you can empathize not just with the people and actors in those experiences, but the experiences themselves and the process within those experiences.

Also, to speak very candidly, I think that Professor Finney and I have really enjoyed some nice association having previously worked with him in TEM Lab. We have some really good things in common and I revere him as a colleague and as a friend.

How do you feel your diverse academic background, specifically experience in sociology, influences your work?

I think consulting is essentially a sociological process. It’s identifying issues within groups, making recommendations and findings ways to get those ideas sold into the groups in appropriate forms that they are willing to implement. Because I also have an MBA and have studied hard-core economics, I think that I can also speak to the quantitative business side. I think that the best consultants are very nimble in terms of looking at things holistically while also being able to bring very specific and detailed granular thought to individual topics within that project. Essentially, that’s the role of the combination of a business strategist and a sociologist. The sociologist would look at how are things moving, what are the associations, intentions, and points of influence among the moving parts and the strategist would look very concretely at, “given all of those things and that understanding, what can we do about it?”

That in mind, do you advocate that business schools provide more behavior-based, human-centric studies?

It’s really hard to operate professionally without those skills. Whether you get them in business school, you are going to have to acquire them along the way. I would like to see more of it because these skills are necessary to be a dynamic business leader.

How did you make the switch from business to academia?

I knew that I always wanted to be in this position. I ultimately always wanted to teach. However, early on, I was very pragmatic. I was married and had kids and needed money and experience and had to make those kinds of decisions. Once I felt comfortable and felt like I had the luxury to really do justice by the process, then I came back to teaching, where I always intended to be in the first place.

What’s the point of it all? What gets you up in the morning?

The point is contribution. I want to feel like my days and my experiences have meaning and I am contributing to something beneficial. I don’t want to sound totally altruistic, because I am getting something out of this too, but I love the intellectual exercise that happens with teaching and working with really smart people. Ultimately, maybe I’m a bit of an idealist. I genuinely want my little small segment of life to matter and feel like I contributed to it. I want to teach that way, I want to run programs that way and I want to interact with people in the community that way. Just so happens that my view of community is pretty global.

Do you feel that your need for altruism is fulfilled in your current position?

In part… I get a kick out of seeing people come in and absorb content and do really neat things with that content. I love watching students take theory and create their own contributions to the world and feeling like I was a freckle, a small portion of that process. It’s a really invigorating thing to see people go on and do what they are intended to do and to have been at the inflection point in life where they are thinking about the future and engineering their lives to make that happen. I feel very actualized in that process.

What do you dislike the most about yourself?

That my grey hair has come in so unevenly. No, in seriousness, I would say that I get very, very bored with the managerial minutia. I am not a maintainer; I am a grower. I love to start things, I love to create things and be at the beginning stages. If you ask my wife…that can be frustrating. I tend to look to the next thing and that’s why I am so excited about the international immersion practicum. It offers so much opportunity for new and exciting challenges.

What do you do in your spare time?

I love the outdoors. I don’t do it enough but I love to travel. I am a closet farm kid: I like to fish, backpack, hike. I love to intentionally throw myself into situations where I don’t have all the answers, going to places I’ve never seen before, I love talking to people I’ve never interacted with before, being the guy who finds his way into a village and has to figure out how to get invited to dinner that night. I love the newness of things. My ideal version of travel is off the beaten path.

For me there is something very empowering about showing up to a place and being very minimalist in that place and not trying to influence it, but just exist in it.

What do you dislike the most in others?

Unfounded bias. I want to be part of a world that’s as merit-driven as humanly possible. I’m really more concerned with who a person is, how he or she came to be, what they care about, and what they can contribute than exclusively considering where they’ve been or what they’ve done, and I would hope that other people view the world that way as well.

What do you consider to be the most overrated value?

Charisma. I think that it can be a crutch to those who have it and stunt their progress. It can also give unnecessary credit to charismatic people, and unnecessarily discount great potential in those for whom charisma isn’t completely natural. I’d much rather ideas govern things.

What do you value most in the people that surround you?

Integrity. Genuineness. Authenticity.

What historical figure do you most identify with?

Churchill…because I think that he was a very flawed person who tried to do good amidst very rough circumstances. I really admire his ability to galvanize or coalesce people together despite being, in some ways and by his own accord, kind of a bumbling idiot.

Final question: What are your five favorite words?

I have four and they make up a sentence: I believe in you.

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