Better Know a Prof: Michael Finney

By: Marissa Burkett, Audio/Visual Editor

Dr. Michael Finney is from Arkansas, but says that fact is “not the most interesting part of my life.” Professor Finney has been at Thunderbird for almost seven years serving as an Associate Professor of Global Leadership and Management as well as the Faculty Director of the Thunderbird Emerging Markets lab, a special program that places students in consulting projects in the field. After a 25 year career as an international consultant focusing on issues in organizational management, Professor Finney was looking for somewhere to download that wealth of knowledge and experience.  Naturally, he chose Thunderbird. “I knew enough about the school from friends that went here, and about the mission, to know that if I wanted to do this downloading then I wanted it to be here because of the international character of the school, the students, and the mystique.”

He started off on a very different path however, as a young psychologist working in a center for troubled teens. Unfortunately, he quickly learned that the problems facing these youth could not be fixed on an individual level, but were the result of deep issues within the greater system. “(The youth) were embedded in a dysfunctional social system. With the individual level of analysis, you can’t do much about it if you can’t fix the system.”

This realization influenced his decision to continue his education and tackle the issues on the group level, and then on a systems level.

“...That pushed me on to the next level and I knew that if I couldn’t fix the system, I really couldn’t help individuals in the system. I have an undergrad in psychology, one of my Masters degrees is concerned with organizational communication, my PhD is in organization and management with an emphasis on change and transformation and power and politics. That progression of my education let me look at the different levels of analysis. Psychology in and of itself, is looking at the individual level of analysis. What really contributes to functional personalities and to dysfunctional personalities? The organizational communication piece is about looking at groups especially around communication and organizational effectiveness, what helps a group function. And then finally, I studied the organizational level of functioning. I’ve got a pretty good landscape map in my head about what’s going on in organizations.”

But then you went into business?

I didn’t want to go back into social work. One can starve to death with an undergraduate degree in psychology. It was at that point in my life when I made the decision that I didn’t want to be completely and totally impoverished. In Arkansas, that was easy to do. The whole place is so poor. So I knew that I needed to figure out how to take what I was interested in and move it into business because then I could do what I like and get paid for it.

And I am absolutely fascinated with consulting. I am a complete consulting junkie. I love coming in and taking a look at what’s going on inside organizations and being able to reframe problems so that an organization can do something about their problem and manage market share and fix really dysfunctional politics inside an organization that is interfering with their competitive positioning. All of that fascinates me. I’m happy about the progression and I ended up where I want to be.

Do you feel like your need to make a difference in people’s lives is fulfilled here at Thunderbird?

I spend a lot of time supporting individual students’ ambitions through counseling, mentoring, job recommendations, connecting them with other students who’ve been with the same progression of their career. I’m also really good at helping students understand that their aspirations are unrealistic.  I am the consultant guru on campus and can tell really quickly if someone is going to make it as a consultant or not. Many students have aspirations about being a consultant and they are really clueless about what that means, they’re just aspiring to it. They don’t understand the grueling workloads, the things that you really have to be good at. They think that the aspiration is enough to get them a job. When someone comes in my office and sits where they are sitting right now and says ‘I want to be a consultant’ I have a certain set of questions I can ask. I say, ‘tell me what your Strength Quest results were,’ and then I can say, ‘You need to find another career. It’s not a fit for you. You can aspire to it but I can tell you right now that it is not going to happen.’ And some people really get that, and some people are a little shocked that I can be that blunt. But I would rather that someone was playing to his or her strengths, which is what Strengths Quest is all about, than trying to force fit themselves into a career that looks pretty.

What do you think makes someone a good consultant? In terms of strengths?

You have to be good at thinking strategically, you have to be really good at communication, have to have a degree of self-assurance and communicate that self-assurance in a way that isn’t arrogant. You have to be really good at something and have some skill set that has value to somebody, be it operations management, supply chain, or IT. There has to be something about you that that is valuable that somebody else needs. Sometimes students get that while they are here on campus. And sometimes it ends up being that and some end up from working for a while. A lot of students end up here with backgrounds in the humanities and sometimes those people might make really good consultants if they want to get into customer service management so it’s like, where are your strengths and how does that fit into the consulting world. What is your area of expertise?

I think that you have to really excel at thinking strategically, you have to see things from a systems perspective; you have communicate in a way that makes people have confidence in what you’re doing.  You have to have incredible interpersonal skills. Absolutely and totally. You have to be a good listener, understand how to ask probing questions, how to do research… and you have to be ambitious.  All of those things make for a person who’s going to make it in consulting.

Let’s step back a little bit. What do you do in your spare time?

I backpack in the Rocky Mountains and in the Southern San Juans in Colorado. I love fly fishing, I like the outdoors a lot. A big chunk of my life has been getting completely and totally lost in wilderness areas. I fly fish in the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, one of my favorite places to be outside and get way back into the backcountry.

I have heard a lot of crazy stories about all the tattoos. Want to speak on that a little for me?

Well, I’m a Buddhist and the only one of any important to me is the snake around my neck. It’s an international symbol called an Ouroboros, and you can see this symbol spread all around the prehistoric world, in different cultures, and nobody knows how it moved from one culture to the next. It is the symbol of the snake eating its tail and it’s a statement of regeneration. That you are constantly reborn and re-engaged in life. That’s the only one that is a direct expression of my belief system.

The rest of them were largely because I was growing exhausted with always meeting everyone else’s social expectations. This is how you are supposed to look, supposed to think. There was a point in my career when I thought, “I’m going to be who I want to be,” and if it works, its works. If it doesn’t work, and people can’t deal with that, that’s their problem not mine. I’ve never lost a consulting job because I have ink. Never. 

I have some Proust Questions:

What is the trait that you most deplore in yourself?

I can be impatient and short-tempered. I can lose my temper and say things that I regret later. Every once in a while it gets me into trouble.  I’m really passionate about what I do in life and when things contradict or interfere with that passion, I can lash out in a way that is not productive. 

What is the trait that you most dislike in others?

Intolerance. Period.

What do you consider to be the most overrated virtue?

Humbleness. You need to reflect light. Sometimes people are too humble and end up missing out on a lot of life’s greatest challenges because of that. 

What do you value the most in the people around you?

Intellectual engagement. Most of my friends are really involved in the world and I can sit down and talk with them about the political transition in Myanmar or the recent horror in Tunisia or immigration in the US and the people that I hang out with have opinions, and I appreciate that.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Thomas Cromwell. He grew up like I did, dirt poor, made his own life and ended up influencing history in a whole bunch of ways. Although I’m not going to do that, I understand his dynamics and the way he thought.  He was really good at reframing problems and getting the King what he wanted.

You don’t think that you will end up influencing history?

I might teach somebody who is going to influence history. You can never tell. 

I am confident that somehow you will influence history. So, final question. What’s the point?

Totally straight – what gets me up in the morning is knowing that I am getting ready to walk into one of our classrooms and engage with some of the brightest people I know. I love teaching and I love teaching Thunderbirds. I love it when a class really gets engaged with an issue or topic. Whether y’all know it or not, I can tell who’s with me and who’s not. Being in a situation where everyone’s with me and hearing me and I’m doing a good job of communicating my passion for something… That’s the most rewarding thing I can have happen to me.

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