Alan Muller: Professor of International Management at the University of Groningen

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Alan Muller is currently Professor of International Management at the University of Groningen. Originally from Seattle, Washington, he has spent nearly 20 years studying and working in Europe. From 2011 to 2015 he was Associate Professor and Director of the MBA Program at the University of Amsterdam. From 2008 through 2010 he taught International Business at the University of Washington’s Michael G. Foster School of Business, where he continues to hold an affiliate professorship. Alan holds degrees from RSM Erasmus University (PhD in Management), University of Amsterdam (Masters in International Relations) and University of Washington (Bachelor in History), all cum laude. He has received numerous awards for his research, and was invited as a Visiting Scholar to Simon Fraser University (Vancouver BC) in 2008 and Hong Kong Baptist University in 2010 and 2011. Alan’s current research centers on the intrinsic- and extrinsic drivers of corporate social behaviors, particularly in a cross border setting. He lives in Haarlem, the Netherlands, with his wife Sofie and their two sons, Carter and Finn.

What do you do best?

I avoid silos and keep myself free to think across disciplines. Really, who wants to be pigeon-holed? In the process, I find myself asking different questions than those others are asking, and taking eclectic approaches to answering them. This allows me to work with people from completely different backgrounds, giving all of us a more multidimensional view of the topic and indeed a broader perspective on scholarship and life in general. I love to learn from and be inspired by others!

What makes you the best?

Not feeling overly inhibited by the sometimes rigid and dogmatic schisms between various schools and research streams. That allows me to follow my passion freely. I am an inquisitive student of organizations in society, and intrinsically motivated to do what I do. When inspired by a particular topic, I sink my teeth in and don’t let go until I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.

How will you stay the best?

By continuing to aim high! At the same time, I try not to take myself too seriously. I think it’s important to be able to laugh at yourself from time to time – when you catch yourself operating on unfounded assumptions, falling into predictable patterns, getting it wrong – or even when getting it right! If you do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do, work never feels like work.

Biggest success?

There are a lot of things I could bring up here, but one worth mentioning is that in 2008 I left a tenure-track position as assistant professor with research time to take on a non-tenure track, teaching-only position as a senior lecturer at another school. I had personal reasons to do this, but professionally it was a huge gamble: if I ever wanted to have the option of a tenure-track position in the future, I would essentially have to conduct research and publish on my own time. If you know academia, you know that publishing enough to make tenure is difficult enough for those with research positions – a senior lecturer going up for tenure is practically unheard of. In the end, even though the odds were stacked against me, my “swing for the fences” strategy paid off: I managed to make tenure just three years later.   

What are your aspirations?

Personal: To keep growing and learning, both about myself and the world I live in. My Zen riddle is to remind myself to stay in the moment. Everyone knows the line about life being what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. I want to continue living life without regrets or the feeling that I “missed” anything.

Business: I hope to keep making an impact on how we as a community of management scholars conceptualize organizations in society. As do many others nowadays, I think we have overshot the mark by far with respect to the economization of society and the mantra of wealth maximization. I remember once reading an interview with a CEO of a big company – who had a PhD in economics, by the way – in which he said he never really understood why companies were supposed to maximize profits. I hope to encourage more people to ask such questions.

Most challenging moment?

The moment I decided to go back to grad school to get my PhD. I was a young consultant working at a boutique firm, when I realized that even though I loved my work, I wasn’t following my passion. I had mindlessly followed the herd and done what I thought was expected of me after college. One day, a couple years later, I found myself sitting at the head office of a major European consumer electronics firm discussing strategy with the TV division’s head of European marketing. In the middle of that conversation, I was suddenly reminded of what I had always really wanted to do: be a college professor. Even though I felt that changing course was the right thing for me to do, I found it challenging to walk away from what I had established and into what felt like a very uncertain future. All I can say is it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

What fascinates you?

Human behavior. What makes people do the things that they do? I know that’s about as broad as you can get, but I am particularly amazed by the way we get stuck in what I call our “little box of time” – by which I mean the limited time span that we seem able to comprehend, roughly from our grandparents to something like 10 years into the future. That’s a very limited understanding of anything. I believe it was Kierkegaard who highlighted the paradox that life can only be understood backwards, but has to be lived forwards. As a result, I can’t shake the uneasy feeling that we keep trying to figure out the problems of today based on paradigms of yesterday.

Favorite Motto:

“Go big or go home.” By that I don’t mean that everything has to be spectacular. I mean we should aim high and not settle for less than is possible. Why not try to be the best that you can be, at whatever you choose to do?

Favorite People:

Everyone with a can-do mentality, who sees the glass as half full, and who is not afraid to laugh at him- or herself.

Favorite Places:

In general, I like extremes. I prefer either hot and sunny (as long as there’s water!) or cold and snowy, like Scandinavia in the winter. Beyond that, anywhere wild. Places like Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, and the Grand Tetons are particularly breathtaking and humbling. How often do you spend time in places where you have to step aside for the animals, instead of the other way around?

Favorite Products:

I enjoy any kind of technology that not only enhances quality of life but is also easy to use. Like the Chromecast dongle: an absolute stroke of genius. But it doesn’t have to be new to be among my favorites: I still think that the shower is one of the best inventions of all time, for instance.

Current Passions:

Enjoying this phase of life. Old and accomplished enough not to feel like I have to prove anything to anyone, but young enough that I feel anything is still possible. Old enough to have kids that you can have an adult conversation with, but still young enough to wrestle or throw the football with them. Or, as I once read in a book written for men in their 40s: The age when you’re old enough to know better, but young enough to do it anyway.