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Nov 2, 2023 2023-11 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

Symanski exploring multicultural management through the world of sport

You could see Mike Szymanski’s PhD dissertation as an intriguing look at the competitive advantage of multicultural managers in a global world. Or you could see it as something else entirely — proof that a thesis subject doesn’t have to be boring.

For a very formal topic, Szymanski went to one of the least conventional work environments in the world: exploring the management operations of 355 elite football teams. “And by ‘football,’ I mean ‘real’ football,” said Szymanski, like any European who’s had to explain soccer in a country where it’s never fully caught on.

Whatever you call it, it’s an international game, with heroes hailing from around the world and managers tasked with achieving victory on a global stage. All of that makes it as good a place as any to study the effectiveness of managers with diverse backgrounds, which is of particular interest to the new Gies clinical associate professor.

“My main research stream for many years has been about multicultural individuals,” said Szymanski, who’s fascinated by the subject. Whether they’re children of parents from different countries or simply people who grew up in a place very different from where they started, these individuals are used to bridging divides. Szymanski believed that could provide an edge in international competition, be it sport or business. So, he crunched the numbers, collecting data on soccer managers around the world.

After factoring for a number of variables, including the quality of the players and who had homefield advantage, Szymanski and his research partners concluded that multicultural managers did have an edge when sporting worlds collide. As long as those worlds come from far enough apart.

“If the competitive environment is very international, meaning that one day you compete against the Koreans, the next day you compete against the Germans, and on the last day you compete against the Brazilians, and you have to adapt your team to play very different styles, then being multicultural helps,” said Szymanski.

However, if the teams you compete with are from the same general part of the world, that edge quickly vanishes, like a pizza tossed into a locker room after the game. In that case, said Szymanski, “it’s better to be monocultural.”

Szymanski’s background makes him well suited to explore multicultural topics. Born in Poland and educated in Canada, he’s conversant in five languages, and has taught at elite schools around the world, including the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO and the EGADE Business School, Tecnológico de Monterrey in Guadalajara, Mexico, the largest private university in the country. But his journey into academia actually started a little farther north.

In 2017, Szymanski completed a PhD in international management and organization at the University of Victoria in Canada. At the time, he says he was simply looking to add a few letters at the end of his name. But then something happened he didn’t expect.

“I discovered this amazing career,” says Szymanski, who has been teaching since 2014 and can’t imagine a better job. “At the end of the day, I am being paid to do research on stuff that I find amazing. And twice a week I get to teach super smart people about topics I find fascinating.”

Now he’s doing that for Gies' Department of Business Administration, bringing years of experience at elite schools and corporate programs to a college that’s ranked one of the best in the world. Of course, rankings don’t always tell you the whole story. “Flying here, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Szymanski. “There are many places that are very good in the rankings, but when you get there, you don’t feel it.”

At Gies, he felt it. The moment he stepped off the plane. He loved the passion, the openness, and the energy that permeated the campus.

“I was only there for a couple of days, but I saw how dynamic the classes were,” said Szymanski. He was particularly impressed with the iMBA program, which made online learning exceptional long before the pandemic made it essential.

At other schools he was responsible for building programs and training local researchers. “Now, I’m going to be surrounded by top-quality professors and top-quality researchers,” said Szymanski, “And that’s a great learning opportunity.”

While Szymanski says many things impressed him at Gies, one that stood out was the school’s ability not just to do impressive things, but to do them at scale. Szymanski will be teaching Business 201 and 301 at Gies, but it’s the latter — which matches around 500 students with real companies solving actual problems — where he saw that ability on full display.

“That requires a lot of coordination, because you need to make sure that students learn, and that they deliver something of quality to the customers, and that everything is on the right track,” said Szymanski. “I find this part of the Gies program to be absolutely amazing! That’s when I said that’s something cool. That’s something I want to be a part of.”