B-school professors earn that much in speaking fees?

May 20, 2014, 3:54 PM UTC
Presidencia Perú/Flickr/CC

(Poets&Quants) — Talk, when it comes from some of the country’s top business school academics, is far from cheap.

Fees for speeches by the many professors in the mid-level price range run from $20,000 to $40,000, while it can cost $100,000 or more to put the most sought-after speakers behind a podium.

“Part of it is the universities that they come from, if they’re associated with an MIT or a Northwestern or a Harvard or whatever the case may be,” says Richard Schelp, owner of Executive Speakers Bureau. “Being associated with a certain institution brings with it a level of credibility: ‘If somebody is good enough to be a professor at Harvard Business School, maybe I should listen to them.'”

The three highest-paid business speakers from academia — Michael Porter, Clayton Christensen, and John Kotter — all come from Harvard Business School. For a single speaking engagement, strategy guru Porter can earn $150,000. His colleague Christensen, who coined the term “disruptive innovation,” pulls down $100,000 a talk, while leadership expert John Kotter’s speaking fees are $85,000 an appearance.

Intensive, focused scholarship forms another large part of a speaker’s value “because of the level of knowledge that they’ve attained over a period of time,” Schelp says.

Organizations often seek speakers who can address specific concerns “hurting the corporations” such as problems with the implementation of plans and policies, so speakers bureaus promote business school professors’ particular areas of expertise, says Alistair Rumena, a consultant at Global Speakers Bureau. Companies may want Vijay Govindarajan from Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, whose speeches draw fees up to $55,000, for his expertise on innovation and strategy, Rumena says. Firms determined to ramp up their internal leadership may look to Donald Sull, lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a professor at London Business School.

Trends in business can affect both topic selection and the popularity of certain speakers. A move among some major corporate players to adopt a “military model” for grooming leaders has turned Yale School of Management Professor Brig.-Gen. (retired) Thomas Kolditch into a rising star, says Chris Johnson, marketing director at BigSpeak Speakers Bureau. Kolditch commands fees at the lower end of the spectrum: $10,000 to $20,000. But a growing market for talks on emotional intelligence has fueled demand for the former soldier, who served as head of behavioral sciences at West Point for 12 years and has specialized knowledge in “soft skills” such as identifying leaders within organizations, Johnson says.

The rise of entrepreneurship has generated strong interest in speeches on innovation, creating demand for experts such as Jeff DeGraff, professor at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, Johnson says.

Leadership has always been a popular subject of speeches by prominent business school professors, Schelp says. Douglas Conant, chairman of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute at Northwestern University, delivers highly prized insights on leadership at prices starting at $45,000 per speech.

Some themes come and go, and others have been transformed by new developments and concerns. A half dozen years ago, companies were regularly bringing in influential academics to present solutions to problems related to generational differences in the workplace, says Schelp of Executive Speakers. “Every other organization that would call us would ask about having a speaker that could present in that area,” he says. “Now it’s not a hot topic anymore.”

However, companies are still focused on helping employees with different backgrounds and skills work well together, says BigSpeak’s Johnson. But such issues now center on tech-savvy employees who lack the skills to function well in teams, Johnson says. “People really need to know how to deal with a disparate range of personality types,” he says.

“Managing change” had been an in-demand speech theme for corporations, but lately, change management is viewed as static, promoting the status quo, Johnson says. “Leading change” has become the more popular speaking topic, as companies endeavor to push themselves ahead rather than merely cope with rapid advancements in their industries and markets, he says.

Harvard Business School professor emeritus John Kotter, whose speeches cost up to $85,000, has formulated an eight-step process for leading — rather than just managing — change. Columbia Business School Professor Rita McGrath also speaks to audiences on leading change. McGrath has benefited from a desire for diverse speakers, Johnson says. “Audiences want to see more leading female thought leaders,” he says.

Aside from Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the veteran female B-school prof who gets as much as $40,000 per speech, McGrath is one of the few female academics in demand. An engaging speaker, she tackles such topics as what questions keep company leaders up at right. The answer: Do we have the right talent in the right place? How can we get better at managing innovation and growth? Do I have the right line of sight to what is going on in my operations to be able to make smart decisions – in time?

The shifting popularity of subjects often reflects shifts within the business world, Executive Speakers’ Schelp says. “Changes within the business environment itself cause topic selection,” he says. “The business problems people are facing, the solutions they’re coming up with, are what generates the need.”

Influential new voices also guide organizations’ choices of speakers and topics, Schelp says. Books such as Jim Collins’ Good to Great have put a spotlight on organizational culture, prodding companies to look for speakers with expertise in that area, he says. Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, promotes decentralized leadership for enhancing productivity, and applies systems theory to organizational culture. Fees for Senge’s talks top $40,000.

Speakers’ fees are usually negotiable, based on location, timing, and speech content.

Top 10 B-school Speakers, Top Prices (maximum reported fees for U.S. appearances)

  1. 1. Michael Porter, Harvard Business School: $150,000
  2. 2. Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School: $100,000
  3. 3. John Kotter, Harvard Business School: $85,000
  4. 4. Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia Business School: $80,000
  5. 5. Nouriel Roubini: NYU Stern School of Business: $75,000
  6. 6. W. Chan Kim, INSEAD: $75,000
  7. 7. Gary Hamel, London Business School: more than $50,000
  8. 8. Douglas Conant, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management: $45,000 and up
  9. 9. Vijay Govindarajan, Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business: $35,000-$55,000
  10. 10. Marvin Zonis, University of Chicago Booth School of Business: $45,000


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