Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Darden Faculty Profile: Casey Lichtendahl

Welcome to the first of what I hope will become a series of interviews with Darden’s top rated business school faculty!  For my inaugural profile I begin with Casey Lichtendahl, one of the teachers for first-year Decision Analysis.  “D.A.”, as it’s known here at Darden, serves as a rite of passage for many students who had never used a regression or an Excel spreadsheet in their pre-Darden lives.

Casey Lichtendahl

JH: Did you know that you have a fan club on Facebook?
CL: Yes, but I’ve never used Facebook and I’m not a fan of all this social media.  We’re losing out on face-to-face interactions such as what we are doing in this office right now.  It’s as if we are trading baseball cards, but we’re more than baseball cards as people.

JH: So have you also shunned “The Social Network”?
CL: I haven’t seen that movie, but I would like to.  It sounds like a good story about the entrepreneurial experience.

JH: Speaking of entrepreneurial experience, you have some yourself, co-founding Tradewinds Ice Tea in the early 90’s.  Any advice for Darden students looking to become entrepreneurs?
CL: I started Tradewinds with my family.  We recently sold off Tradewinds to Sweet Leaf Tea in Texas, and they plan on distributing it with Nestle so I’m not in the tea business any longer.

Having grown up in and around a family business, I had always found it hard to separate our family life from the work we were doing.  I liked that we were developing a tangible product, ice tea, and I enjoyed designing new flavors and working on labels for the bottles.  Operating in a family dynamic is difficult – you are business partners as well as close relatives.  I think in that environment it is important to find ways to create space to be analytical and objective.  With my father and sister involved with Tradewinds, I found that to be challenging.

JH: Why did you decide to leave your business to become a professor?
CL: Coming to business school was the change factor for me.  Probably not too many current students here realize this, but I received an MBA from Darden in 1998.  I came to business school wanting to increase my ability to add value to the family business.  Initially, I didn’t have an interest in the course material in just an academic setting.

In my first year at Darden, I took what was called Quantitative Analysis (now Decision Analysis), and was so turned on by the material that at the end of my first year I was thinking about a PhD.  After I graduated I returned to the family business for a year and tried to translate as much of my MBA experience as I could into improving the business.  I then started at a master’s program at Stanford as I needed more of a quant background to apply to doctoral programs, then I did my PhD at Duke, where I taught D.A. for economics undergrads before returning to Darden four years ago.

JH: Quite an unusual path!
CL: I’m actually not the only member of the faculty with a Darden MBA.  Professors Greg Fairchild and Tim Laseter studied here as well.

JH: In what ways has Darden changed since you were a student here?
CL: The focus on recruiting is much stronger now.  It is a bigger part of what students spend their time doing.  There were corporate briefings going on when I was here, but not to this degree.  I estimate there are about twice as many now.

The curriculum was also structured differently back then.  Instead of the term structure which the school has now, a first-year would just start with “Core”, and topics would come and go in the curriculum throughout the year.  All the classes would build on one another, and D.A. was smattered about with all the other classes.

In addition, the school was smaller back then.  We had four first-year sections instead of five.

JH: Do you still stay in touch with members of your learning team?
CL: I actually have had two of my old learning team members stop by my office.  They are both recruiting managers at their companies now.

Thankfully for many, well beyond the level of math needed to be successful in D.A.!

JH: What does Casey Lichtendahl do when he’s not teaching classes?
CL: This is what I’m working on right now.  [Casey pulls out a document from his desk titled “Habit Formation from Correlation Aversion”]

I’m writing this with my colleagues Raul Chao and Sam Bodily.  We’re hoping to get this published in the journal Operations Research.  Stuff like this is important for the school as it keeps the faculty sharp – we keep up with innovations in the field.

I find that I have a good balance here between my teaching load and research.  While I am teaching a class I put my research on hold.

JH: Have you ever had a day in which you wish you were lecturing rather than teaching using the case method?
CL: No, I really prefer doing things the Darden way.  The case method was brought to Darden by its first dean, Charles Abbott, who had been on faculty at Harvard.  Abbott believed that when there is ambiguity in how to solve a problem, you need students to discuss the possibilities in detail.  You need conversation about the problem spilling over outside of the classroom.   Relying on a single set of answers does not achieve the deepest level of learning.

When I was teaching at Duke I found it hard to keep students’ interest while going through a slide deck.  I’m really glad I don’t get to teach that way here.

JH: But there must be some days where you are thinking, “These students just don’t get it.”
CL: As you saw in class, sometimes an appeal to authority is necessary.  Sometimes we need to reach back to the assigned tech note to reexamine the math behind the business idea.  I don’t want deciphering a tech note to get in the way of understanding an important concept in the case.  I think it is fine, for example, to tell students what three or four statistics are most important in understanding the output of a regression.

When not at Darden, Casey enjoys spending time in Grand Teton National Park

JH: What’s the most unusual thing you ever had happen in one of your classes?
CL: There was a time when I ended up on the “Chips & Quips” page of the Cold Call Chronicle.  I was in class trying to demonstrate the Central Limit Theorem with a coin flip example.  I asked a student if he wanted to bet on the outcome of one coin flip, or on the average of two flips.  To make this a little more dramatic, I told the student that if the coin lands “heads” you live and “tails” you die.

The student, of course, asked me, “What is the outcome in the middle?”  I hadn’t really thought through the problem beforehand, and clearly you can’t end up 50% dead – I needed to think of something else.  So I said, “I’m going to punch you in the face really hard.”

Thankfully, I didn’t get to punch the student, but I really hope I never end up in “Chips & Quips” again.

JH: The holidays are upon us now in the United States.  Any shopping tips?
CL: Well, I rely on my wife to do all of the shopping, so I don’t buy too many gifts myself.  Of course, I need to go to the store personally for her presents, and I’m very much a last minute shopper.  I usually buy my wife something from Best Buy.  For her birthday I bought her an iPhone because she’s not very tech-savvy, and she loves that thing.

One rule I go by is: The more utilitarian the gift, the less romantically appealing.  You might be thinking about buying your loved one a weed eater…NO!  Absolutely not!  No kitchen gear, no appliances, no pots and pans, no knives!  These gifts are insulting on many levels.

JH: My mother loves those types of gifts.
CL: I doubt you have a romantic relationship with her.

Happy students celebrate passing Term 1 D.A. with "x hats" and "dummy variables"

JH: If you could pick only one theme of Decision Analysis that your students would remember in the business world, what would it be?
CL: The most important thing to remember in any decision analysis is to frame the decision properly.  Make sure you lay out all of the alternatives, the uncertainties, and the values of different consequences downstream from the initial decision.  Often when you do this you find you don’t even need to crank through the numbers to decide.

For instance, you might frame your choices as A and B, but downstream of B you might be able to make another decision which offsets the effect of a bad outcome, should it happen.  Now B completely dominates A.  By considering the big structural properties of the problem, you’ve cut short any analysis.  You don’t even need to build a spreadsheet model or do any hardcore number-crunching.

If you can’t make this tradeoff in your head after you’ve talked informally, but rigorously, about the decision, now you can go to the spreadsheet.  If you’re doing any numerical analysis, you need to synthesize your conclusions into pictures.  You need to look at the data graphically.

Hard to believe that we've come to the end of the first semester at Darden!  Most of the students are gone now and an unusual cold snap has descended upon Charlottesville.  I will be away for a couple weeks (follow me on my travel blog if you like), but back blogging to all of you in the new year.  Happy holidays!