January 16, 2018
Tatiana Kostova, Buck Mickel Chair and Professor of International Business at the Darla Moore School of Business, was recognized this past year by the university as a Carolina Distinguished Professor, one of the highest faculty honors at USC. Kostova’s involvement above and beyond her requirements as a professor and her dedication to her field set her apart.
What do you do at the university and throughout the Moore School?
I’m in my 22nd year here at the business school, and I went through the typical academic career progression — I started as an assistant professor in international business in 1996 and worked my way up to where I am now. What’s not so common in our profession in general and in my field in particular is that I have stayed for this long.
I currently teach graduate classes in international and cross-cultural management and global strategy, and I also supervise Ph.D. students. I think being engaged in doctoral education is important for expanding our knowledge. With every Ph.D. student, I get exposed to new topics — for example, I had a student who was interested in studying corporate social responsibility in multinational companies. I had never done research in this area, but now I know so much about it.
Similarly, new faculty members have also brought in new topics and questions, and having the opportunity to work with them has further expanded my scope of research, for example, into topics of corporate governance and ownership and their impact on business. This kind of collaboration with junior colleagues and Ph.D. students is incredibly important for senior scholars.
What has kept you at the Moore School over the last 22 years?
For me, professionally, the most important thing is the focus on international business. This has been a strategic priority for the school for more than 40 years now — to develop programs, to teach international business courses and to do research on multinational companies and international business.
There aren’t many places around the world where you will find this concentration of international business scholars. We have more than 20 people here in this group who are mostly very well published and very well-respected scholars and who are all passionate about international business, trying to understand the main risks and challenges, but also opportunities and success factors for companies doing business abroad. We like to think that our research has important implications for global managers, companies and policy makers.
Work in this field is also interesting because international business is very dynamic and complex — it is connected to politics, economics, and culture, and any changes in these areas may impact companies and necessitate adjustments in strategy, capabilities and organization. The Moore School and USC as a whole continue to support international business education and research as one of our key priorities, which keeps us committed to the institutions.
What did you do before coming to the Moore School?
I was in several places before joining USC. I came to the United States from Bulgaria, my home country, 28 years ago as a Fulbright Professor at UCLA. The time at UCLA was very important for me professionally. I used to teach computer programming and management information systems — the mathematical side of business, which was my formal training. When I came to UCLA, I became very interested in management, strategy, and the psychology and sociology of organizations, so it was a critical year in my professional development. Then I spent a couple of years doing a Master of Science in Economics and MBA at the University of Delaware, and I did my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in the Carlson School of Management.
What drew your interest to the psychology and management side of things?
As a person trained in mathematics, I expected to be able to find the best solution mathematically — it’s challenging, but possible. But what I realized when I started interacting with companies in my early career was that sometimes there is a very big gap between a mathematically optimal solution and a good management decision that gets everybody on board for effective implementation. What lies between the two are all these issues of psychology and sociology and management and leadership and motivation — all the “soft,” “people” stuff. I also became interested in this line of work because I was coming to a foreign country and I saw completely different behaviors, different sets of incentives, different orientations, different cultures.
The question of why people behave differently, why companies from different regions are so different, why some organizations do better than others, what managers can do to improve performance when conducting business in multiple diverse settings across national borders —all of these questions lead me to the study of context — political, economic, cultural, institutional — and how context shapes firms, their strategy, organization, and ultimate success or failure. Delving into these less-quantifiable aspects of organizations is not only intellectually appealing, but also has a tremendous impact on business outcomes.
What are some of the things that motivate you in your work?
Anything can motivate a scholar, especially a social scientist like me working in an applied and not purely academic field. Macro shifts in the global business environment like the rise of China, micro events like election results in a given country, or the emergence of a new technology which is difficult to protect from global rivals — all can have major implications for companies. Staying current on such developments and trying to understand the proper business response is exciting and motivating.
The other big piece is just talking to managers who do business internationally and learning from their amazing journeys — overcoming serious challenges and risks in different countries and ensuring the success of their companies.
The third piece of motivation is just the complexity of research in business. There are so many factors in every question we ask — there’s the individual level, the team level, the company level, the national level. When you start asking a question in international business, it is always multifaceted, so this is very motivating for me.
What does this award mean to you?
I appreciate it very much. I really think of it as a recognition for the whole IB department. There are incredible scientists across different colleges on campus who do amazing work that is immediately impactful, so being recognized as someone from the business school is not trivial. I am very happy for this acknowledgement of our school and our type of research and impact that we have.
I’m so grateful to my colleagues, the deans, the committee — the validation of the importance of what we do is really nice. It helps our efforts to stay at the forefront in this area globally, to train capable managers — this is our dedication, to find ways of understanding what drives success. This award is really a recognition for the field and our efforts as a group.
Do you think this will affect the way you work at all?
I don’t think so. I love what I do, so I’ll just keep going.
By Madeleine Vath