Instructor Insights

Cultivating Professionalism

In this section, Prof. Gensler discusses how he sees 15.S08 as an opportunity to help his students cultivate the skills and habits they are likely to need in their future careers.

Respect and courtesy build reputations, networks, and trust. Each of us that walks into a classroom has a big responsibility. It’s such a privilege to be at MIT with this incredible student body and faculty and staff. But we have a responsibility that goes beyond our domain knowledge. Of course I’m in the classroom teaching finance and technology, and how machine learning and blockchain technology and the Internet of Things are changing the world of finance. But I when I look back at the faculty members I learned the most from when I went to business school, it wasn’t about the domain knowledge of accounting, or finance, or linear algebra, or biology. It was more about values and professionalism, and I’ve been honored to work at very high levels of professionalism.

"Respect and courtesy build reputations, networks, and trust."
— Prof. Gary Gensler

I’m now at MIT, but initially I was at Goldman Sachs. I worked in the US Department of the Treasury. I worked on political campaigns for Hillary Clinton, and I worked in Barack Obama’s administration chairing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. I even worked for Paul Sarbanes and the US Senate. All of those experiences I try to bring into the classroom, and so on the very first day of every course I teach, I put a slide up and talk for a little while about professionalism, about respect for others, and about prepping for every meeting. I tell my students that usually (though not always!) the race goes to the person who’s prepped the most, who’s been courteous, who listens as much as they talk, who asks questions that are relevant. And I don’t just come back to that in the classroom. I also offer lunches to the students. I usually meet with them in person. But in this time of COVID lockdown, there was such a demand that I set up online lunches twice a week all through the six weeks, and they were nearly always fully booked. We’d have no agenda, we would just talk about careers and professionalism and the like.

These students, by and large, are going to have three, four, or five decades of careers in front of them. I tell them, you’re going to see multiple crises. You’re going to live, hopefully not through other pandemics, but through other financial crises, and you’re probably going to have six or eight different jobs. And at some point in time you’ll have management jobs and at times you’ll unfortunately have to lay people off. Sometimes you’ll be laid off yourself and you’ll have to dust yourself off and pick yourself up after that challenge and move forward.

I usually end the last lecture in every one of my courses with a quote from Benjamin Franklin. I share this wonderful, warm quote that you can look up. It’s about money, but what Franklin really is talking about is paying it forward. He says that when somebody does you a favor, the way that you repay the favor is doing a favor for others. It may be a little hokey, but I feel that if those of us who are privileged to be in these positions can share that and it sticks with some percentage of the students, that’s as important, maybe more important than the domain knowledge and domain analysis. I like to think that we teach a lot more than knowledge, we teach a way of thinking and a way of analysis.

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