Meet Catherine Tinsley: The Professor Who Removes Barriers

Catherine Tinsley traveled to the small village of Masoro in Rwanda to research the community impact of one of Kate Spade & Company’s suppliers and the social responsibility aspects of its women-owned business model, February 2016.

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Catherine Tinsley’s journey to leading the Executive Master’s in Leadership (EML) program didn’t start at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business – it began in Africa. Her on-the-ground experiences there inspired her to teach others how to become better leaders. As the Raffini Professor of Management and the academic director of the EML program, Tinsley ensures students graduate with the skills to make evidence-based decisions for their organizations and for society.  

How did you choose your career path?
I was in the middle of Africa doing development work, teaching health care to villagers. I realized I was spending very little of my time actually disseminating information about preventative healthcare. I was spending my time not doing my job but instead trying to figure out how to do my job. I had to figure out whom to contact to get permission to hold classes; then I had to secure permission to have a class and get people to come to class. I was working within a tribal system overlaid with a post-colonial decaying bureaucracy overlaid with my own American governmental red-tape. The consequences of all of these systems I had to navigate made my job incredibly inefficient. 

I started thinking about finding ways to streamline organizational structures and understand how various political forces shape people’s behavior to be more effective as a society. And that’s how I became interested in studying organizational systems and their influence on behavior. 

What is your personal philosophy?
I’m motivated by the belief that we are all fundamentally good and trying hard to live amicably with one another. There are just misunderstandings and systemic barriers that keep us apart. I want to help people understand how to be better at coming together and finding commonalities rather than seeing differences. 

What are students surprised to learn about you during the program?
What they are surprised to learn is something I’ve been surprised to learn about myself. I’ve been teaching for 25 years, but I am still nervous before meeting each EML cohort for the first time. I want to do my best by them. I don’t know them yet, and I want to make sure I can connect with them. Can they learn from me? Are they going to feel like they walked away with value? So far, it has all worked out, but I still have these annual jitters.

What can we find you doing outside of Georgetown?
Swimming, hiking, trying to find ways to punk my kids. If I can figure out something relatively innocuous that bothers them (because I am their parent), I make sure to do it every now and again. 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Sleep on it. I get so excited by so many ideas, and I’m too quick to say yes. If I see the potential three steps down the road, I discount the costs to get to that potential. If I sleep on it, I can see the amount of activity and effort required to get to that end.

What has been the biggest change to the business world since you started teaching?
The increasing speed of interconnectivity due to technological advances. Everything moves at lightning speed now.  Anything can go “viral” rapidly and with such scale and scope. 

In addition, there is so much more awareness of our own impact. Businesses are being forced to look at, and adjust for, negative externalities. Organizations are looking at their environmental impacts, or how employee (low) wages might influence customer reactions. That’s a welcome change, as organizations become more socially responsible actors.

How would you describe the sense of community at Georgetown McDonough?
I would describe it as eager. Eager to learn. Eager to make a difference. Eager to change if necessary. Eager to understand. Eager to explore. Eager to be here. 

What do you hope students take away from the EML program?
That they understand the importance of using evidence to support any arguments. 

What do you recommend students do before graduating?
They should go to a basketball game at Capital One Arena. The first time I did it, I was blown away by the school spirit. There is a sense of ‘wow, this really is Georgetown.’ You feel very Hoya while you’re there.