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Risa Mish, Faculty Member in the Management and Leadership of Organizations at Cornell’s Graduate School of Management

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Risa Mish

Risa Mish is a member of the Management and Leadership of Organizations faculty at Cornell University’s S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management, where she teaches courses in team leadership and critical and strategic thinking, and serves as Faculty Director of the Johnson Leadership Fellows program. She is the winner of the Apple Teaching Award, given by the MBA graduating class to honor a faculty member who exemplifies “outstanding leadership and enduring educational excellence”; the Executive MBA Globe Award for Teaching Excellence, given to a faculty member by the EMBA graduating class on the basis of “enduring educational influence in motivating students to achieve and excel”; and the Stephen Russell’61. Distinguished Teaching Award, given by the Johnson 5th Reunion Class to a faculty member “whose teaching and example have continued to influence graduates five years into their post-MBA careers.”

Prof. Mish is an honors graduate of Cornell University and Cornell Law School, is admitted to practice law in New York and before the U.S. Supreme Court, and runs her own consulting firm through which she trains and advises companies and senior executives on a range of leadership and employee relations topics, and serves as a keynote speaker and workshop leader at regional, national and global conferences. She is a member of the boards of directors of SmithBucklin Corporation, TheraCare, Inc., and the United Way of Tompkins County (NY), and is a Trustee of the Tompkins County (NY) Public Library.


In the Spotlight Interview

1. BSO : You are a faculty member in the Management and Leadership of Organizations at Cornell’s Graduate School of Management. You are also the Principal of a human capital practice. Please share with us your path to receiving these roles.

RM: So many life stories have an element of Serendipity to them, and that includes mine.

I started my career as a lawyer with a focus on labor and employment law issues, first practicing with a global law firm based in New York City, and then later as a partner in a boutique law firm, also in New York City. The big change in my life path came courtesy of my older child, Daniel, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was five years old.

My husband and I agreed that my current law firm partner life was not a good fit with what Daniel was likely to need from me, and so we started brainstorming alternatives. John and I had met at Cornell when I was a 3L and he was a PhD student, and we thought that perhaps Ithaca might be the right place in which to rear a special needs child. I cast around for job opportunities, and found that the one that best met our family’s needs was in Alumni Affairs & Development at my alma mater, Cornell Law School.

So, I gave up my law firm partnership, we moved to Ithaca, and I began working for Cornell while also continuing to advise my clients on labor and employment law issues. Eventually, my work at Cornell brought me to the Johnson Graduate School of Management, and through a series of twists and turns, I got the chance to apply for a role there that combined teaching with management of the leadership program. Because my initial foray into teaching was well received by the students, the school expanded that portion of my job into a full-time teaching load that now includes teaching in the One-Year Ithaca MBA, NYC Tech Campus MBA, Two-Year MBA, Executive MBA, and Executive Education programs, and allows me to run my own human capital practice, as well.


2. BSO: Take us through a typical day, start to finish.

RM: When you work with students, and also work with clients, there is no such thing as a “typical day”!

I generally focus my early morning time on client work so that I can devote my full “regular work day” to my students.

I start my day with a short exercise routine, and then spend the rest of the early morning updating content for the keynotes and workshops that I give on leadership topics and/or communicating with one or more of the companies that I continue to advise on labor and employment law matters.

I teach all year ‘round, so during the day I am either teaching classes in leadership or critical and strategic thinking or preparing for the next day’s class or grading or meeting individually with students about coursework, career plans, and life issues. I also build into my day regular “social media breaks” so that I can keep up with and post to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook – platforms through which I both maintain contact with my former students, and also stay current with issues of the day.

In the evenings, I spend time with my two kids and my husband, do more work for clients, and then end the day with at least 30 minutes of reading literary fiction. That is my small gift to myself. It allows me to decompress from worldly concerns and engage my imagination.


3. BSO: What was the best advice you received when you were given your role at Cornell?

RM: One of my fellow faculty members told me that when students leave my class, they should feel as if they have been given “a bag of magic beans”. What he meant by that is that what students want when they take a course from a practitioner (as opposed to a course taught by a research scholar) are very practical and effective tools that they can apply right away, and from which they can see results right away.

That turned out to be excellent advice. When I am thinking about how to shape the content that I deliver – whether in the classroom or in front of an executive audience at a conference or in a workshop – I am always thinking, “Practical, Practical, Practical. Apply, Apply, Apply.” You want to deliver insights, yes, but you want to deliver them in a way that allows your audience to apply what they’ve learned to the problems they will be called upon to solve.


4. BSO: What are your strategies for building awareness of your practice, short and long term?

RM: This is an area to which I should be devoting much more attention than I do. I have mostly been operating on the “word of mouth” strategy. The workshops and keynotes that I give usually lead to other invitations. What I should probably be doing is building a website, blogging, and getting an agent!


5. BSO: What is your proudest achievement?

RM: Being crystal clear about my Core Values, and living in a way that is consistent with those values.


6. BSO: What are Your Top 3 book recommendations?

RM: I am a serious fan of literary fiction. I think there is more to learn there about the important issues in life than you will find in a shelf full of self-help books.

It is hard to choose a Top 3, but among my very favorite novels are:

Pride and Prejudice;

Atonement by Ian McEwan;

Possession, by A.S. Byatt.

Lest your listeners think that I value British fiction above American literature, I would also very strongly recommend

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison;

 “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout;

and “House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton.


7. BSO: What other charitable causes are most meaningful to you and why?

RM: I serve on the board of directors of the United Way of Tompkins County and as a Trustee of the Tompkins County Public Library.

The United Way is, in many ways, the community’s “safety net”,  funding non-profit organizations that help the neediest members of our community and also ensuring that those organizations meet standards of excellence in order to operate consistently in the best interest of the people they serve. The public library – together with public schools and an independent press — is one the institutions that is most essential to a functioning democracy.


8. BSO: Who has been most influential toward your accomplishments, professional & personal?

RM: My parents, who taught me the power of perseverance (one of my Core Values), and my husband, who reminds me that a full life consists of more than one’s professional work.


9. BSO: What is your advice for entrepreneurs who are 1-3 months away from launching their new business?

RM: Be very clear about What Problem You are Solving;

Why, and for Whom, Your Proposed Solution is Optimal;

and Why You Are the Right Person to be Solving It.

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