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Female Professors at HBS Series: Tiona Zulzul

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Loujaine AlMoallim (MBA ’24) interviews Assistant Professor Tiona Zulzul (DBA ’14) about her personal journey, her time at HBS, and her advice for HBS leaders.

Loujaine AlMoallim, Women’s Leadership Editor

Can you briefly tell us about the journey that got you to where you are today?

The highs and lows of teaching and research were a frequent topic around my childhood dinner table (my father began his career as a psychology professor). I began seriously considering academia as a psychology major at Harvard, where I worked as a Research Assistant in several labs. But, after a master’s at the London School of Economics, I decided to make a foray into consulting. As I advised leaders and organizations confronting real-world challenges, I realized that I could apply my research skills to help explore and solve important organizational problems. As a consultant, I gained valuable experience and exposure to different industries and contexts; I also realized that I missed the academic environment and the rigor of research methods. This motivated me to return to Harvard for a doctorate in Strategy. After teaching at the London Business School and the University of Washington for some time, I came back to Harvard once more to join the Strategy Unit at HBS.    

How has your teaching experience been at HBS so far? What do you like most about the case method and classroom experience?

Assistant Professor Tiona Zulzul (DBA ’14)

Being back in the HBS classroom is a delight. My favorite part of the case method is seeing those “lightbulb” moments on students’ faces as they learn from one another’s experiences and perspectives. I also enjoy the unpredictability and richness of the classroom discussion. I am currently teaching two sections and am continually struck by the different directions a case can take, depending on students’ interests and insights.

Your research focuses on the adaptation of leaders to environmental shifts and periods of change. Could you give us a summary of leaders’ identity and framing can affect their firms’ strategy and ability to change?

My research explores how leaders make sense of and communicate their purpose and strategy in changing contexts. I show that leaders’ flexibility and learning are crucial, especially during periods of change. For example, in one study, I found that entrepreneurs who saw themselves as pioneers of a new industry became stuck in their initial strategies and resisted change, even when the environment shifted. In another study, my co-authors and I showed how the FBI Director’s framing of the FBI’s transformation after 9/11 affected Congressional support. He was most successful when he framed changes not as a new set of goals (preventing terrorism), but as a new way of working (being threat-based and intelligence-led).

What recommendations would you give current and future HBS leaders when it comes to renewing a strategy?

Renewing a strategy is essential for leaders who want to thrive in a fast-changing and uncertain world. Be proactive and anticipatory: recognize that change is inevitable, look for emerging trends and opportunities, and act on them before they become obvious or urgent. Be collaborative and communicative: involve your team, partners, and other stakeholders in the process. And recognize that there’s often a trade-off between advocacy and learning. My research has shown that leaders who are committed to driving external success – attracting prestigious employees, partnering with well-known companies, and even building their entire industries – can also blind their organizations to the need to change and learn. While external success is important, renewal requires careful attention to building, reflecting on, and attending to new knowledge.

Throughout your journey, what is the greatest lesson that you believe you learned and what is one piece of advice you would give people reading this?

Expect and embrace change and learning! It is tempting to develop a fixed identity and stick to familiar ideas about “who I am” as a person and a leader. It is important to know yourself, but it is equally important to allow yourself to change, learn, and update your beliefs and views.

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Loujaine AlMoallim (MBA ’24) is a Saudi Arabian who spent most of her formative years in Canada. After completing her undergraduate degree at McGill University majoring in International Management, she moved back to Saudi Arabia and worked in Consulting. She enjoys traveling and exploring new places, hosting people over for small gatherings, and baking and decorating cakes. Tiona Zuzul (DBA ’14) is an Assistant Professor in the Strategy Unit. She teaches Strategy in the MBA required curriculum. Professor Zuzul studies how leaders and organizations learn and adapt in response to environmental shifts and periods of discontinuous change. Her in-depth, longitudinal field research shows that leaders’ identity and framing – how they see, interpret, and convey firm strategy – shape strategic renewal in settings from high-tech start-ups to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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