Human capital, down to a (social) science
“My life was very much affected by being around an academic institution."
Adina Sterling 11PhD, associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, has devoted much of her young career to understanding what powers healthy organizations. In the process, she’s paving the way for employees of all levels and backgrounds to make a difference in the marketplace.
Such heavy research comes naturally for Sterling, who grew up on a college campus.
In a small college town like Ames, Iowa, seemingly everything — and everyday life — revolves around the university. For Sterling, daughter of a chemical engineering and statistics professor, the campus was central to her upbringing. She recalled peeking into science labs and exploring campus during weekly visits to her father’s office. She observed the camaraderie between professor and students, firsthand, at her family barbecues.
She took notice of how much fun her father had and would, eventually, have her academic career come with a family focus.
“My life was very much affected by being around an academic institution,” she said. “I was old enough to remember my dad sitting there, writing his dissertation. I remember his graduation at Ohio State. Not every kid grows up with that image.”
According to her professional biography "Sterling investigates the ways organizations attract, manage, and retain high-value human capital in technology and business, the effect this has on the performance of employees and organizations, and the broader impact of these practices on inequality. For example, her work illuminates the ways firms strategically use the networks of employees to address timing issues when recruiting and hiring individuals, and that those hired with a social contact in the firm prior to starting are better integrated into a firm’s network after they join organizations. She currently has a number of projects investigating the tradeoffs between hiring through networks and hiring through trials such as internships, and is finding that the tradeoffs pertain to the performance of individuals, as well as equity-related issues, such as who is hired and what they paid."
"I wanted to make sure what I do matters…and I saw myself being most happy and more fulfilled being an academic."
It’s no doubt Sterling was influenced by her parents’ love of higher education. Today, she’s mentoring students and inspiring practitioners — but not without taking her own academic journey first.
Sterling said her decision to pursue an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at The Ohio State University was a pragmatic one: She was good at math and knew it would open doors for her.
And it did.
After an internship at Procter & Gamble, Sterling began working full-time in product development. She became intimately acquainted with household brands most of us use every day.
While designing for the Olay and Pampers brands, Sterling began to see that, to P&G, innovation meant more than technological advances: It was about effectively managing people and processes. She was fascinated by how a “fairly large bureaucratic organization” could standardize so many systems.
Always fond of the social sciences, her interest in internal operations was natural.
“It was serendipitous,” she said of how her observations inspired her next academic and professional endeavor. Around that time, Sterling and her husband started a family. She knew she’d be a working mother and wanted to consider how she could make her time away from her family the most worthwhile.
“I wanted to make sure what I do matters…and I saw myself being most happy and more fulfilled being an academic,” she said.
About a year after her son was born, she joined Goizueta Business School’s Organization and Management department as part of a Ph.D. cohort of three. She said it was a precious time in her life, one filled with community, friendship and intellectual mentorship.
Her time at P&G was devoted to research and development. In a sense, her academic focus is very similar. She researches how companies can better develop employees and, therefore, develop into better organizations.
“I do feel the call of service is real, and it’s why I do what I do. I want to open up doors for people who come behind me.”
One of her main focuses is organizational inequality.
“Frankly, we have progress to make,” she said, explaining that while society is starting to understand why inequality exists, we know far less about what remediates that inequality. “I’m really passionate to continue research in that area.”
Sterling’s research also includes evaluating “new” methods to find and engage employees. She said the apprentice-model, popular in many European countries, could be an opportuntiy for businesses in the United States, especially when it comes to preparing disadvantaged youth for labor markets.
“As I look at the changes in our economy, I think we need to do a better job as academics partnering with government institutions and policymakers to give [some] students a much more applied education,” she said.
Lifelong learning, Sterling said, is also crucial. The rise of artificial intelligence and smart machines and the popularity of the gig economy all affect human capital.
Sterling, a prolific researcher, has authored and co-authored numerous scholarly works. However, she also contributes to publications like Harvard Business Review and Strategy + Business because she believes it’s crucial to share these insights with business practitioners — the ones hiring, managing and transforming today’s workforce.
As a professor, Sterling said transformational leadership is at the core of her classroom. She teaches her master of science, MBA and Ph.D. students ways to adapt and handle change and how to understand and evaluate human capital holistically. This, she explained, means going beyond someone’s educational credentials and leveraging skill sets in less obvious ways.
“If we’re more holistic about what people can do and why they work, we can create jobs and organizations that begin to tap into human potential in a way that we have not,” she said.
A broad view of abilities, again, comes from her family.
Sterling reflected on a Bible verse paraphrased from Luke 12 her parents often recited when she was young: “To whom much is given, much is required.”
This wisdom still resonates with her. She considers her career a service to others. And it is. Her contributions impact the livelihood of underrepresented students and professionals, and her ideas may allow those seeking hands-on work an opportunity to hone a new skill or craft.
Her commitment to students — and the workforce at large — is gaining attention. Just in her second year at Stanford, she was honored with the 2017 Distinguished Faculty Service Award.
“Adina has embraced being a role model for students, particularly for women and minorities,” one anonymous vote read.
Sterling, of course, is humbled by this achievement.
“I don’t think for one moment that ending up with a Ph.D., at Stanford teaching and doing research, is something I’ve done on my own,” she said. “I’ve had outstanding parents, teachers, mentors and advisors…I don’t take the opportunities I have lightly.”
It’s clear that, while a university is still just as central to her life as its always been, she’s committed to improving lives beyond her California campus — one human, process and organization at a time.
“I do feel the call of service is real, and it’s why I do what I do,” she said, taking a peek out the window at her children. “I want to open up doors for people who come behind me.”