Lisa Cohen is currently serving on the OOW Section Council. Cohen is an associate professor of organizational behavior at Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University. She was previously a faculty member at the London Business School, the Yale School of Management and the Graduate School of Management, University of California, Irvine. Prior to her academic career, Cohen was Principal Consultant at Terranova Consulting Group/Right Management Consultants, a human resource and management consulting firm. She earned her MBA from Fuqua School of Business, Duke University and her PhD from the Walter A. Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley.
Professor Cohen’s current research focuses on questions about how tasks are bundled into jobs and jobs bundled into organizations: how and why do jobs and organizations look the way they do, how do they change, and how do they influence organizational success? Most recently she has examined these issues in startups. Her most recent paper, forthcoming in Academy of Management Journal, looks at the fit between top management jobs and experience and how these interact with firm development in technology startups. She has additional projects examining hiring and unusualness in the top management structure of startups. She has published in Academy of Management Journal, Administrative Science Quarterly, American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, and Organization Science.
Below, Cohen discusses her research motivations, career trajectory and future research.
One of the central topics of your research has been jobs and job design. How did you get interested in this topic?
It started back in graduate school. I came in knowing that I wanted to study something about careers and work, probably because I had spent so many years not knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my life but also because work is so central to peoples’ lives. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was that I would study though. I just kept writing papers connected to the topic until I finally landed on a question about how jobs are designed that struck me as unanswered but answerable. My work has evolved from there.
Sociologists have long been studying occupations or workplaces as meaningful units that determine opportunities and stratification. How is your focus on jobs different from the other views in the sociology of work and organizations?
I don’t think that it is possible to understand either occupations or workplaces without understanding the jobs in them. Jobs link people to organizations and occupations and occupations to organizations. Yet, so much research takes them for granted. We assume that they are pre-existing and stable structures that people move through albeit at different rates. There’s substantial evidence in my work and that of others that this is not the case. To explain opportunities and stratification, we also need to explain jobs.
Before your current academic position, you had a successful consultancy career at a human resource management consulting firm. How did that experience shape your scholarly work? Would you recommend this career path to current graduate students?
I took the consulting job just out of my PhD program when I failed to get an academic appointment. I only intended to stay in it for a short time but that extended to six years. It was refreshing after graduate school. People often came out and complimented my work in a way that just doesn’t happen in either research or teaching. Eventually though I remembered that I really did want to be an academic. I had questions that I wanted to answer. I had continued to work on my research while consulting and managed to publish three papers. That helped me to convince people to hire me into lecturer positons and eventually into a tenure track position. I was lucky that much of my consulting work was closely related to my interests in jobs and work. I spent much of my time designing, executing, and leading job analysis studies which were used to understand how people spent their time at work. The methods and approach still inform my research. The perspective and experience gained in that work also makes me a better teacher. I don’t regret taking this circuitous route to get here though I’m not sure I would recommend it.
What are your research plans for the next 5-10 years?
I have been collecting data for the last three years on the unintended consequences of hiring in entrepreneurial firms. I’ve been gathering data from a cross-section of tech startups in Montreal and want to extend this in two directions: to follow a subset of firms over time; to include a second contrast population (either geographically or more established firms). I will be working on gathering this data and writing based on it. Right now, I have started a draft on how job design and hiring processes intersect in unexpected ways. From what I’ve already seen, this project could last a very long time. There is a lot we don’t yet understand. I have also begun a project with Matissa Hollister and Joe Broschak looking at the relationship between gender and job death: are jobs with female incumbents in a firm and that are gendered across the industry more likely to be dissolved? It’s the flip side of what I’ve been studying in recent years.