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An innovative life

UNC Professor Chris Bingham.

Professor Chris Bingham was practicing business strategy before he knew what business strategy was.

He adapted to his surroundings when he was a boy because he had to. Growing up with limited resources, he found ways to make money by delivering papers, selling hot dogs and shakes, lifeguarding, waiting tables and running his own lawncare and T-shirt businesses.

Bingham could innovate. When he was interested in snowboarding at an early age, he took a wood board and had metal edges put on it. His gate basher, the protective gear snowboarders put over their arms while racing slalom and giant slalom, was his mom’s copy of a thick Vogue magazine held in place with duct tape. He would find old ski boots at consignment stores, pull out the bladder and put it into his Sorel boots.

He also appreciated change, realizing early that most change occurs by starting small, making it simple and giving it time. He was curious and creative. He still is.

Bingham brings those motivations to UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School when teaching business strategy.

“As a teacher I try and tap into the experiences that are all around us in a classroom, especially in an executive classroom,” says Bingham, the Hettleman Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. “When I’m with an executive audience they’re looking for solutions right now that can help the next day. It’s about, ‘Can this help me tomorrow morning?’ That’s what excites me and motivates me to make sure what I am teaching is both rigorous and relevant.”

When Bingham talks about business strategy, he speaks as though he just discovered the field was perfect for him.

He loves the puzzle of business strategy, why some organizations outperform others and win in their industry. He lives for pinpointing practices that help leaders make better decisions.

Chris BinghamAll of Bingham’s interests aligned at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Joining the faculty in 2008, he taught a core MBA course on strategic management for almost a decade. Students did everything from pitching business ideas to prominent CEOs remoting in via video to hearing a panel of Coca-Cola executives discuss industry case studies in the classroom. He connected with UNC Kenan-Flagler alumni to help make the business strategies he taught tangible and prioritized giving back by bringing in dozens of nonprofits into class for students to work with and offer advice.

He now leads courses on strategy and innovation for Executive MBA students and UNC Executive Development, all while serving as area chair of strategy and entrepreneurship.

“I think one of our advantages as a school is that we have a high focus on application and relevance,” says Bingham. “There’s a real-world consequence of what we do in the classroom. Those coming to UNC want to drive change at a high level.”

Bingham encountered those real-world consequences of business strategy when he was a nationally sponsored snowboarder in the 1980s, the sport’s earliest days. He was a first-hand participant in an emerging market that innovated as it emerged and borrowed ideas from skateboarding, surfing, windsurfing and skiing. Those concepts led him to business and never stopped fascinating him.

He just didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do in business at first. After earning a bachelor’s in accounting from Brigham Young University, he tried a little bit of everything within companies big and small: consulting with Price Waterhouse, working as a general manager for a small design and architectural company and interning for McKinsey & Company and Deloitte Consulting.

During lunchtimes at the design company, Bingham found himself immersed in Harvard Business Review articles on management, leadership and strategy.

“I’d watch these designers in our organization, and they were so passionate about their work,” he says. “And I remember thinking that I’ve got to find something where I can be that passionate.”

He returned to Brigham Young University, earning his MBA and master’s in international and area studies, followed by a PhD in strategy from Stanford University.

Bingham also has a knack for cutting-edge research. He has consistently published in top journals on everything from how to create a new market to how to grow a successful global company. In 2022, he co-authored his first book, “Productive Tensions: How Every Leader Can Tackle Innovation’s Toughest Trade-Offs.

“I have always appreciated UNC Kenan-Flagler’s focus and vision to empower leaders to enact positive change,” says Bingham.  “My hope is that I too can use my research and teaching to help people feel like they can make a difference in a complex, fast changing world where there’s often not a lot of validation or understanding about how to move forward.”