Business school deans have a complex role—yet many newly minted deans find that the experiences they acquire in academia and industry do not adequately prepare them for their new responsibilities.
When Hildy Teegen took the reins as the dean of the Darla Moore School of Business at University of South Carolina, it became the most rewarding position she had ever undertaken—an extraordinary privilege to work on initiatives of greater scale, scope, and impact. It was also the hardest thing she had ever done.
Business school deans have an expansive and complex role in the fabric of the universities and communities served by their programs. Yet many newly minted deans discover that the experiences they acquire while climbing the ranks of academia or industry do not adequately prepare them for their new responsibilities. While some deans served in department chair roles where they managed a small group of faculty peers, becoming a dean requires them to oversee a broader range of issues and operations. Rather than primarily managing individual projects, they assume responsibility for a school’s research portfolio. Rather than managing relationships with a small group of faculty peers, they assume responsibility for cultivating relationships with internal staff and external stakeholders, including donors, alumni, the media, and the business community. In addition, deans assume responsibility for their school’s finances and their contribution to the broader university, and they must advocate the interests of their business school among a university’s senior leadership, donors, and government stakeholders to obtain the requisite resources to sustain programs or grow new ones. Similarly, industry experience by itself may not adequately prepare an executive-turned-dean to effectively recruit faculty or navigate change in an academic culture.
Incoming business school deans face a profoundly challenging environment. A worldwide economic downturn resulted in declining demand for MBA programs at many schools. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) undermine traditional models of education, and recruiters and employers are demanding a higher standard of talent from all schools. In addition, third-party rankings are significantly influencing schools’ reputations, the number of applications they receive, and their revenues. All of these challenges require incoming deans to shape and execute thoughtful responses.
In 2012, Deloitte’s University Relations Program interviewed 20 business school deans about their transition experiences and piloted a transition lab to help them frame critical priorities, evaluate their organizations, and develop a strategy to advance their agenda while remaining mindful of their myriad stakeholders. In an attempt to help business school deans effectively transition into their new roles, this paper synthesizes key findings from our interviews, our labs, and related experiences on executive transitions and business school strategy.
When one prominent business school dean assumed his post, he encountered several disparate problems. First, his school had experienced a 50 percent decline in applications in the three years leading up to his appointment. When he became dean, his school’s rankings were slipping, senior faculty members were finding greener pastures in other programs, alumni were unhappy, and the university had just announced a capital campaign. These problems illustrate the array of issues that can face an incoming dean. Furthermore, many deans assume their new positions without clarity about the roles they are taking on, and they lack experiences that are vital to their success.
Our extensive work with executives in transition suggests that business school deans, like many senior leadership positions in industry and government, play four distinct roles within their programs.
Strategist: Deans are responsible for positioning their schools for the future and ensuring that ample resources, including money, faculty, students, and physical assets, are in place to fulfill that future. Today, schools are challenged to produce global managers, adapt to the digitalization of education, and transform curricula to strike a balance between greater specialization and broader leadership skills. This leaves many programs scrambling to meet the shifting needs of the marketplaces for which they prepare their graduates. In addition, mounting competition among programs places a strategic imperative on improving the value and relevance of the education they offer to students.
Catalyst: Adapting to changing economic, demographic, political, and business environments places new demands on business schools and their leadership. Deans need to do more than merely dream up a strategy. They need to be change managers who build consensus and credibility for their strategy and find a way to mobilize the academic community. This is far from easy, given tenured faculty and academic councils. Deans have to become masters of influence when driving a change agenda. In order to meet tight deadlines for strategic change in academic institutions, which are fundamentally averse to change, deans need to calibrate their agendas to avoid losing credibility or feasibility. Agendas lose credibility if implemented before internal stakeholders buy in to the ideas at hand. Agendas lose feasibility if they wait too long to get off the ground and cannot be completed or substantially advanced within the typical five-year timeframe of an initial dean contract.
Steward: Deans are also responsible for protecting their school’s core assets, including its reputation, critical faculty, intellectual property, financial assets, student standards, and accreditation. In addition, deans are ultimately responsible for ensuring that their institutions are in compliance with the regulations that govern them. As stewards, business school deans are a top line of defense that protects the assets that give programs a leg up in a crowded market. And when things go wrong, deans have to find solutions that maintain their school’s reputation and assets.
Operator: This role encompasses all the operational activities that drive the efficient delivery of education to students. For example, deans are ultimately responsible for the recruitment of faculty, their assignment to and scheduling of classes, and their delivery of quality classes through multiple channels. They are also responsible for overseeing marketing efforts to prospective students as well as their recruitment to the school and their placement to valued jobs when they graduate. Deans also have to ensure that the school has the right mix of tenured faculty and contract-based adjunct faculty to deliver high-quality, efficient, and cost-effective education. Finally, they often oversee the delivery of technology and other systems for instruction and operations.
Successfully delivering across these roles requires focus and support. As Dean Sally Blount, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and a host of other interview subjects noted, deans cannot accomplish the various facets of their roles if they’re acting alone. Provosts, presidents, and trustees seek deans who can adapt their schools to changing times. Deans must allocate most of their time to the strategist and catalyst roles, requiring them to develop an excellent cabinet of associate deans who execute operational and stewardship responsibilities on their behalf.
The success of a dean’s transition can hinge on how he or she effectively manages three key resources: time, talent, and relationships.
Time: The flood of issues that crosses a dean’s desk places a premium on time, so deans need to quickly develop a clear sense of their priorities and strategic objectives as they take office. Descriptions of long hours, a dearth of strategies for fostering a wide range of internal and external relationships, and limited bandwidth were recurring themes among the deans we interviewed. Even as they sort through their responsibilities, they’re already working against the clock. Fuqua School of Business dean Bill Boulding noted that you can’t wait too long before you start to demonstrate progress within your institution. Even with a wealth of experience within Duke University’s business school, his challenge, like other executives, was to whittle the list of 100 things that he knew were on fire down to a few priorities. He chose three key priorities: preserve a shared sense of identity and purpose within the school, create an operationally sound business model to build long-term financial health, and articulate a strategic direction to a broad array of key stakeholders.
Industry executives typically operate on a 180-day cycle. During this time, corporate executives generally have to establish themselves and their organizations and achieve some tangible results. Deans, on the other hand, operate on a very different timeframe, and depending on the organization they inherit, they may have to plan according to a one- or two-year horizon to frame their specific change strategies. This is because an academic calendar is often set a year in advance, and it is difficult to change. The lengthy academic recruiting process can also make it difficult to quickly drive changes.
Timing is everything when it comes to successful dean transitions. Initiating a change agenda in an academic setting can be profoundly different from an industry setting, placing particular demands on a dean’s roles as a strategist and catalyst. The five-year window before a dean’s contract typically comes up for renewal forces them to hit the ground running in the first two years. Navigating the constraints of an academic calendar is critical in establishing an agenda and having the right talent to execute it. Tenured faculty stakeholders are under no real obligation to support a dean’s change agenda; if a dean fails to achieve buy-in from tenured faculty members, they can simply drag their feet until the next dean comes along. Thus, deans need to quickly cultivate credibility and commitment to their strategies among their faculty.
Talent: The deans we interviewed were also quick to point out that they could never do their jobs alone. They stressed the importance of surrounding themselves with the right talent so their office could effectively manage each of the four faces of the dean role. Recruiting and appointing people are two of the most important things deans do. When one of the deans we interviewed took on the dean role, he decided to forgo a piece of advice from a senior colleague: to ask for the resignations of all the legacy direct reports in favor of establishing a team of his own. While this is a standard practice among leaders in government and business, he felt that he knew the people on his leadership team and thought they were competent. After a year and a half, with more clarity, he wished he had moved more quickly to tailor his team.
The easiest way for deans to succeed across each of the four faces of their role is to focus on developing and implementing a change agenda and quickly surrounding themselves with a cabinet that can take responsibility for time-absorbing operational obligations. To this end, it’s critical to hire staff that has the skills required to ensure employee satisfaction, operational excellence, fundraising, target-listing, scheduling, and a host of other operational obligations. Stefanie Lenway, dean of the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, stressed the importance of having a process for establishing a cabinet within 90 days of taking office. She established a committee of faculty members who helped her interview internal candidates, which gave her important insights that helped her select the best cabinet members. Establishing a great team can be an important early victory when taking the reins in an academic setting. Having a cabinet in place and operating smoothly during the first year can go a long way toward advancing a change agenda in the second year.
Relationships: New deans are frequently inundated by the volume of relationships they’re expected to foster. From presidents to provosts to faculty and other deans, taking the reins of a business school can hinge on the ability to develop a physical presence on campus. Many of the deans we interviewed found it helpful to schedule meetings with their faculty during the first few months of their administrations. A dean that we interviewed scheduled meetings with each of the faculty members in his business school, which helped him establish relationships and more fully understand the contributions and aspirations of the extant faculty of the school. Similarly, Christine Poon, dean at the Max M. Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University, identified a couple of key people to help her learn, listen, and navigate the school during the first few months. In addition, she took the time to establish personal relationships with as many people on campus as she could. She used these meetings to understand the culture of the institution, identify the things that people love about the university, and pinpoint opportunities for partnerships and collaborations.
Simultaneously, deans are expected to foster relationships with a wide range of off-campus stakeholders, including alumni, donors, the business community, and the media. Kindling these external relationships with donors and alumni is extremely important for business school deans. Alumni and MBA applicants learn about business schools from the media, so establishing a credible presence in the media is an important avenue for fostering positive relationships with these important stakeholders. One of the deans we interviewed had previously served as a senior associate dean at another university where he was internally focused, so he wasn’t prepared for public speaking, media appearances, and civic functions. In hindsight, he underestimated how valuable these opportunities can be to deliver crisp, clear messages about his program and its future. Collectively, external stakeholders go a long way in dictating the financial and reputational well-being of a business school.
Deans must find a way to divide their time between internal and external stakeholders, especially during the first 180 days of their administrations. The decision between building internal and external relationships resides in the organizations they inherit. In some cases, deans assume leadership of schools that are difficult to navigate. These programs require deans to spend a larger percentage of their time kindling relationships and establishing their presence on campus. In other cases, deans inherit business schools that are running smoothly, so they have the benefit of quickly establishing key relationships that help them learn the ropes on campus, thus freeing them to focus their attention on pursuing external resources and relationships. Given the scope and magnitude of their relationships, deans may need to rely on key staff and faculty to serve as ambassadors for their business schools. For example, Dean Robert Dammon, Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, had a goal of reconnecting with many external stakeholders as a critical first step in his tenure as dean. But given all the other responsibilities he had as a new dean, he felt very time-constrained in the first six months. In hindsight, he realized the importance of effectively delegating responsibilities to his senior associate deans and senior faculty.
Incoming deans inherit a variety of legacy operational issues, and it is easy to get distracted by the issues of the moment. We expect most deans will have to undertake strategist and catalyst roles to adapt their business schools to changing markets. Often, schools may not have established a strategic plan, and one way of establishing broad consensus on how to move forward is to frame a plan in collaboration with key faculty. Such a plan would likely give consideration to some of the areas outlined below to bolster a school’s reputation and position it for the future. Both the demand for a particular business school and its ability to earn revenues hinge on reputational rankings.
The following tactics can help schools better serve their stakeholders and improve their reputations:
The levers that a dean chooses to focus on in the first year depend on the particular needs of a school. Beyond major capital campaigns for resources, each of the above levers deserves consideration when framing a playbook. The challenge for new deans is to select a few levers they will choose to own and define a playbook of practical actions that advance a school in that area.
The dean role is a unique privilege and opportunity to shape not only a school but a generation of future leaders. For many business schools, the status quo is incompatible with the realities of the emerging business landscape. Deans will have to work as strategists and catalysts with their faculty members to adapt business schools to the digitization of education and work life, new demands from recruiters for global managers, specialization for specific competencies and industries, and the needs for lifelong learning and new career models with extensive freelance work outside of a traditional corporate structure. The challenge for business schools is to build curricula and supportive programs that account for current and future business landscapes.