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Dean's Corner: Leading a Business School vs. Leading in the Business World: Are They Similar?

December 2014

By Reginald Gilyard
Dean, The George L. Argyros School of Business and Economics
Chapman University

I came into this role from a non-traditional path. In “chapter one” of my career I was a program manager in the U.S. Air Force, leading the design, development, and fielding of a global information system that fed intelligence information to warfighters. After completing an MBA, I spent 16 years in “chapter two” with a top-tier consulting firm, advising companies and educational institutions on issues of strategy and performance improvement. I led a practice area for the firm. I also advised leaders of companies with revenues from 100 million USD to 60 billion USD.

I have learned a great deal since entering this current career chapter in academia, and I continue to learn each day. It may likely take me quite a few years to learn all that my peers have learned about leading an academic unit. That said, I suggest four themes—which I primarily take from chapter two of my professional career—that are as important in leading a strong and vibrant business school as they are in leading in the business world.

Customers Come First

You may have experienced the following debate in your own business school: “are students our customers, or are they our products?” I was confronted very early on with this question. I think that the answer is YES. In the business world, customers are those business entities or people who pay you. Our students and/or their families pay for the services that we provide. At the same time, employers are also our customers, and our graduates are important products feeding their workforce needs.

Successful businesses have a relentless focus on satisfying customer needs, both self-identified and latent, and delivering a product or service that is valued. I think that as business school leaders we can follow a similar perspective, and I have met many who do. A continuous focus on the career needs of our students is helpfully related to the needs of our other customers, the employment community. I tell each entering freshman class that the diploma is not the endgame or destination—a successful business career is the endgame. To deliver on the value proposition that is education, we at the Argyros School work very hard to provide both preparation for, and pathways to, successful business careers. Faculty members work to stay current with the dynamic world of business, and our administrative team delivers exceptional co-curricular opportunities and placement support using our “roadmap for success” toolkit. In addition, I spend a large percentage of my time developing and deepening relationships with business leaders. Our relationships with the local and national business community continue to yield executive guest lecturers, internships, curriculum/program input, project work, full-time placement, and more.

Motivating the Workforce

You may be surprised to learn that a consulting firm can consistently rank high on Fortune Magazine’s “List of Best Companies to Work For.” These firms are typically known for long hours and extensive travel. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has been ranked among the top 10 companies on the Fortune list consistently for several years running. For 2014, BCG is #3 behind Google and SAS. Here are two approaches that I learned from my time at BCG that I believe can transition well to academia.

First, at BCG the senior team does a lot of “listening.” Staff take a satisfaction survey once per year. Listening meetings are held once the survey results are in to understand what can be changed to make client service, the work process, and the work environment better. Ad-hoc meetings are held throughout the year to address issues that are either specific to a particular project, or that arise outside of the normal survey calendar. A few times throughout each academic year you might hold “listening meetings” with various faculty and staff groups, just as I do. Listen, take notes, and avoid defensiveness and debate. Follow up on the feedback that you can impact. Some of these meetings can be “skip feedback” meetings in which faculty or staff members have an open, non-attribution forum for providing constructive criticism on the leadership of the school without senior faculty or staff members present. Our listening meetings have led to important changes for faculty members and staff.

Second, at BCG, the senior team continuously provides career development and advancement opportunities for strong performers. When people advance, their promotion is announced and they are celebrated, as are those leaving their roles. In our school, faculty members have led important strategic initiatives within the school, which then positioned them for senior administrative roles. In addition, staff members have followed available pathways for development and career advancement.

Strategy as a Living Thing

When I began my career in consulting in the mid-’90s, consulting firms were still in the mode of helping clients find and pursue their “sustainable competitive advantage.” By the late ’90s, disruptive forces had begun to substantially change the publishing, music, and brick-and-mortar retail industries—to name a few. During the back half of my consulting career, the approach to strategy became much more adaptive and dynamic. Out were the locked-in five-plus year strategic plans, in were the three-to-five year plans with refreshes along the way. Managing strategy as a living thing means picking a small set of signals to watch in our operating environments and incorporating information on these signals in our plans as we pursue our strategy. Two of our key signals are job growth (which industries now and in the near future show big advances in the size and rate of growth) and educational technology. I think we all can learn more about living strategies from our more nimble peers who are launching new programs and pedagogical approaches to react to opportunities and disruptive forces.

Managing Change: 25/75

I found in my experiences with companies and educational institutions that the organizations that were most successful at managing large change efforts spent about 25% of their time defining what to do, and about 75% on the “how” of planning and actively managing the implementation. For example, they selected agents of change at various levels of the organization and worked with these people to plan the implementation and to make change happen. They put in place accountability mechanisms to motivate both the progress and outcomes of successful change. One example is a cascading system of goals associated with the change effort, linked to employee appraisals and merit increases. In this system the leader’s goals directly mirror the primary measurable change objectives. Direct reports to the leader define measurable goals that are consistent with the leader’s goals, and so on through the organizational chart. If the change effort is not large, a subset of the annual goals for each layer of the organization can be defined to support the change. We are using a cascading goals approach for the implementation of our strategic plan.

In closing, I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting we run business schools like businesses. Mission-driven and profit-driven objectives can be very different. I would also say that these four themes do not offer an exhaustive list or definitive framework for addressing the complexities of our various business schools. I do hope, however, that the themes remind us of the need to look outside of our institutions and industry from time to time for ideas on how to continuously improve.

Reginald Gilyard
The George L. Argyros School of Business and Economics
Chapman University