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Flipping the Script: AACSB CEO John Fernandes on Leading Organizational Impact

eNEWSLINE Live Broadcast Brief

January 2015

Recapped by Lee Davidson
Senior Associate, Copywriter/Editor
AACSB International

On December 11, 2014, John Fernandes, CEO for the past 15 years at AACSB, switched places from interviewer to interviewee for a live broadcast with Juliane Iannarelli, vice president of knowledge development, to answer questions on the minds of many, including wisdom Fernandes has gained about globalizing an organization, identifying and implementing appropriate strategies, leading cultural change, and winning trust. Here are some of his accomplishments and insights.


John Fernandes came to AACSB as the association’s first president and CEO in 2000, after 84 years of governance solely by the board of directors. The board elected Fernandes to lead the organization under a new policy governance model, where AACSB’s board would serve as the envisioning, policy-setting, and strategic thinking arm of the organization—focusing on the mission, the strategic direction, and the overarching goals, rather than the operations.

On Relocation

With the primary objective of globalizing and expanding AACSB, one of Fernandes’ early actions as CEO was to move the global headquarters from St. Louis, Missouri, to Tampa, Florida—a decision largely influenced by the organization’s and John’s commitment for becoming more globally focused and to attract top talent to support the organization’s mission. Although the relocation (and the choice of Tampa) was well-researched by the board and a special committee, Fernandes still faced some opposition to the new change in location, and worried about the impact the move would have on the organization’s existing culture. Would the staff embrace this change? How would volunteers react to this new mission? Open communication was critical to the success of the move, and Fernandes communicated the reasons for relocating with all stakeholders, underscoring the need for a global implementation of the mission. He also worked closely with the board to identify 25 risk management strategies, discussing them—at length—with senior staff members who planned to relocate.

On Corporate Citizenship

When Fernandes relocated AACSB to Tampa, recruiting top talent—including good corporate citizens—was his first priority. He moved the office to the center of the downtown Tampa business district, made hiring decisions that reflected this new desire, and created initiatives to get involved with the community as an organization—such as employee paid time off for volunteering, city chamber of commerce involvement, and organization-wide participation in local charities. Fernandes strongly believes that “a sustainable organization must think about sustaining society, making their communities better. Associations are well positioned to do that, and they can hire individuals who can follow the organization’s mission and who tend to be more predisposed to being corporate citizens.”

On Globalization

Over the past 15 years, Fernandes’ efforts to globalize AACSB have been substantial: he took the association from having 15 business schools accredited outside the United States to 207 schools accredited across 47 countries. Much of his success in globalizing the association came from the relocation to Tampa, a climate-friendly and accessible city well positioned to help AACSB achieve its staff recruitment and expansion goals, in addition to opening a second office in Singapore in 2009. AACSB’s significant growth under Fernandes’ leadership uncovered the need to serve its global members more effectively, resulting in the selection of Singapore as AACSB’s Asia Pacific headquarters—a city centrally located in Asia, and home to roughly 9,000 schools offering business programs. Most recently, AACSB opened a new global office in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, which will enable the organization to better serve members located in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

On Building Trust

Fernandes’ philosophy on trust is simple: agree on what needs to be done, and do it. Be reliable, follow through, and communicate outcomes throughout the organization—which isn’t always easy when leading significant organizational change. Throughout the process of relocation, global expansion, and new services, Fernandes has been able to consistently gain and maintain the trust of his stakeholders—including staff. In the office, Fernandes fosters stability, advocates celebrations, and believes that bringing staff together on a regular basis builds a sense of family and belonging. Doing everything you can to retain staff makes the organization a great place to work—for everyone.

On the Future of Management Education

While the institution of higher education (and management education in particular) has come a long way, Fernandes believes our work in the industry has just begun. Society wants more from higher education; it must evolve and become more cost-effective. It’s the job of business schools and associations to build the framework for quality education in a much more cost-conscious world, while still maintaining high standards. The call for the next generation of successful business schools requires them to let go of long-held traditions, explore new faculty models, and increase accessibility to quality education. “We can make it work, but we’ve got to change traditions, and we’re going to have to be creative” says Fernandes.

To hear more from Fernandes himself about his experiences leading AACSB, watch the full interview—including audience Q&A—online at http://www.aacsb.edu/events/enl/.