Has the trend amongst business schools to appoint industry figures as deans come to an end? Over the past few years we’ve seen several key players in Europe opting for professional managers instead of the traditional academics either from within existing faculty or from competing institutions. Examples have included Frank Brown who joined Insead after 26 years with PricewaterhouseCoopers and Robin Buchanan who left a role as the UK’s senior partner at global business consultancy, Bain & Co to take up the top lob at London Business School (LBS). Even IMD followed the trend to some extent. Whilst their dean, John Wells, came to the school direct from Harvard Business School, he had previously spent nearly two decades in the ‘front-line’ of business, first in consultancy and then with major companies such as PepsiCo and Thomson Travel.
However, at the end of last year came the surprise announcement that LBS was making a change of leadership only 16 months after Buchanan had taken the helm. In his place as dean would be Sir , a long-serving academic at the school. As the chairman of the school’s governing body, Sir John Ritblat, commented, “Our priority is to continue to build our world class faculty and endowment and we are confident that the school has every chance of achieving its goals.” But, whilst LBS has continued to ride high in the international market, the rumour mill has suggested it has had to contend with significant staff turnover and the threatened loss of some of its most high profile faculty.
With executive education under pressure due to cuts in corporate budgets and an increasingly competitive market for MBA and other business masters programmes no school can afford a crisis in leadership. And with the rankings highlighting the rapid rise of HEC in France, Cambridge-Judge and Oxford-Saïd in the UK and ESADE and IE in Spain as pretenders to the European crown, this particularly applies to the continent’s established elite.
So what kind of leader is most likely to be successful in a top business school? Is it the captain of industry who knows what things are like in the big tough world outside, or is it an academic who has worked his or her way up the institutional hierarchy and consequently understands the particular challenges and opportunities it presents? Ignoring the lead of the continent’s top three, almost all of the fastest rising schools in Europe have opted for the second option. The deans at ESADE, HEC, IE, Judge and Oxford, for example, all hail from academia, with strategic management as a common professorial thread. But why?
Alfons Suaquet was appointed Dean at the ESADE Business School last year. Previously Vice-Dean of Research and Knowledge, he is an insider who is familiar with the personality of the school, and also an experienced faculty member. Perhaps because of his background, he strongly believes that the academic route to deanship has the advantage of giving a future leader a clear understanding of the need for faculty development. “The success of any school rests squarely on its ability to attract and retain the best faculty,” he says. “You have to constantly create opportunities for professors to develop their research and to internationalise their experience by teaching abroad. That’s why initiatives such as the joint programmes we run with Georgetown and Stanford in the USA and St Gallen in Switzerland are so important. They allow great teachers to constantly expand their horizons. You also have to open to new ideas and new ways of doing things to engage the best people. You can’t afford to be constrained by a particular style of teaching or by following slavishly in the footsteps of other schools.”
Professor Michael Osbaldeston who is stepping down as dean of the UK’s Cranfield School of Management after five years is another long-term academic who previously spent nine years heading up Ashridge Management College. He shares Suaquet’s views about the importance of people management. “You are constantly asked, ‘Where are we going and how are we going to get there?’ Unless you have a very good answer to the vision you have for the long-term, then the credibility of your leadership will be challenged. I have little time for what is often referred to as heroic leadership, where the leader is this great ‘superman’ character who does it all themselves. It’s phenomenally important to nurture talent and build the team around you. You can have wonderful analytical and rational skills in terms of working out long-term strategy, but if you can’t build a team around you, inspire them to want to join you and motivate them to stay, then it seems a bit sterile.”
Another key skill that proponents of the ‘academic’ dean claim for their candidates is that of fund-raising, something that is becoming increasingly important as the financial downturn bites into endowments and donations. Whilst business figures may be highly experienced in raising funds from corporate investors and banks, it is argued, they may struggle to get individual alumni to dig deep in their pockets when times are tough, whereas those within the school environment will have become increasingly involved in this area almost as soon as they move from pure teaching into management. The dean of HEC in France, Bernard Ramanantsoa, for example has been with the school since 1979 and has recently demonstrated his fund-raising skills by launching a campaign to raise a highly ambitious 100 million euros. “HEC has to continue attracting the very best professors and students from around the world,” he says. “Thanks to our corporate partners and our alumni’s outstanding support we have been able to recruit the best research professors and offer attractive scholarships to French and international students with financial needs”. Despite the fact that this is one of the biggest fund-raising projects in the history of European business education his leadership in this area is delivering results, with close to half the target already pledged.
We’ve almost certainly not seen the last of the ‘business’ dean. After all, who better to promote the value of a business school education than someone who has used it to reach the top of the corporate ladder? But until a way is found to effectively combine the skills of the outsider with the knowledge of those who have built their careers on the inside, it seems that academics will continue to hold sway in the sector’s corridors of power.