There was a time when becoming the dean of a major business school was like winning the lottery. It meant a comfortable gig with good pay, prestige, the opportunity to mix with the great and good of business, politics and academia and, perhaps, best of all, the kind of job security enjoyed now only by popes. In today’s credit crunch world, however, things are very different. Schools around the world are scrambling for income as keenly as any corporation, and deans are having to go after recruiters for their graduating MBAs. They’re also finding themselves defending the roles business schools played in the financial meltdown. These are tough times in the academic hot seat.
At least they have job security, right? Turnover among corporate chief executives is the highest in a decade, according to the executive recruitment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. A record 1,484 CEOs left their jobs last year, many of them forced out. Turnover among deans may be just as high. Analysis of the top 40 schools in the most recent Forbes Best Business Schools ranking shows that one in four replaced its dean last year, and 38% have had their current deans for less than two years.
The longest serving among them is Paul Danos, dean since 1995 at the top ranked Tuck School of Business, at Dartmouth. What does he think makes a successful business school leader? “A dean must balance the interests and aspirations of several important constituents–students, faculty and alumni being the primary ones,” he says. “One key is to have a forward-looking plan that shows momentum in adding prestige to the school, and a dean must be willing to spend time convincing the relevant communities that that vision is the right one.”
Danos has been through several business cycles, and he puts the current crisis in perspective: “A dean must keep the fundamental momentum going, no matter what the current state of the economy, but this current crisis is extraordinary and demands special attention. Students need to keep a positive view of the value of their education and degrees. Although there will be inevitable disappointments in the job market, they must have confidence that they have made a fundamentally good investment in their education.” Under his stewardship, Tuck calls on loyal alumni to mentor students and open employment doors.
As pressure mounts to find the best possible person for the top job, some schools have widened their search for leaders from the traditional academic hunting grounds to the wider commercial world. Frank Brown joined INSEAD from PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Robin Buchanan, a senior partner at the global consultancy Bain & Company, took over at London Business School.
Buchanan didn’t last, though. Early this year came the surprise announcement that LBS would be replacing him after only 16 months. In his place as dean would be Sir Andrew Likierman, a longtime professor at the school. As the competition among business schools for funding and faculty ramps up, Likierman will need to hit the ground running. What advice would those already in the hot seat give to the newest dean on the block?
Philippe Haspeslagh took over last year at Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in Belgium. He brought with him faculty experience at the Stanford and Harvard business schools and INSEAD, and he quickly touched base with staff members in every department. “Leading a business school is leading a business that foremost remains a school,” he says. “Persuading the faculty to adapt, renew and buy into the fact that the institution must change is the critical task, but it cannot be done corporate-style. It requires academic credibility, stamina and patience.”
Haspeslagh’s first year has given him a good idea of his school’s strengths but also of the challenges he faces: “A real challenge for any dean is to be effective in stretching the school in three essential dimensions at the same time–academic, business and public interest. Each has its own constituencies, expectations and values. Not many individuals have credibility in or understanding of those three worlds at the same time.”
The dean at the Yale School of Management, Sharon Oster–one of only five women deans at Forbes’ top 40 schools–includes a sense of humor as one of the qualities essential for leadership. “An ability to move quickly at disparate tasks is also helpful,” she adds, “and I have found that some mastery of the ten-minute speech also goes a long way. Finally, and perhaps most important, a good dean has to believe in his or her organization.”
Does she believe that academics are the best for the job? “As a former faculty member, I find it natural to be biased in favor of the faculty leader. Academic environments differ in some important ways from corporate organizations and from other nonprofits. Even for fundraising I think an academic has some advantages, because most donors are connected to the school’s academic mission.”
Paul Danos, at Tuck, sees a need for a deep appreciation of the link between great teaching and research. “I have seen deans who had strength in management without ever having been in the private sector, and deans from industry who fully appreciated the scholarship-teaching connections. But often a lack of one or the other creates huge challenges.”
So is the trend of appointing industry figures as deans coming to an end? It will be interesting to see what LBS’s rivals INSEAD and IMD do next. Likierman, in his new corner office, finds that his research on successful leadership leads him to believe success is about results, not characteristics–“a successful outcome against stated objectives,” as he puts it. In other words, there’s no need for someone from the business world. He is after all an academic.
But he’s one who looks comfortable swimming in both seas.