On the cusp of 2012, it's safe to say that deans at the nation's top business schools will have a lot on their plates in the New Year and beyond. M.B.A. enrollment in the United States is flat; international expansion is critical but problematic; recruiters want to influence curricula to meet their own talent needs; and the schools' need to differentiate their graduate management programs is paramount.
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As economic pressures escalate and stakeholders shift, business schools must innovate, refocus, and restructure—or risk falling behind their academic competitors, says "The Business School Dean Redefined," a report recently released by the Korn/Ferry Institute. Staying competitive requires a new kind of dean with a leadership profile that emphasizes strategic skills, enterprise management, innovation, and people and relationship effectiveness.
"In the past, the primary questions for dean candidates essentially were: Can this person get along with our faculty? Do they have a good research reputation? And can they get things done?" says Sally Blount, appointed dean of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in July 2010, in an interview published within the report.
That has all changed in an era when managing the "business of the business school" is a more like a CEO position, albeit one that also includes challenges that do not constrain private-enterprise executives. "Few CEOs, for example, must grapple with the concept of a tenured workforce, highly diffused authority, and funding constraints placed by donors," the report's authors note.
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A business school dean now needs to manage relationships with multiple types of stakeholders, says Blount, as well as build the rankings, build market share, and act effectively as the public voice and image for the school.
"I was surprised when search committees at the top schools started seeking me out. I was not your typical business dean candidate," recalls Blount, adding that she doesn't think any business school would have considered her a candidate 10 years ago.
"One of the most difficult challenges I encountered when I switched to academia was the need to go deep and narrow in my thinking because I was more naturally a broad, integrative thinker," says Blount. "Today, as a business school dean, I need to be broad and integrative, and that approach is not typically fostered in an academic setting."
Enterprise management is a core competency for today's deans. The ability to organize and set priorities and make difficult resource allocation decisions will be critical to achieving results in a hyper-competitive marketplace.
"There is a much tighter coupling between business schools and the external world today," says Alison Davis-Blake, the recently appointed dean of University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "As a dean, you need a much deeper understanding of macroeconomic conditions because you have to be able to respond to those shifts."
As the M.B.A. degree becomes available in more and more forms—traditional two-year programs, accelerated one-year degrees, online programs, global M.B.A.'s—attracting students will require innovative strategies to help differentiate the schools from one another.
International expansion, though widespread by this point, continues to demand great innovation in order to generate returns over the long term. Deans must cope with faculty members reluctant to accept overseas assignments and figure out how best to sell the M.B.A. value proposition to foreign students who might balk at the six-figure price tag.
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Managing the growing number of increasingly diverse stakeholders has become so critical for deans that it warrants its own treatment as a skill set, say the researchers, who note that deans need to gain buy-in from faculty, donors, alumni, administrators, prospective students, and corporate recruiters—communities that may oppose the dean, or one another, on any given issue.
"I sometimes think of the university as a multi-divisional enterprise," says Davis-Blake. "Deans are divisional managers who run a business that had better make a profit to generate the investment capital we need. We have multiple lines of business—tuition and non-degree lines of business—that need to be managed as a portfolio."