Advise and Connect

Advisory boards strengthen the connection between academia and the corporate world, as executives engage in the lives of schools through counsel, funding, and hands-on involvement.
Advise and Connect

Business schools today want more from their advisory boards than ever before—more input, more direct service, and sometimes even more members. It’s becoming commonplace for today’s schools to set up multiple boards to focus on specific areas of education or community outreach. That means more business leaders are being called upon to advise more schools—which enhances the strong connections between academia and industry.

But expanding the roster of advisory boards is only useful if schools make sure members stay engaged and get directly involved in campus projects. “Otherwise, there’s a danger of having an advisory board that exists only on a piece of paper as some kind of marketing list,” warns William Kooser, associate dean at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

Expanding the board membership also means finding a greater number of executives who are willing to serve. While prominent local businesspeople are often asked to participate, schools also rely heavily on successful graduates who have a keen interest in seeing their alma maters continue to prosper. “The support of distinguished graduates might be what ultimately separates great business schools from those that are merely good,” says Michael Knetter, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business. “This is particularly true for public schools, which increasingly must rely on higher tuition and greater alumni support to remain competitive in the global market for business education.”

Of course, asking for someone’s advice sometimes means receiving too much input. It’s best to establish firm guidelines for board participation and share these with executives in advance, according to Ali Malekzadeh, dean of the Williams College of Business at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. “I think the key to making boards work is to be clear from the outset what we want from members,” he says. “We want their strategic thoughts—they do not have time to micromanage the college.”

Malekzadeh, Knetter, and Kooser know the power of a committed, engaged advisory board—or two or three or ten. All of them oversee multiple boards that have helped their schools define their trajectories for the near future and plot their courses for the long term.

We felt that, by assembling a talented group of alumni who had an interest in running young companies, we could promote the school, bolster the state economy, and create a new and deeper pool of angel capital.

Alumni On Board

by Michael Knetter
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business, we engage 1 percent of our 36,000 alumni—almost 360 business leaders—on more than two dozen working boards. This not only helps us keep alumni involved with the school, but also strengthens our connection to corporate leaders, both regionally and around the world.

The most traditional of these groups is our Dean’s Advisory Board, which comes to campus twice a year, provides invaluable input on our strategic plan, and helps keep our efforts relevant to the real world of business. While we believe this service is as rewarding for board members as it is valuable for us, we often find that they have an even more fulfilling experience when they join one of our other boards. What’s just as important, from our perspective, is that their involvement helps us keep our curriculum relevant, enhances employment opportunities for our students, and leads to funding of critical projects.

Special Interest Boards

We have created three distinct types of boards to aid our school. Advisory boards offer the school advice on broad issues. Program boards focus on the tangible ways alumni and friends can support particular degree programs. Project boards work on specific issues of importance not tied to a single degree program, such as diversity or leadership.

Some of our strongest program boards are those that work with the specialized tracks making up our MBA, including brand management, applied securities, corporate finance, supply chain management, and real estate. For example, the Executive Advisory Board for our Center for Brand and Product Management is made up of representatives of a wide range of national and international companies, including General Mills, Intuit, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble, Abbott Vascular (Guidant), ConAgra, Grainger, Johnson & Johnson, and S.C. Johnson.

Board members commit to helping the Center’s students begin successful careers in brand management. They come to campus to share their experience with students through applied learning sessions. They open doors for students seeking summer internships and full-time positions in brand and product management. They arrange site visits to leading companies, help recruit prospective students, mentor students while they are in the program, and enhance students’ educational experience by getting involved in on-campus activities.

One of the inaugural members of the center’s board was Jeffrey Rotsch, senior vice president of General Mills Inc. and president of its Consumer Foods Sales Division. According to Rotsch, “I agreed to serve on the Center’s advisory board, as did executives from other companies, because we think the Center will play a major role in training the next generation of product managers.”

A key result of this intense board involvement has been in the area of placement. Since the program in brand and product management began, its students have had a 100 percent placement in positions at leading firms. Sixty-eight percent of those graduates accepted full-time job offers from companies represented on the center’s board.

Program boards for the Center for Brand and Product Management and for other career specializations have been particularly valuable in allowing us to develop international study trips, an increasingly important part of our MBA curriculum. This year, for example, three of our MBA career specializations planned separate trips to explore business in China. On these trips, they met with executives of leading firms with China operations, including Procter & Gamble, Citigroup Real Estate, Morgan Stanley, Best Buy, Johnson & Johnson, and Grainger.

Investing Time—and Money

In addition to our formal program boards, we have more loosely connected alumni groups that work on critical topics as members of project boards for the school and the university. A great example of this is the Badger Alumni Capital Network—or BACN, which we inevitably pronounce as “bacon.” BACN was created to enable our alumni and other supporters, acting largely on their own, to help the university convert intellectual property into startup companies. 

Historically, the university has produced a relatively low number of startups based on intellectual property, research activity, and patents generated by its faculty. We felt that, by assembling a talented group of alumni from around the world who had an interest in running young companies, we could promote the school, bolster the state economy, and create a new and deeper pool of angel capital.

Phil Mathews, a graduate of our MBA program and a retired partner of BlackRock Financial, has taken the lead on the BACN initiative. He has helped assemble a group of alumni and friends who will act as advisors, connectors, investors, and possibly even full-fledged partners in some exciting new ventures being launched by faculty inventors. BACN brings together people who have a natural affinity for the university and a long-term interest in success. That increases the level of trust between inventors and investors, which is critical to value creation.

In recent months, BACN has investigated ten areas of intellectual property, and it has aided two new companies in their patented work with computer network security and drug testing. According to Mathews, “BACN is an opportunity for alumni to work together and share their expertise for the benefit of the university and themselves.”

An Exchange of Ideas

Board members don’t just help us launch initiatives we think are important. Often, they bring outstanding ideas to us. An example of this is the Accenture Leadership Center.

Among our alumni, we have several retired Accenture partners who felt strongly that leadership should be a critical component of our undergraduate business program. They funded the creation of our Accenture Leadership Center, which provides opportunities for undergraduate students to develop leadership skills outside the classroom, but their support went far beyond financial involvement. For months, these alumni worked with our staff to develop hands-on learning activities for the students. They acted as mentors to students tackling semesterlong leadership projects, and they provided a level of involvement to undergraduates that the school never would have been able to offer on its own.

Board members even assist with our executive education offerings. For example, each year we offer a two-day corporate governance program for senior management. Known as the Directors’ Summit, the program attracts corporate board members and institutional investors from around the country. The board members with expertise in this area help us assemble a program featuring speakers with national credentials and high visibility.

In the future, we expect our board members to make significant contributions to another key area: creating a business school that reflects the diversity our graduates will experience in the workplace. Based on what has and hasn’t worked to promote diversity in their own companies, board members are helping us further diversify our students, faculty, and staff. A new recruitment plan focused on underrepresented minorities has been developed with the input and support of board members.

I’m an economist by training, so return on investment is ever top of my mind. For that reason, finding new ways to involve alumni in our programs and projects remains a top priority for me. Active, involved boards can provide an extraordinary return to a business school—a return that can be measured in terms of industry knowledge and net-working opportunities. The time I spend managing board relations is significant, but the payoff to the business school is enormous.

Michael Knetter is dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business. 

Creating a Corporate Community

by Ali Malekzadeh
When I became dean of the Williams College of Business at Xavier University four years ago, I had a mandate from the university president to “open the doors and the walls of the university to the business community.” One of the primary ways I have accomplished this is by inviting hundreds of executives to serve on ten different advisory boards for the business school. Each of our school’s six departments and three research centers now has its own committee, and so does the b-school as a whole. In total, nearly 250 businesspeople serve the business school on our boards.

To fill my advisory board positions, I begin with alumni and local business leaders who have expressed an interest in supporting the school. I draw many of them from the ranks of undergraduate student mentors, who have already demonstrated a commitment to business education. At other times, existing board members nominate someone else they believe would be a good addition to the board.

I believe any business school can profit from a committed, involved advisory board, particularly if it draws on the talents of alumni who want to support the school.

My goal is to have 35 people assigned to every board so that at least 20 will attend each quarterly meeting, although some boards still aren’t up to full strength. Among the areas where advisory board members offer advice and expertise are curriculum trends, assurance of learning, student mentoring, career development programs, student recruitment, strategic planning, executive education, student sponsorships, and the development of a balanced scorecard.

Hands-On Involvement

Advisory board members who are top-level executives have also participated in our “executive professor” program, in which they help faculty teach a particular class. We had a class on mutual funds that was co-taught by one of our star professors and the president of Fidelity Investments in this city. The executive’s Fidelity manual and the professor’s textbook were both required texts. The feedback from the class was phenomenal.

These executive professors sometimes take students and faculty to their corporate headquarters to show them corporate governance in action—and that’s not the only time advisory board members invite people from the university community into their offices. Board meetings are rotated among facilities; about half of them are hosted by one of the board members, who jump at the chance to showcase their companies. Because I encourage faculty and students to participate in board meetings, these off-site meetings strengthen the bond between the university and the community even more.

I don’t just want time and expertise from our advisory members—I ask them for a $1,000 donation as well, though I waive that if the board member is from a nonprofit organization or already supporting the university financially. What I have found, however, is that many board members will give more than the minimum, particularly if their work from the school has exposed them to some project or initiative that sparks their enthusiasm.

The synergy between the school and the business community has benefited everyone. For instance, some board members are working with our faculty on category marketing and data visualization. An even more striking example is the relationship we’ve developed with a local investment firm. Executives there had said they wouldn’t hire our graduates if they didn’t already have several years of experience with fixed income and bonds. When we asked how they could help the students acquire such experience, the executives joined our finance department’s advisory board and worked with faculty to design a bonds class.

Those executives also worked with university trustees to set up a student-managed investment fund. I now have 12 students who manage an investment fund and 14 people who advise them! The students are getting a fantastic education from that one relationship we built with three or four business executives.

Above all, we want to keep all the cabinet members engaged. Members want to have an impact.

Making It Work

I believe any business school can profit from a committed, involved advisory board, particularly if it draws on the talents of alumni who want to support the school. I recommend keeping appointments to a renewable one-year term so that the relationship can be ended gracefully if it isn’t working out. 

I also strongly recommend creating an upbeat atmosphere at the meetings. I promise board members that if they’ll bring a positive attitude, we won’t come to the meetings to complain. If we tell them about our successes, they will help us succeed even more. If we start complaining about lack of resources and other administrative problems, they won’t show up any more.

My strategy is very simple. For every corporation in our market, I want layers and layers of people to be involved with our faculty and students in ongoing programs and relationships. When we create those relationships, all kinds of magic happen.

Ali Malekzadeh is dean and professor of management at Xavier University’s Williams College of Business in Cincinnati, Ohio.

International Advice

by William Kooser

When it is forming an advisory board, a business school should look particularly to its mission. In some cases, forming just the right board for a particular strategy can help a school at a crucial time. For instance, at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, our focus on growing the school internationally has led to the formation of an inter¬national group of advisors. The Global Advisory Board comprises three distinct “cabinets” of businesspeople who can help our school enhance its activities in the Americas, Asia, and Europe/Africa/the Middle East.

Each cabinet has between 22 and 30 members and meets once a year with our dean and other administrators from the Chicago GSB. While the Global Advisory Board cabinets are separate from our longstanding GSB Council, a more traditional advisory board, there is some crossover. The chair and vice chair of each international cabinet sit on the GSB Council, and the Council also considers what we can do to strengthen our international image. But improving international impact is the sole purpose of the global cabinets.

Targeted Advice

With the Global Advisory Board, the GSB receives intensive, practical advice from local business leaders who live and work in the areas where we are trying to make an impact. The idea is to let the cabinets know what we are planning to do in each region, get their advice on strategies and directions to take, and try to involve them as much as possible in the ongoing operation and outreach of the school.

While receiving general input on positioning the school, we also ask our cabinets for advice on specific challenges. For instance, board members from the Asia cabinet are helping us explore options for our Asia campus once the lease on our current Singapore facility expires. The European group has suggested that we reach out to governmental bodies and has helped us identify which organizations to target within European governments.

The Global Advisory Board is new enough that we have only had one meeting with each group, so we are still fine-tuning the best way to make use of members and keep them interconnected. Specifically, we are developing a Web site that will allow cabinet members to find contact information for each other, review agendas and meeting minutes, and read news items about the school. We also are considering the creation of a discussion board where we can post a topic, receive feedback, and generate ideas between meetings.

Above all, we want to keep all the cabinet members engaged. Members want to have an impact. The challenge for Chicago GSB is to make sure board members are involved in real work that makes a difference for the school.

William Kooser is associate dean at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.


Michael Knetter is dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business. 

Ali Malekzadeh is dean and professor of management at Xavier University’s Williams College of Business in Cincinnati, Ohio.

William Kooser is associate dean at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.