Crossing Over

What do former executives bring to the dean’s office? Steve Reinemund of Wake Forest, Christine Poon of Ohio State, and Ed Grier of VCU discuss what it’s like to walk in an academic’s shoes.
Crossing Over

Business school deans in the 21st century have complex, multifaceted jobs. They must lead their institutions through transformational curricular and technological changes, raise funding in an era of shrinking state support, develop alliances with other schools and corporate partners, listen to the voices of many stakeholders, recruit top faculty, promote their brands, and deliver quality educational programs. No wonder that, according to data from AACSB International, a dean’s average tenure is just a little more three than years, at least in the U.S.

While most deanships are held by academics, a number of business schools have turned to the business world to find their next leaders. In fact, AACSB’s 2011–2012 Deans Survey showed that, among member schools, 6.7 percent of deans worldwide were nonacademics, though the numbers varied greatly by region. In Asia, for instance, that number was 4.3 percent; in Africa, 33.3 percent. Among those nonacademics, the vast majority—65.6 percent—had held executive roles. As for the rest, 12.5 percent had worked in government, 9.4 percent had worked for nonprofi ts, 9.4 percent had run their own businesses, and 3.1 percent fell into other categories.

To discover what skills and perspectives these nonacademics bring to the business school, BizEd recently talked with three executives-turned-deans. Ed Grier spent 29 years with the Walt Disney Company, taking positions in Paris and Toyko before serving as president of Disneyland Resort. In 2010, he became dean of the School of Business at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Christine A. Poon’s career spanned 30 years in the healthcare industry and included a post as vice chairman and worldwide chairman of pharmaceuticals at Johnson & Johnson. In 2009, she was appointed dean and John W. Berry Sr. Chair in Business at The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business in Columbus. Steve Reinemund is a 23-year veteran of PepsiCo, where he served as chairman and CEO from 2001 to 2006. In 2008, he became dean and professor of leadership and strategy at the Wake Forest University Schools of Business in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

All three spoke of the similarities—and differences—between their business and academic jobs, and they reflected on what skills they have brought to the dean’s office that lifelong academics might not possess. All of them can see great potential for synergy between corporate and academic worlds. Grier is particularly enthusiastic.

“I’d love to say, ‘The university is where business comes to think.’ But the truth is, corporations aren’t calling on the talent within most universities as much as they should,” Grier says. “If corporations get more involved in the university, they can help shape future leaders. When corporations invest in universities, they make longterm investments in the future. Companies paired with universities—what a powerhouse!”

If more executives assume the leadership at business schools, could those “powerhouse” combinations be common in the future? And what other advantages can an executive dean bring to the business school? Grier, Poon, and Reinemund share their perspectives on these questions and describe what it’s been like for them to cross over from the C-suite to the office of the business school dean.

What’s the biggest difference between being a top executive and being a business school dean? What has surprised you most?

Reinemund: There are far more similarities than differences. Whether individuals are leading business schools, businesses, or not-for-profits, they need vision, purpose, values, and people skills. Those skill areas are very much the same among organizations. If you have alignment of values between individuals and the organization, things work. If you don’t have alignment, they don’t. The differences center around the nuances of how you make decisions.

Grier: As CEO, you set the vision and the direction of the organization; ultimately, you are responsible for every decision, every action, and every inaction of your organization. All CEOs have their own leadership styles that determine how much they include other constituents in the decision making process, but once the experts and stakeholders have been polled, the decision rests squarely on the CEO’s shoulders. In the corporate environment, executive decisions aren’t often revisited.

I have always taken a very transparent and inclusive approach to decision making and considered consensus building to be one of my strengths. In academia, the consensus building takes much longer and everyone’s voice must be heard, not just the voices of stakeholders. Even then, past decisions and actions are visited and revisited. Deans can’t take that personally. They can’t view that as a judgment about their leadership abilities. It’s just the nature of shared governance.

Poon: When I first became dean, I had idealistic notions about academia. I knew that a medical school dean was also a physician and that a law school dean was also a lawyer, so I just assumed a business school dean had some business experience. It surprised me to discover that wasn’t very common. I had thought that the business school walls would have been more porous than the rest of the university’s so-called ivory tower.

What do you think business schools are looking for when they turn to executives instead of academics as their deans?

Reinemund: I think a business school, like any other organization, is trying to choose a leader who’s appropriate for the strategies, direction, and vision the organization has at the time the leadership change is made. In some situations, that’s a business leader. In other situations, it would make sense to default to an academic leader—for instance, if the strategy was to lift the level of teaching or research or change directions in the curriculum.

Grier: When a school hires a CEO as its dean, it’s looking for the qualities in that individual that match up with the needs of the school, and every school is unique. For instance, VCU is located in a vibrant business environment, so the business school wanted someone who could build relationships with local businesses by finding common ground and forging mutually beneficial relationships. Early in my Disney career, I learned how to build trusting relationships with business partners. When we were negotiating, I had to anticipate or try to understand what was important for the person on the other side. In the same way, when I’m fundraising for the school, I look for ways to fi nd common ground and build trust. I fi nd out what’s good for the donor and how that matches up with the needs of the school.

As dean, no matter where I go—whether I’m attending a meeting or making a presentation or going out to dinner with my family—I’m the face of the business school. I’m very comfortable with that role, because as the president of a resort, I was the face of the resort and the face of the company.


What strengths do you think you brought to the table that a lifelong academic might not have had?

Poon: When I came to Fisher four years ago, I set out to make the relationship between the business community and the business college boundary less. As a nonacademic dean, I think that’s my sweet spot—I have a basic understanding of business people and their needs.

Reinemund: When I became dean at Wake Forest, the challenge was to take what had been two independent business schools and make them one school. It was appropriate to bring in an outside business leader, because I had pragmatic experience in transforming organizations, leading growth and change, building global businesses, and putting together teams to solve business challenges.

Grier: As a corporate dean, I think I brought two major assets to the school. First, because of my experience at Disney, I am granted access to political and business leaders who might otherwise be diffi cult to obtain. Camaraderie and mutual respect exist between corporate executives, and this has made it easier for me to do fundraising. Second, I have experience executing ideas, and I bring that experience to VCU. I encourage faculty to come up with incredible ideas about better ways to approach our mission or streamline our operations. And when they do, I make those things happen.

I believe that, as a corporate dean, I can create a powerful partnership with the business school faculty primarily because of our different backgrounds and strengths, not in spite of them. The supportive mentorship of a professor, the thoughtful insight of a researcher, and the unstoppable optimism of a corporate executive present a winning combination for any organization.

As a former executive, how well do you think business schools are doing at graduating students with the skills they need to be successful in today’s business environment?

Grier: By and large, business schools are doing a really good job of preparing students. But more businesses are asking, “What is the practical application of what students are learning and how can they apply that to my specific business?” They want students who can work in environments that are abstract, not formulaic, where there might not be clear solutions or right answers. So we have to give students more practical experience.

At VCU, we have the da Vinci Center for Innovation, where students from the schools of business, engineering, and the arts work on real problems brought in by business leaders. If we can teach our students to identify problems and find solutions while working in diverse environments, we are giving them really strong capabilities.

In addition, we want to develop leaders who are focused on ethics as well as business. We stress to our students that they need to be successful leaders, but they shouldn’t have regrets about how they got the business done.

Reinemund: Since the financial meltdown, most business schools have a more intense emphasis on the job market. At Wake Forest, we’ve focused on giving students stronger quantitative analytic skills, as well as practical knowledge through experiential learning, so they can translate business problems into meaningful solutions. We combine those lessons with a good sense of competing in an ethical fashion so they understand the importance of winning with integrity.

For instance, our Center for Leadership and Character was created to provide an environment that mirrors the crucible of business and to help students firm up their values. We have a heavy emphasis on character because, from my own experience, it seems that most of the mistakes that cause people to derail are caused by character flaws rather than incompetency.

What can schools do better to prepare students for the working world?

Poon: Students typically come to the business school with one side of their brains more developed than the other, and they tend to reinforce whatever that side is. If they’re more creative, they’ll choose the coursework or extracurricular work that reinforces their creative sides. The opposite is true if they’re more quantitatively oriented. I believe you’ve got to feed both sides of the brain to develop into an extraordinary businessperson.

We’re admitting more freshmen into Fisher, and this gives us more time to advise them as they take their general education requirements in liberal arts. We want them to make smart choices about those liberal arts activities so they can develop their brains and experiences in a way that will be important in the future.


Research is just as important to the business school as teaching, but there’s intense debate about whether research should be practical and relevant, or academic and theoretical. How do you draw on your business experience to weigh in on this discussion?

Grier: Obviously, theoretical research is important for the prestige of the school and for the stature of faculty within their disciplines. We love it when our professors publish research in respected journals. What’s more important is to recognize that new knowledge is a powerfully uplifting tool. It inspires us and fills us with hope for the future. In the early stages of theoretical research, the potential impact can hardly be discerned. Take, for example, quantum mechanics. Who could have predicted in 1920 that this research would lead to the invention of the transistor and solid state electronics?

Of course, there has to be a balance. There has to be room for research that has direct application to the business world. Here’s one way we do the balancing act. We’re working with the University of Virginia, Longwood University, and Virginia State in a group called the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems, which helps businesses solve supply chain and logistics questions. The approach will be more applied than basic research, but faculty are still relying on academic research to answer companies’ logistics problems.

Reinemund: At Wake Forest, we let faculty members choose among different tracks that either favor research or teaching or take a balanced approach between the two. Their evaluations are weighted according to their choices. An academic professor who chooses a heavy emphasis on teaching will get the same performance rating and merit raise as a faculty member who focuses on research and performs equally well.

Whatever path they choose, we make it clear that we expect a high level of excellence and that their research must add value to the free enterprise system.

Poon: In the U.S., funding for medical science research often comes from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, other government agencies, and corporations, and those research grants are very competitive. In addition, over the past ten to 15 years, there has been more emphasis on having the research be more “translatable,” which means that many grants must be written to show that the academics are thinking about the translational impact of their research.

For good or bad, we don’t have those same pressures and competitive drivers in the business school. I do think most of our faculty can say how their research translates to the world—if they’re asked. But perhaps we need to do more to elicit a description of that translational impact from our researchers.

One way might be through developing stronger partnerships with the business world. For instance, through the National Center for the Middle Market, which Fisher created in collaboration with GE Capital, we’ve funded a fair amount of academic research. We’re working with writers so we can answer the question, “What does this research mean to a middle market company?” I will say that it’s not a natural act—but it is important.

I think all faculty members would celebrate the idea of having their research translated into a language that can either be taught to students or shared with laypeople. Why wouldn’t they want their life’s work to be disseminated and adopted into the practice of business?

What advice would you give to a business school considering hiring a nonacademic as a dean?

Poon: Discover if the individual really enjoys doing different things and experiencing new environments. If so, he or she will love the academic life. When I was in the business world, I was privileged to have experiences that were sharply different. One day I might be running the U.S. businesses and the next day, the Latin American businesses. People who have enjoyed similar experiences will find the transition to the dean’s job a very comfortable change. But it’s not just comfortable—it’s exhilarating, it’s challenging, it’s fun.

Reinemund: I’d say, “Why are you thinking about hiring an academic person or a businessperson? What is the strategy?” When you get a good fit, you have a high potential for success. And when you get a bad fit, you have a high potential for failure. For instance, if a business leader comes into a school that already is on a good track, and the business leader has the idea that he’ll revolutionize higher education, I’d say that situation has a high likelihood for failure.

It’s also true in the business world that there should be a match between the needs the institution has and the strengths the new leader can offer while he learns the things he doesn’t know. I call that the glide path. If there’s no glide path, there’s a high likelihood that there’s going to be a collision.

Conversely, what advice would you give to an executive considering a job as a dean?

Grier: Ask a lot of questions, visit the school, talk to other deans, and make sure it’s an environment you can thrive in. Many executives have a lot to give back to universities and business schools, but they have to understand that the environment is totally different.

When business leaders move from one company to the next, certain fundamentals stay the same—they just have to learn what drives the market, where the demand might be, and what resources are available. But academia isn’t intuitive. There will be some things that business leaders just don’t know, whether it’s the way the tenure process works or what bylaws are most important. It would be helpful to have a mentor who understands all the cultural nuances that seem small but have significant impact.

Reinemund: I’d say, “Are you thinking about taking this job because the school has a need you can solve and you believe you can make a difference? What do you think you can do that is of better value than what anyone else can do? And is the culture of the organization one you appreciate, admire, and respect?” If you can’t answer these questions, there’s a high likelihood that the experience will be painful, if not fatal.

But I’d also tell them that this chapter of my life has been very satisfying. It’s a privilege to be around students seeking to make a difference in the world and faculty members committed to helping them do that. It’s gratifying to see people’s lives change as a result of their experiences in school. I didn’t necessarily know what I was getting into when I took this job, but I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had.