The Dean's Many Roles

With short tenures and ambitious goals, deans face critical challenges as they lead today’s business schools through turbulent times.

The Dean's Many Roles

In March 2009, Andrew Likierman was appointed dean of the London Business School—the fifth person in 11 years to hold that position at the U.K.’s most well-known business school. The Financial Times noted that, given the school’s turbulent history over the previous 18 months, Likierman was taking on “what might seem like a veritable poisoned chalice.” 

Likierman isn’t the only individual to face turbulence and challenges in his role as the dean of a major international university. By any measure, a business school deanship is a critical and complex task, one that requires deans to oversee what authors M.D. Cohen, J.G. March, and J.P. Olsen call the “organized anarchies” of business schools.

Indeed, the job is stressful enough that the median length of tenure for a business school dean is three years, according to AACSB International. That means that even top schools are frequently in the position of vetting their next candidates. In 2010 alone, dean searches were under way at the American business schools of Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago, as well as the U.K. schools of Henley and Cambridge.

To deliver in their difficult roles, deans must succeed at a number of distinct tasks. They must act as strategic leaders willing to push for bold visions. They must act as CEOs who handle business decisions with clarity and set their strategic agendas decisively. They must act as collegial individuals who are “first among equals” as they guide and interact with a highly capable, highly intelligent, and highly idiosyncratic staff. They also must function as catalysts who bring about change inside and outside the school.

These conclusions are based on recent research we conducted at five prestigious international schools: IAE Business School in Argentina; IMD in Switzerland; INSEAD in France, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates; and London Business School and Warwick Business School in the U.K. Our goal was to develop a portrait of the many roles deans play during their relatively short tenures.

The Dean as Strategic Leader

A dean’s central role is that of strategic leader with responsibilities that cross four dimensions: school visibility, fund raising, intellectual guidance, and operations management. While very few people are likely to deal with all four areas equally effectively, all deans constantly juggle a series of organizational dilemmas and roles.

Deans must act as strategic leaders, CEOs, collegial individuals, and catalysts.


It’s not easy to lead a school’s strategic agenda, a task made even more complicated by business schools’ collegial nature and diffuse power schemes. Former LBS dean John Quelch told us in an interview, “I knew what I wanted. If I asked too many questions and I had too much discussion, I knew that there would be—as is always the case in academia—100 reasons not to do something. So my attitude was: just do it. From a political management point of view, you launch your first initiative, and some people are against it. But before they can organize, you launch another initiative that splits that group, because some people who opposed your first initiative are going to be in favor of the second. And so you basically keep splitting through initiative after initiative. You fragment the opposition.”

Strategic leadership skills are even more relevant today as business schools attempt to realign internal structures and reformulate their value propositions to come closer to real-world needs. Some leading business schools have responded to this challenge by recruiting experienced management consultants as deans. However, these new “practitioner deans” must not only bring their real-world expertise to the business school, but also quickly understand the differences between the academic world they’ve entered and the professional world from which they’ve come.

Whether deans are drawn from the business or the academic world, they must be able to interpret different perspectives internally and externally before they can formulate a strategic direction. In the external context, they must identify threats and opportunities shaped by a variety of factors: regional and global trends; domestic and international economic conditions; the needs and concerns of their global corporate clients; competitors’ offerings; and the expectations of donors and benefactors.

As they consider their internal context, deans must devote time to getting to know all school stakeholders, with their respective interests, needs, and skill sets. Indeed, to introduce strategic initiatives into their schools’ agendas, deans need to understand the interests and the priorities of faculty and board members. Otherwise they’ll find it impossible to inspire and mobilize a large number of these actors to support—and even sponsor—key initiatives.

For instance, George Bain, another former dean of LBS, spent six months talking to everyone with some influence on the school’s strategic agenda before he actually assumed the deanship. This dedicated effort translated into a significant asset when he set out to define and raise support around LBS’ strategic guidelines. Based on his experience, he confidently stated that leadership “is more about having good ears than having a good mouth.”

Strategic leadership ability is what enabled Antonio Borges to implement two breakthrough initiatives at INSEAD. He turned the school into a research-oriented institution—when most of the faculty had a different background—and later spearheaded the drive to open a new campus in Singapore in order to globalize the school. The globalization move easily could have conflicted with his earlier initiative, sidetracking INSEAD’s efforts to make its incipient research capabilities competitive with leading U.S. business schools. However, Borges’ ability to sell his initiatives to key faculty and board members, effectively engaging them as initiative sponsors, made it possible for INSEAD to overcome a multitude of obstacles and difficulties in both pursuits.

The Dean as First Among Equals

As heads of institutions where all members have a certain amount of parity, deans must share their visions on school strategy while building consensus among faculty on key issues, attracting top scholars, finding adequate compensation schemes, and facilitating research agendas.

In this context, deans have little power to drive changes or to introduce bold strategic initiatives that may challenge their schools’ status quo. In fact, as several interviewees pointed out during this research study, the role of the dean usually involves reconciling the needs of groups that are often in conflict: faculty and school boards, academics and business leaders, professors with their individual goals, and universities with their institutional goals. At the same time, deans must determine the best way to apportion resources to achieve long-term teaching and research excellence as well as short-term financial stability.

It’s crucial for deans dealing with these dichotomies to hone all the skills associated with listening, integrating, communicating, and building consensus. These capabilities all hinge on personal credibility, which, in turn, is built on consistent behavior and the ability to deliver results.

For example, George Bain came to London in 1989 with a reputation for strength in both academic and administrative matters. He used this reputational advantage and quickly presented an agenda that set clear goals for change. The faculty welcomed this document with a sense of relief as it halted a period of strategic drift at LBS.

As another LBS former dean, Laura Tyson, puts it, “The main thing I think a dean is trying to do is to represent the institution to the different groups that don’t quite see the institution in the same way.” A dean stands for “the collective interests and the future of the institution,” she says. Deans must listen and respond to both faculty and board members, she notes, building bridges and sharing governance. She adds, “I actually think this is not a bad model for a business school.”

The Dean as CEO

In their roles as top executives, deans set the strategic directions of their schools and help overcome the shared power structure that can lead to evolutionary paralysis. Bain believes that faculty at LBS were happier when he guided the school with a strong hand, even if they didn’t agree with the directions he wanted to take the school. “If they didn’t like it, they could argue, but at least they knew where they were going,” he says.

Bain’s particular challenge was to lead LBS when the school had determined it needed to focus on the international market. As mentioned earlier, he devoted six months to uncovering the concerns of all school constituencies; he also brought with him a successful track record as chairman of Warwick Business School. Even so, his task was not easy. Although the faculty accepted his change agenda—a bias toward strategy—he knew he could not implement the agenda on his own. Therefore, like a CEO organizing a group of senior staffers, he created a management committee of four to five key players to achieve change and build consensus.

Similarly, other deans have needed to act as CEOs to shepherd through essential transformations. For instance, INSEAD’s Borges drew on executive leadership skills when he promoted the initiative to open a second campus in Asia. Like a business CEO, he also identified the leading competitors by saying that INSEAD needed to “be as good as the Americans.”

Borges introduced the idea of a Singapore campus at a faculty meeting. After leading a discussion that allowed him to hear the different views of the faculty members, he decided to go ahead with the project without taking a vote. Borges knew he had the full support of Claude Janssen, INSEAD’s board chairman; even so, such an action is more reminiscent of a CEO than a dean.

Another top academic who has needed to draw on executive skills to forge organizational transformation is Peter Lorange, former president of IMD. Lorange believes that deans not only should determine a school’s strategic focus, but should also decide which pathways are most effective in pursuing that goal. Therefore, he shaped IMD’s strategy with four elements: “Real life, real learning,” “The global meeting place,” “All learning is lifelong learning,” and “A minimalist organizational approach.” He believes such elements represent clear, broad guidelines, which he considers essential. As he says, “Simplicity is absolutely critical.”

In addition to leading transformational initiatives, the CEO/dean must carry out day-to-day leadership tasks, such as optimizing school performance, securing support from the board and faculty, and leading the school’s strategic agenda. But deans can’t be successful even at these basic responsibilities unless they have outstanding records for delivering results, which give them credibility when they want to raise bolder initiatives. Indeed, performance is both a prerequisite and a crucial source of power for deans.

Even deans with excellent reputations and strong credibility do not always succeed at implementing new initiatives. For instance, when Gabriel Hawawini was dean at INSEAD, his accomplishments and leadership style were largely praised by most constituencies. Yet his remarkable track record was not enough for him to win majority faculty support for opening a third campus in North America, which he had set as a pre-condition to staying on as dean. He recognized that he had underestimated some internal influences, such as the strain created by the opening of the Singapore campus. INSEAD’s faculty and board were just not ready to take on a similar challenge so soon. Like dozens of CEOs, many deans must face the reality that at times it is best for both leader and institution to part ways.

It All Comes Down to Leadership

As they play their many parts, deans face a host of leadership challenges. In an article in the The Journal of Higher Education, V.J. Rosser, L.K. Johnsrud, and R.H. Heck gather some of the colorful metaphors applied to deans. They are “variously described as ‘doves of peace’ intervening among war warring factions, ‘dragons’ holding internal and external threats at bay, and ‘diplomats’ guiding and encouraging people who live and work in the college.”

Few deans have become level five leaders, who possess what author Jim Collins describes as “a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.”

More pragmatically, in the book The Business School and the Bottom Line, Ken Starkey and Nick Tiratsoo portray the increasing complexity of the role of the business school dean over time: “Forty years ago, running a business school was something that a senior professor might well take as a matter of duty shortly before retirement. Nowadays deans almost constitute a profession in their own right, a cohort with unique and specialist skills … Deans may be likened to sports coaches, hired to improve performance, fired at will, but with one eye always on building their own careers.”

Author Jim Collins, writing in the Harvard Business Review, outlines five levels of leadership and what defines them. Most deans we know have successfully reached level four leadership: They’re effective and they provide direction to their teams. But few have become level five leaders, who possess what Collins describes as “a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.” These are the great leaders who leave behind lasting legacies.

We believe one reason few deans become level five leaders is that they have relatively short tenures and life cycles of limited influence. Those with longer tenures—such as George Bain, who spent eight years at the helm of LBS—demonstrate that deans can become the very best of leaders. They can provide both stable leadership and strategic direction as they fulfill the many roles required of deans serving at today’s international business schools.

Howard Thomas is LKCSB Chair of Strategic Management and dean of the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at the Singapore Management University. He was previously dean at Warwick Business School in the U.K. Fernando Fragueiro is professor of general management and director of ENOVA Thinking, Centre for Leadership in Emerging Markets, at IAE Business School of Universidad Austral, Argentina. He was dean at IAE Business School between 1995 and 2007. Their book, Strategic Leadership in Business Schools: Keeping One Step Ahead, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2011.