Just as business executives sometimes leave the corporate world to take up posts as deans, occasionally longtime deans depart academia to lead other organizations. That’s exactly what Carolyn Woo did when she became president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services in 2012 after serving nearly 15 years as dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
While she was dean, she spent one year as chair of the board of AACSB International; she also led the association’s Peace Through Commerce initiative. In her new role, she has been listed as one of the 500 most powerful people on the planet by Foreign Policy magazine—one of only 33 noted as being “a force for good.” Here, she discusses how her experiences at Mendoza prepared her to lead CRS and how business school can prepare students for success in the nonprofit world.
You went from being a dean to leading a massive humanitarian organization. How are the jobs similar?
To be a dean, you need to have a strategic vision, and you have to bring people along on that vision. You also must be able to move people to higher levels of standards and performance. And you have to use systems, assignments, and structures to align the implementation with the vision. I did those things as dean, and I do them now.
The fundraising piece of the job is also the same. Fundraising is more than just cultivating donors. It’s getting people excited about what you do and giving them a sense of ownership. It’s articulating your mission and your achievements in a way that’s inspiring.
What is most different?
The biggest difference is the number of stakeholders I deal with. In a business school, the major stakeholders are faculty, students, donors, corporate recruiters, and other deans.
In my current job, my staff is the equivalent of my faculty—but I have staff in more than 90 countries around the world. My donors include governments and large corporations, as well as individuals. And, because I represent the Catholic Church in the U.S., some of my other stakeholders include the bishops, the priests, and the people in the pews of U.S. churches. In addition, I work with faith leaders from around the world.
CRS is involved in advocacy to political leaders on topics like poverty reduction and humanitarian aid, so I also reach out to American government leaders. This gives you an idea of how my stakeholders have broadened.
Another difference is in the degree of complexity in my deliverables. As a dean, my deliverables were degrees and the educational experiences that led to degrees. At CRS, my deliverables are designing integrated solutions around issues such as hunger and food security, education and literacy, water, sanitation, and agricultural livelihoods.
Many business school graduates will go on to work in the nonprofit sector. Do you think that current business school curricula adequately prepare these students for their careers?
I think what we teach in business schools is directly relevant to the not-for-profit world. In terms of skills and expertise, there’s about a 90 percent overlap in what students need to know, although a lot more soft skills are required in not-for-profits.
What’s different are two things. In nonprofits, managers must be able to motivate employees even though they can’t offer the highest pay. At the startup level, the pay differential between not-for-profits and for-profits isn’t very large, but as individuals move up the hierarchy and gain more responsibility, the differential is huge. I would say that a senior manager who handles a major nonprofit program might earn about a third of what a comparable industry leader would make.
That leads to the second thing. Leaders of nonprofits have to be the kinds of people who will get a high degree of intrinsic satisfaction from the type of work that saves lives, that makes a difference in whether children are fed or face starvation, that allows people to have access to clean water. Making a difference in people’s lives has to give them great joy.
While you were dean at Notre Dame, you clearly were drawn to the notion of business as a force for good. You were involved in the Peace Through Commerce initiative at AACSB, and you wrote about the role of business in society, especially in the developing world. In taking the job with CRS, it seems you followed that passion to its logical conclusion. What advice would you give to business students about when they should take jobs for the experience, and when they should risk everything to follow their hearts?
I think I’m a person who needs a balance between passion and security. I don’t follow my passion to the point of saying, “I don’t care if I have savings for my old age. I don’t care if I can fund my children’s education.” On the other hand, I don’t make decisions just to earn the highest amount of money. When I moved from consulting to academia, when I moved to different jobs within academia, and when I moved from Notre Dame to CRS, I took pay cuts.
I’m always striking a balance between having enough and doing what I feel pulled to do at a certain point. I have a sense of passion, but I also have a sense of pragmatism. I would tell students they have to have both.
Even if business students decide to go into business, not the nonprofit sector, do you think it would benefit them to take an internship working with a nonprofit?
Completely. First of all, the skills are very transferrable. Second, that experience would give them more accurate impressions of not-for-profits. It’s much harder to work at a not-for-profit than a for-profit because the organization has to achieve a lot on very little budget. If students understand how to do that, they could lead in many different situations.
Finally, they would learn to understand the consequences of business actions—not just the negative consequences, but also what happens when business doesn’t go far enough. They would learn to ask, “How can my actions make society a better place?” I’m not one of those who only thinks about the bad things businesses do—I think there is tremendous potential for business to do good. What stops people is a lack of imagination and a lack of connection to the lowest sectors of society.
Have your academic connections led you to develop more partnerships between CRS and universities?
CRS works with more than 100 schools on a globalization program that builds student leadership skills. Not only do we have cases that faculty can use, we can make experts available to be beamed virtually into classrooms to discuss issues. In addition to those broad university programs, we have comprehensive research relationships with select universities, and I would say I brought those relationships.
If you knew a dean who wanted to leave the academic life for the nonprofit world, what advice would you give?
I would say, “Enjoy the idea of being able to make a difference at still another level of impact.” Business school deans do a great deal to develop the skills and imaginations and aspirations of young people. But they can reach so many more people if they move into a position like this. At Catholic Relief Services, we touch 100 million people every year. Being able to have that type of impact through leadership of an organization can give someone a tremendous sense of purpose.
If you were to return to the academic world after serving at CRS, what would you do differently once you were back in the dean’s office?
I would do more to help students imagine how they can contribute to the world. I think a lot of times business students’ potential exceeds what they actually do with it, so I would inspire them to ask big questions about their lives.
I also would do more to expose them to the interdependence of the world so they could see how the actions of business, government, and civil society relate. Business schools tend to focus on only one of the three corners of that triangle, but their actions interrelate and have consequences.
I also would hope to inspire them to be less fearful. Because if you’re always anxious and always trying to accumulate more, you can’t really do big things.