AS AN UNDERGRADUATE MAJORING in economics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Thomas Robinson wasn’t sure whether he wanted to pursue an MBA or a master’s degree in accounting after graduation. In the end, the master’s in accounting won out. “I ultimately decided that I really wanted to practice public accounting,” says Robinson, who went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
But during ten years working as a professional accountant and financial planner, Robinson found that he also had a passion for teaching. “I’d work in public accounting by day and then teach classes at night,” says Robinson, who first taught workshops on starting small businesses for the Small Business Administration and then classes for The Ohio State University in Columbus. “I enjoyed bringing the practical world to the students. When I got my doctorate, I continued to teach, research, and consult in ways that were oriented toward practice.” Robinson went on to become an accounting professor at the University of Miami in Florida for 14 years.
"WHAT EXCITES ME MOST IS THE OPPORTUNITY TO HAVE AN IMPACT ON BUSINESS EDUCATION THAT'S MUCH BROADER THAN I COULD HAVE AT THE CFA INSTITUTE."
- THOMAS ROBINSON, PRESIDENT AND CEO, AACSB INTERNATIONAL
Ironically, his career path eventually led to roles that didn’t involve practicing accounting at all. For the last eight years, he has worked at the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia, first as its head of educational content; then as its managing director of education; and finally as its managing director of the Americas, the institute’s largest market encompassing the U.S., Canada, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
In addition to his primary responsibilities, he oversaw the CFA Institute’s Key Stakeholder Services Division, which provides services to its membership. Most recently, he co-sponsored its Future of Finance Initiative, a long-term effort that aims to bolster the integrity and social focus of the entire finance community. “My job didn’t involve accounting, but it involved everything that I would have learned in an MBA program—organizational behavior, team development, strategic planning,” he says. “Over the last eight years, I feel as if I’ve effectively earned an MBA!”
Now, Robinson embraces his next big challenge—as of May 1, he becomes the CEO of AACSB International, headquartered in Tampa, Florida. He succeeds John Fernandes, who is retiring after 15 years in the role. For Robinson, the transition from the CFA Institute to AACSB seems like a natural next step. “I’ve had experience in practice, I’ve had experience in academe, I’ve had experience in not-for-profit organizations. AACSB focuses on all of these things, for all of management education,” he says. “Everything has come together to prepare me for this new role.”
BizEd recently spoke to Robinson about his approach to leadership. He also shared his love of teaching, his passion for linking academia to practice, and his excitement about making an impact as AACSB’s next leader.
What lessons do you take away from your years at the CFA Institute that you think will best serve you as AACSB’s CEO?
I came from an academic background, so when I first started at the CFA Institute, I would go into meetings knowing what the answer was. I would be very quick to provide an answer or solution. Since then, I’ve learned to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, especially when I’m thinking about how to do strategic planning or develop teams. It’s important to sit back, listen, and ask questions. My leadership style is now more about facilitating the conversation to help the group reach a conclusion, rather than providing a conclusion myself.
I really view an organization as a partnership. Everyone in the organization is an equal partner who is invested in pushing the organization’s vision forward. It’s important to make sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute.
What do you think you most need to learn on the job at AACSB?
I think I’m going to be drinking from a fire hose! I’ve read the new accreditation standards, and I need to spend more time with them. I’ve participated in the accreditation process from the faculty perspective, but I now need to learn more about it from AACSB’s perspective. I plan to go on an accreditation visit, so I can see how that process works. In my first six months, I think there’s going to be a lot of listening and learning.
What do you view as the association’s most important priorities?
That’s what the board of directors’ visioning process is all about—they are asking how AACSB will add value to its member institutions. The association’s 2020 Committee is just now wrapping up its report, which looks at where we are today and where we want to be. There are big trends affecting business schools right now—globalization, rapidly changing technology, shifting student demographics. AACSB needs to help business schools deal with those challenges and opportunities.
What excites you most as you assume your role at AACSB?
What excites me most is the opportunity to have an impact on business education that’s much broader than I could have at the CFA Institute. I’ve always been interested in the nexus between practice and academe—in making sure that what’s being taught in the university is based on what’s going on in practice, while simultaneously creating knowledge that will improve practice. At AACSB, we can add value to our member schools by providing a very close connection to what’s going on in business.
What do you want to carry over from the association’s last 15 years, and what do you hope the association will look like five years from now?
In the late 1990s, AACSB had only a handful of member schools outside North America. Today, it’s a truly global organization, with its second office in Singapore and now its new office in Amsterdam. There’s also a great culture among the staff in Tampa, who make a fun team. I want to keep that momentum going.
What do you most want AACSB’s membership to know about you?
I’m born and raised in Miami, so I’m thrilled to be coming back to Florida. One of my passions is fishing, and the fishing is a lot better in Florida than it is in Virginia! I also love to teach, and in my travels around the world with the CFA Institute, I had opportunities to guest lecture at many universities. That’s something that I’d like to continue to do with AACSB.