Seats at the Table

Four academics discuss how a business school can amplify its global presence by effectively assembling—and managing—an international board.
Seats at the Table

INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS SCHOOLS need the input of international business participants to prepare their graduates to enter complex global organizations. There are logistical challenges in convening even a local board, and those are multiplied when members come from farflung locations. But the benefits also are multiplied.

To discuss both those challenges and those benefits, BizEd talked with four academics whose schools have assembled international advisory boards that include a mix of academics and business leaders. FELICIA APPENTENG is managing director of the international board at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain; ĐURO NJAVRO is the dean of Croatia’s Zagreb School of Economics and Management (ZSEM); PHILIP VERGAUWEN leads the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University in the Netherlands; and SUSAN J. HART is former dean and current associate deputy principal for marketing at the University of Strathclyde Business School in Glasgow, Scotland. The latter three serve on AACSB’s European Advisory Council, and Hart also is a member of the association’s board of directors.

Here, they discuss what they learn from their board members, how any school can make its board better—and why an international board is essential to delivering global business education.

Why are international board perspectives so important to a business school?
HART: We are all capable of seeing the world uniquely—that is good. But when we see it uniquely from our own perspective, we might make decisions that are poorly founded, somewhat myopic, and limited. We’re each influenced by cultural, economic, historical, operational, linguistic, and strategic patterns from very different contexts. When organizations are diverse, this rich variety makes them better.

APPENTENG: We rely on our international advisory board to keep us true to our values, while still encouraging us to experiment and to innovate. Our advisory board keeps us at our best without ever letting us get too comfortable.

VERGAUWEN: For Maastricht, it’s not enough to have a gathering of Dutch people who are internationally active. We need the richness that is brought in by people with different cultural, professional, and personal contexts.

We can’t just focus on the international playground—we have to incorporate internationality into our own playground.

NJAVRO: Our students will be at the peak of their careers 15 or 20 years from now, and it is hard to know what business will look like then. I believe that two of the key elements for the future sustainability of our schools will be their international dimensions and their international exchanges.

How does a school decide whom to ask to serve on its board?

NJAVRO: I regularly interact with external stakeholders, promoting the school and the value of business education. When I meet individuals who have an interest in education and with whom I agree on educational purposes and institutional mission, I invite them to serve on the board.

VERGAUWEN: Schools should look for people who think differently. They aren’t seeking adversaries, but people with complementary knowledge—contrarian thinkers who truly want to contribute their views.

The advisory board brings with it its own network. Most of the people on this planet are only two handshakes and two Facebook links away, so suddenly the whole world is within reach.

What do you want board members to bring to the institution?
NJAVRO: The key assets that board members bring are their professional reputations and their experience as they become links between the school and external stakeholders. They act as individuals, experts, and friends of ZSEM rather than representatives of their institutions.

APPENTENG: They surround us with a diverse set of informed opinions. They challenge our assumptions and always want proof of our effectiveness. The best advice that I get from board members usually is to look at an issue more deeply.

HART: We hope that each member will bring a spirit of “informed challenge” to the meetings. We want them to challenge us to go further, be bold, push ourselves to co-create as much value as we can in our various markets. More specifically, our board members were instrumental when we were reviewing our internationalization strategy. For instance, they provided local market and competitive perspectives that shaped our thinking on the geographies where we wished to work.

VERGAUWEN: Board members bring with them an outside-in view, which is crucial in an academic environment. They bring their experience and knowledge, which helps us learn that our challenges are identical to the ones any organization faces—that the wheel has already been discovered. Board members also help clarify whatever puzzle we’re working on. They push us in the right direction, and they protect us from the stress we feel when we think there is so much we need to do or change by tomorrow—reminding us that this is not possible!

To give a concrete example, our members helped dramatically in getting the school’s strategic goals on the agenda of the university board as we considered issues such as alumni, student selection criteria, and resources for marketing.

How do you bring together a large number of international members for regular meetings?
APPENTENG: Our board meets in person once a year in Madrid. Though we allow board members to participate by using teleconferencing technology, we strongly prefer the collaborative and dynamic atmosphere of an in-person conversation. In my experience, it’s difficult to have a lively discussion when some board members are on the phone and the rest are there in person. The best conversations happen when everyone is on equal footing—either everyone is in one room or everyone is on a teleconference.

A big part of my job is making sure that every board member’s comments, suggestions, and criticisms receive a thoughtful response. After all board meetings, I send a copy of minutes to the board, and I will often schedule personal phone calls with board members who could not attend so I can make a note of their feedback. Throughout the year, we seek advice from board members on matters where they have special expertise.

NJAVRO: ZSEM advisory board meetings are usually held once a year. However, between meetings there is continuous interaction with the board members via email, Skype, and conference calls. When international members are traveling in Europe, they regularly visit the school to become acquainted with the latest developments.

HART: We use a combination of scheduled meetings, videoconferencing, individual briefings, and one-to-one advice sessions. We also make sure our board is bigger than necessary so there is room for a couple of no-shows.

Several of you also serve on advisory councils for AACSB. What do you try to contribute any time you’re a member of an external board?
HART: I hope to bring my personal perspectives as an internationally active educator—British, European, and female. And I want to learn from other perspectives so together we can build the foundations of a truly global organization.

NJAVRO: I think that each board member should understand how to mobilize his knowledge and competencies and utilize his social network of peers and friends in fulfilling his function on the board.

On the AACSB board, I contribute my experience working in the complex, transitional economy of Croatia. I hope that the competencies I developed through establishing ZSEM and working in a transitional economy can contribute to the development of AACSB. At the same time, serving on the council allows me to gain additional experience by testing my own viewpoints and ideas through meaningful interaction with others.

VERGAUWEN: It’s important for academics to sit on boards as advisors, too. That way, they understand what drives executives and administrators, and what drives advisors to counterweight them.

                                                                                               —PHILIP VERGAUWEN, MAASTICHT UNIVERSITY
We have to share our knowledge and experiences with others in the community if we really want to improve business education worldwide. When we bring views, frustrations, wishes, dreams, and fears to the attention of the parent organization, we do the community a big service. On a fundamental or visionary level, AACSB’s interests are no different from the interests of my school and AACSB’s other member schools, so when I contribute to the community, I am also contributing to my school.
What skills and attitudes should any board member bring to the table?
NJAVRO: Experience, professional reputations, open minds, and respect for diversity. Members shouldn’t hesitate to join critical discussions while respecting other members and nourishing a culture of trust, openness, and high ethical standards.

VERGAUWEN: They must understand that nothing is ever final, finished, or achieved. The world and the institutions operating in it continuously change, adapt, grow, or solve problems. These dynamics are different on different continents and in different institutional and political settings, and trying to understand those differences is what creates insights.

APPENTENG: The most important thing that a board member can bring to the table is constructive objectivity. Board members who come to a meeting having read all of the preparatory material will have the kinds of questions and suggestions that can be taken directly to our steering committee for review. Reading the preparatory materials and interacting with the staff gives those members the best platform to effect the change they want.

What advice would you give to a school hoping to maintain a strong advisory board?
HART: Brief the board fully. Ensure that board members all know the positions, roles, and perspectives involved. Make the value of the board members felt. And build productive personal, as well as professional, relationships.

VERGAUWEN: Allow advisory board members to take an active—even leading—role in setting the agenda. Invite members to challenge the school’s leadership on issues that haven’t been brought up yet, or to reflect on the longer-term future of the school. Ask advisory members to invite speakers from their own networks to come in when they have specific expertise that might be relevant for the school. Trust your members and take them seriously so that they automatically take their positions on the board seriously.

Remember that there’s always the danger of factions and frictions. Avoid having members sit for too long a time, or they’ll get embedded and feel like they’ve heard and seen it all. However, saying goodbye can feel like a loss, and it does take time for newcomers to understand what the school wants to achieve.

What advice would you give to other schools who want to make their boards more international?
NJAVRO: Include members with eclectic backgrounds in terms of skills, competencies, and demographic features. Promote a working atmosphere centered on critical thinking, active dialogue, responsibility, and mutual respect.

HART: Think about your objectives. Understand why you want international members. Then make sure those objectives are explicit to the people you approach. Finally, it helps to build personal rapport with people—it helps them and it helps you. One way to do this might be to ask for some ad hoc advice before making a formal approach.

Once schools internationalize their boards, they’ll experience personal learning beyond belief! They’ll also make better decisions and create greater capital within their institutions as they learn from widely informed views.

APPENTENG: Schools should look for board members not only in countries where they have alumni and friends, but also in the countries where they want to be in five or ten years. IE created the IE Fund in 2001 to help guide us into the U.S. market, and Americans are now our second largest nationality on campus. Our board taught us about the important differences between markets, provided crucial introductions, and allowed us to grow meaningfully.

Having an international outlook—as a school, a company, or an individual—is no longer a niche perspective, but is in fact the dominant perspective. I would encourage any school that is interested in internationalizing its board to do its homework about potential candidates and to be clear with board candidates about what is expected of them.

VERGAUWEN: When you internationalize the board, you reach out and leave your known orbit to be catapulted into outer space. An international board allows the school to capture the USS Enterprise feeling from “Star Trek” films—always ready for the unknown.