Michigan’s Young Dean on the Future of B-Schools

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Two years ago, Scott DeRue, at 40, became one of the youngest business school deans in the U.S. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business has since risen in the rankings, seen a jump in applications, and pulled in more money from big donors. DeRue talked to Bloomberg Businessweek about innovation, leadership, and B-school branding.

The word “innovation” is used a lot by B-schools, especially to tout how they’re evolving and changing. What does innovation mean at Ross—what’s really changing?
Business schools are preparing talent, people, for jobs that don’t exist today but will 5, 10 years from now. So the question is, how do we prepare and ready talent for that future world of work? We believe work is more global, more cross-functional, it’s rife with uncertainty and ambiguity. So innovation is not about creating a solution to a problem, it’s about identifying what the problem is and framing that problem in the context of innovations. We should ask ourselves, “What are the experiences we are providing our students that are going to ready them to address those problems?” and then provide an experience that is as close to the action as possible.

Does that make the traditional curriculum a relic?
A core part of the educational experience here is enabling students to put the business fundamentals taught in the classroom into action. I don’t see this as an either-or situation. Things we do in the classroom still are important—it’s a stereotype that the real-world experiential stuff happens elsewhere. Students have to learn some fundamentals, and then put those fundamentals into other experiences.

What, if anything, is hard about developing and offering these opportunities to apply the classroom learning to real-life business experiences?
Selling this to our students, and to the companies we partner with, is easy. It’s giving our students the experience that the companies that recruit our students look for. What’s difficult is this—think about what companies are asking for from the talent they’re hiring. They want a global mindset, cross-platform and collaboration skills, and the ability to thrive in a time of uncertainty and ambiguity. Companies struggle with all that. Well, what are we doing? We’re throwing our students into highly ambiguous, highly uncertain situations, and they’ll thrive trying to reduce that ambiguity and that uncertainty. They’re learning to deal with it rather than be frustrated by it. I’d much rather we —schools—struggle with it and have students learn than for our graduates to struggle when they get out into the real world.

How has the transition from teaching to leading the school been? Is there anything about teaching that you draw on in your role as dean?
My full-time job is leading the school, and I love teaching. I love the opportunity and the privilege of investing in our students, and it was really important that I stay close to the student experience. I do much less teaching than I used to, I teach one course a year. In August, I will be taking a group of undergraduates and alumni to Africa, to meet and talk to a number of businesses about business strategy in Africa. Also, we’ll do a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s a great beginner mountain, it’s not technical, and it’s accessible for the average person in terms of fitness level, with some training in advance. But students don’t need any specialized skills. It’s a great environment to teach and explore leadership and teamwork. Leadership is about influencing a group of people to accomplish a shared goal. I hope that the Kilimanjaro course will build students’ confidence in their ability to lead even when they do not have formal authority. Giving them the skills and confidence to step up and be proactive within a team is essential to their leadership development. 

Can B-schools address the disconnect between real-world leadership and the kind that’s taught in the classroom?
I talk a lot about leading from where you are. Too often in this world, people see leadership as a position. But there are people in authoritarian positions that don’t really have power, they offer no leadership. And then there are those people that don’t have those positions, but their leadership is truly powerful and we’d follow them almost anywhere. We’re focused on helping our students to develop the concept of leadership from whatever position they’re in, to apply leadership to the job they hold. They should know they have a voice and influence—that’s powerful. I say, “I don’t teach leadership. I design experiences that enable you to discover it and learn it.”

Do rankings matter?
They do matter. They’re one source of information for people, and I think the ranking agencies, the clearer they can make the criteria and why those criteria matter to the decisions that people are making about where they’re going to school, that would be helpful. Absent other information, rankings are the primary source of brand perception in the market. Every dean should be concerned about the brand of the school they’re leading. At the same time, it’s essential that every dean leading a business school tell a compelling story that presents the full picture. Why are we doing what we’re doing? We’re here through our research and ideas to shape the conversations around the most important business issues in the world. The rankings capture an element of that but not the full story.

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