Business school deans: Leadership in a complex, multi-stakeholder environment



Prof. Nick Oliver, University of Edinburgh Business School, and Prof. Andrew Brown and Prof. Mike Lewis, University of Bath School of Management

In this short piece we present some interim impressions from a study of deans and ex-deans of UK business schools. Our purpose is to explore issues of identity and authenticity in environments characterised by multiple stakeholders and competing institutional logics.

Our starting point is the observation that many UK business schools are faced with expectations from multiple stakeholders that, in aggregate, sometimes outstrip their capability to deliver. Our interest is in how deans respond to this situation.

To date we have interviewed 21 deans and ex-deans, covering 23 institutions and 26 ‘dean-episodes.’  The deans and ex-deans interviewed to date:

• Are predominantly male (80%).
• Were typically aged 45-50 on first becoming a dean (range approximately 40-60)
• Comprise four ‘serial’ deans – three were deans at two different institutions, one at three.

Six interviewees were current deans, 15 were ex-deans. Of the dean episodes, a minority (29%) were internal appointments, with most being external appointments. All the institutions covered to date were university-based business schools, and all but one were located in pre-92 institutions. About a third of interviewees were from business schools which were currently or recently ranked in the FT MBA rankings.

Preliminary coding of the experience of being a dean indicated that 38% regarded their experience as positive, 29% neutral and 33% as negative. Of the ex-deans, 35% returned to the ranks, 25% went on to another deanship and 25% retired. Only 15% went on to another, higher position in their universities.

We asked the deans about their ‘manifesto’ on taking the role. Relatively few respondents had a particularly strong or clear manifesto, typical responses to the ‘manifesto’ question being:

• ‘Putting missing legs on the stool’, creating a ‘proper’ business school, with corporate engagement as the most common ‘missing limb.’
• Developing/correcting under performance in specific areas e.g. research or internationalisation.
• Healing wounds, community-building.
• Creating something different or distinctive (the exact nature of this was usually unspecified).

In their own words…
In this section we present three direct quotations which illustrate different aspects dealing with multiple stakeholders and institutional logics.

The first quote is from a male ex-dean, externally appointed, who took on a business school in a long-established university that at first sight seemed to represent a great unexploited opportunity:

‘There’s a power thing which is that universities want a business school but they don’t want a business school… So you find anywhere that hasn’t had one, it’s an opportunity. It was a fantastic opportunity to set up one that was distinctive and interesting cos the world doesn’t really need [another] bog standard business school. The Principal, who agreed, set out the parameters in a really helpful way. [We had to find our] own niches, so that was brilliant. But when I started to implement that, then I ran into all the contradictions which had been there. Because that’s why they didn’t have a business school.’

This statement illustrates how competing forces in the host institution served to impede the development of the business school. In this case, the reality and constraints that emerged during execution served to block the achievement of previously voiced, and apparently sincere, aspirations.

The second quotation is from an internally appointed female ex-dean in an ancient university:

‘I remember walking from meeting to meeting sometimes and feeling that you were becoming something else as you went to different meetings. There’s the senior management of the University, and the Vice Chancellor – they are big stakeholders of course. They have a direction for the University – you are part of that. Sometimes you are wondering ‘What are you? How do you fit into where they are going?’ And I found I was often second-guessing what did they want from us, how could we deliver it to them? Was I giving them the right answer? Did they have an answer in their heads? Could I actually influence what the direction of the School was?

So you are juggling all of these people, all at the same time. Maybe you do become different people when you are in these different places. Because you have to, or you wouldn’t survive. And of course there are conflicts. And you know the conflicts. You know you’re saying something to one person when you’re aware of the conflict that this will have elsewhere. And you have to live with it. And you can’t always tell exactly the truth.’

This quote illustrates both the ambiguity of the position of senior figures in the host institution – the interviewee found herself trying to second guess what the university wanted – and the difficulty of reconciling the needs of different constituencies (‘you can’t always tell exactly the truth’).

The third quotation is from a female ex-dean, also in an ancient university, who was externally appointed. The quotation nicely illustrates the universe of stakeholders that a dean must manage, and also a positive, proactive approach to this process:

A … at the end of every month, I’d ask what I’d done for X and Y – the faculty, the students, the alumni, the industrialist, YY…

Q You had a picture in your head of that..?

A Yes, I did.  I had me in the middle and all these different things there, and I knew that to be successful that I’d got to have good possibilities in all those areas.  And I would always conclude ‘ah, done OK with X, completely neglected Y, what can I do about that? Can I now make sure that I prioritise Y?’

… I felt that partly, when I was working with any one of these constituencies, that it was important for me to articulate to them the fact that we were in this 360 degree crucible and that for those who thought that I paid too much attention to YY, or those who thought I paid too much attention to [a particular company] or those who thought I paid too much attention to the alumni, that there was no such thing as that, what we’d got to do was try to keep them all together.
Observations and implications

A recurring theme in our interviews so far has been the location of the dean on the intersection of competing ‘institutional logics’, a situation we ascribe to the nature of business schools themselves, who have to seek and secure legitimacy in several arenas at once, at least if they are to be regarded as ‘proper’ business schools. These arenas include academic research (in the UK, usually viewed through the lens of the REF); engagement with policy and practice, objectively via activities such as executive education, subjectively by conversations between vice-chancellors and local business leaders; as providers of cost-effective vocational education, expressed via rankings; and as supporters of the wider university community of which they are a part. Other pressures also exist, such as demonstrably playing a part in institutional internationalisation strategies, widening participation, and so on.

Meeting all of these demands adequately can be a tall order, particularly for institutions that operate in the sub-premium segment, who may be hampered by locational and reputational constraints which limit both staff and student recruitment – although no one, at any level, is completely immune from such issues. Business school deans may thus face a mismatch between the expectations of multiple stakeholder groups and the capacity of their schools to deliver.

We find the writings of Nils Brunnson (1989, 1993) useful in thinking about these issues. Brunnson’s (1989) argument is that some of things which organisations must say and do in order to secure legitimacy from external sources are not necessarily consistent with what must be done in order to attain their core purposes efficiently and effectively. The net effect of this, Brunnson argues, is that different discourses may develop: one around external legitimacy, the other around operational reality. Thus, one story is projected to the outside world, while the private reality may be quite different – a situation he terms ‘organizational hypocrisy.’ In his later work, Brunsson (1993) observes that organisations can find themselves in a position where what can be done cannot be said, and, conversely, in which what can be said cannot actually be done. From this perspective, hypocrisy – manifested by a mismatch between word and deed, between promise and delivery – can be construed as a strategy for dealing with inherently difficult-to-reconcile forces.

Writing from a very different perspective, but coming to rather similar conclusions are writers on ‘financialization’ and executive behaviour such as Froud et al (2006) and Martin (2011). Froud et al (2006) discuss executive behaviour in large corporations over which financial markets exert significant pressures for returns – largely via share price appreciation. However, sheer size, legacy effects and lag mean that there may be relatively few things that executives can do to produce sustainable results quickly. The consequence of this, argue Froud et al (ibid), is that executives have ‘many moves, but few levers.’ Jammed in between difficult-to-achieve goals and hard-to-move obstacles, executives may resort to spin and short-termism. Martin (2011), a former dean at the University of Toronto, makes a similar argument in Fixing the Game in which he identifies dysfunctions that ensue when the ‘expectations’ market (in which share price reflects future expectations, which can of course be managed and inflated) becomes detached from the ‘real’ market (i.e. a company’s long-term earning potential based on its actual capabilities, brand and competitive position).

There are several parallels between these ideas and the position of many business school deans. First, many universities profess to want a ‘world-class’ business school (where world-class is usually construed as something like Harvard Business School, only local). Position in the FT MBA rankings is frequently used as a proxy, particularly the hallowed ranks of the top 20. However, for the vast majority of UK business schools a place in the top 20 is a virtually impossible dream, although any deans who come out and say so too explicitly are unlikely to win friends in their university administration. The dean’s challenge in matching aspiration and achievement is all the more acute because they are faced with multiple criteria of success, many of which involve difficult trade-offs – for example, achieving a top REF score vs meeting the needs of practitioners and policy makers; offering a diverse, international student experience vs filling places on premium-fee courses; practical relevance vs academic rigour – the list goes on.

Like the executives of giant corporations identified by Froud et al (2006) who have many moves but few levers, a constant stream of promises of a bright future just around the corner is an understandable, if unsatisfactory, response to what we believe is a more deeply rooted structural problem. An active external labour market for business school deans is another as vice-chancellors search for the equivalent of Khurana’s (2002) ‘corporate saviors’ to deliver the world-class business schools that they profess to desire.


Brunsson, N. (1989) The Organization of Hypocrisy: Talk, Decisions and Actions in Organizations. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Brunsson, N. (1993) ‘Ideas and actions: Justifications and hypocrisy as alternatives to control’, Accounting, Organizations and Society, 18(6): 489―506.
Froud, J., Sukhdev, J., Leaver, A. and Williams, K. (2006) Financialization and Strategy: Narrative and Numbers. London, New York, NY: Routledge.
Khurana, R. (2002) Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Martin, R.L. (2011) Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

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