Business school leadership: Balancing a portfolio



Kai Peters, Ashridge Business School

When I arrived at Ashridge 10 years ago, I was told that there were various expectations of me: to formulate an academic and business strategy, to achieve degree awarding powers and safeguard accreditations, to try to make money, and to generate a sense of energy and excitement within the school and around the school.

To make these challenges happen, one needs to understand the drivers of a business school so that one can understand where what type of intervention will yield results. A business school is a creative, knowledge intensive environment composed of individualists who research, teach, and manage programmes. Ashridge, for example, is not unlike a souk with a variety of small businesses conducted under the same roof. The different business school activities have different needs, different channels to market and different success criteria. To complicate matters further, success criteria for faculty are very different from the success criteria for programmes. In the former case, careers are built on the academic reputation of the individual faculty members. In the latter it is about programme delivery.

It is in the midst of these challenges and contradictions that a dean manages both the business and academic aspects of a school. Because there are such contradictions, the role of the dean is of finding a balance between competing needs in the school community. It is impossible simultaneously to rationalise on research and teaching and on degree programmes and executive education – it is about a balance on competing claims for faculty time.

From a programme perspective for programmes like an MSc or the MBA, as well as for short courses, one needs to develop a business-to-consumer brand – a one-to-many strategy. An additional important factor is that these types of programmes are scheduled so that one has some sort of an indication of faculty requirements. Income streams and profitability are generally predictable.

Customised executive education programmes, on the other hand, are business-to-business sells where the customer is the head of HR or of organisational development within a large company. Translated into marketing terms, one can identify and build relationships with those individuals who may purchase programmes on behalf of their own organisations. Managing executive education is completely different from managing scheduled programmes. They are much more akin to consultancy projects. Predicting the pipeline is very difficult, understanding the resource needs is highly uncertain, and, importantly, executive education is tremendously volatile financially - largely tracking – lagging – the overall economy.
A dean’s role, in my opinion, is to support both programme and executive education marketing and sales. I attend as many open days for degree programmes as possible and also attend as many client meetings and pitches as my colleagues deem desirable.

Externally, I seek to accomplish a number of things. The first is around sense-making. By participating in conferences and serving on business school association boards, one gathers insight into market conditions and into how accreditations work. Additionally, one can network extensively – which can lead to joint projects with other schools. In Ashridge’s case, we are presently pursuing the opportunity for a game-changing strategic alliance.

The other key external activity is to act as a spokesperson for the school. Give me a platform and I will regale an audience about something or other. Personally, I enjoy writing, talking, doing radio, television, speaking at conferences, chatting with journalists on Twitter – it is all great fun and it helps build Ashridge’s reputation.

Educational programmes are the outputs of a school. The school, of course, needs an environment in which these programmes are offered. The dean is thus also responsible for all of the business aspects of the school, or is responsible to represent the business school’s needs within the university. In the case of Ashridge, in addition to the 150 or so faculty members and associates, there are over 300 managerial and support staff providing services to the institution. There are nearly 200 hotel rooms calling forth thousands of bed nights and tens of thousands of meals per year. Ashridge has a range of buildings spanning the 13th to 21st centuries. The historic buildings and the gardens are listed and are thus subject to additional rules, regulations, and expensive renovations when boilers blow up or bits of the buildings fall down. Within the charitable Ashridge Act of Parliament, it is one of my duties to ensure that Ashridge is ‘maintained for the good of the nation.’

If I abstract what I believe is important, it comes back to balance. Being excessively managerial is not successful in a business school setting nor is being excessively academic. It is at the interface between the two that schools are managed. Lastly, it is by extending this philosophy to all other stakeholder groups: governors, clients, participants, alumni, media, rankings, government, and national and international business school communities, which leads to a dean’s success.

The role of the dean, in my case, is thus to be the poster child, to be the chief academic officer, to be the chief executive officer, to be a hotel keeper, a restaurant keeper, a museum keeper, and to decide on car parking policies for staff – a jack of all trades!


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