When leadership professor Nitin Nohria took over his job as dean of the Harvard Business School on July 1, his enthusiasm bubbled over into his Twitter feed. At exactly 8:57 a.m. on his first day, he tapped out this message to his followers: “My first day as Dean of HBS! I am honored, humbled, and excited to embark on this wonderful journey.”
To social media fans, his succinct message was a welcoming start to making more accessible and personable the new leader of the world’s most powerful and influential business school. But among the B-school deans who have become social media mavens, Nohria is not a very prolific tweeter.
When Harvard faculty voted Jan. 19 on significant changes to the school’s MBA program, there was radio silence on Nohria’s Twitter feed. Even now, a full week later, the dean has yet to acknowledge on Twitter any of the approved alternations to the school’s curriculum. In fact, for the entire month of January, Nohria tweeted just three times—the most recent message today offered thanks to alums, who met with Nohria in London yesterday (Jan. 24).
Brian Kenny, Harvard’s chief of marketing and communications, concedes that his boss is “inconsistent” when it comes to Twitter and that he has tried to get him to more frequently use the medium to communicate. So far it’s a lost cause. According to Kenny, it’s just a question of how much time the dean has available in any given day.
Yet, many other top-level deans, from Stanford’s Garth Saloner to IE Business School’s Santiago Iniguez, have completely embraced social media (see our guide to B-school deans worth following). They are using Twitter nearly every day to stay close to students, alumni and other stakeholders, allowing rare glimpses into their private worlds as leaders of major business institutions. Most tweeting deans say they like the technology because it takes little time to tap out a 140-character message, and it’s an easy way to give their increasingly global communities a peek at what’s going on at their schools every day. So many deans are now tweeting that one blog, BizDeansTalk: A Discussion on Management Education, features live streaming of “BizDeansTweets” and also has its own Twitter feed.
For Robert Bruner, dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, tweeting is an extension of the blogging he has been doing for the past four years. “It’s a way to reach a much larger public with a set of views and ideas,” he says. “It’s a way to have a conversation with a larger public than is possible by telephone or physical presentations.”
Bruner tweets daily, often several times a day, and his messages also show up on his Facebook page. Since joining Twitter in December of 2008, he has tapped out more than 925 tweets, sharing inspirational quotes from the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Vince Lombardi, offering up Haiku-like movie reviews (Country Strong is “a sobering commentary on love and ambition”), and providing links to what he is reading (one recent link was to “bloviated business language–a lesson for our MBAs on how not to write.”)
Does Bruner have a Twitter strategy? Apparently so. “I try to tweet about values and integrity,” he says. “That is a message that is underserved I the general conversation about business schools. And many people are just interested in the minutiae of a dean’s life.”
The deans who are the biggest advocates for Twitter say that frequency is crucial. “One belief I have is that consistency is important,” says Jim Dean, dean of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “When I started, I thought this was a once-a-week or once-a-month thing. I realized it would have to be several times a day. Consistency is important to your followers.” Dean spends five to ten minutes on each of his nearly 600 tweets since signing up on Twitter in July of 2009.
Read the Twitter feeds of any B-school deans who take Twitter seriously, and you’ll figuratively walk in their shoes. You’d find out that yesterday Stanford Dean Garth Saloner walked into an economics class with Nike founder Phil Knight and that he had a “warm, engaging dinner” with second-year MBAs last night. The discussion ranged from how to make the business school’s newly opened campus alive at night to Burning Man, the annual gathering devoted to “radical self-expression and self-reliance in Nevada. “Yes, it’s the GSB!,” tweeted Saloner who has the most Twitter followers (2,078) of any B-school dean. His East Coast rival, Harvard’s Nohria, is second with 1,588 followers.
Yet another advocate is Dean Richard Lyons of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business (See his “Eight Top Reasons Why I Tweet“). He began tweeting on July 3, 2009, when he wrote simply: “In today and it’s gloriously quiet. Working on three-pager, “Berkeley-Haas: Who We Are.” Our 10 most defining characteristics. Great fun.” When Lyons became dean in 2008, he was encouraged to blog to get his ideas out. “I found I just could not find the time to do so consistently,” he says. “Tweeting takes very little time. At 140 characters a pop, this became a happy marriage.” One of the attractions for Lyons is that “Tweeting helps in the continuing effort to sharpen the narrative of our school. I lean into areas that are fundamental to our reputation.” Many of Lyons tweets have to do with the importance of culture to the MBA experience. But he’ll also tweet about the time his son attended his first sleep-away camp (“We miss him”) to what Nobel winner Olly Williamson said at a recent Berkeley commencement (“His advice included 1) be joyful, 2) keep an active mind, 3) be enterprising.”)
Most of the tweeting deans say they write about things having nothing to do with business education because their feeds would get awfully boring quickly. “I find that if people who tweet are relentlessly on message all the time, it just gets old,” says Dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School. “What I want to say basically is that Kenan-Flagler business school is the greatest. But if I write variations of that every day, that won’t do. So I write about books I read or where I travel. I’m trying to convey a little bit of who I am to our students and alums and trying to do some role modeling for them.”
And then there are the rules. Bruner says he has an ironclad rule not to look or Tweet from either his Blackberry or his iPad in anyone’s presence without some acknowledgement that it is okay. “I live in a world of digital maniacs who draw out their Blackberrys and iPads at the smallest notice,” he says. “I emphasize the importance of being present. You must be present to win. If you are multi-present, you are not really thinking about either conversation. It’s a very bad example for a leader of any kind to set. You can’t legitimize dividing your attention whimsically or impulsively.” UNC’s Dean puts it more simply: “If I did it in the middle of dinner, my wife would justifiability tell me to put the damn Blackberry away.”
For some deans, the micro-blogging tool is something to have fun with, too. “Tweeting is a chance to (try to) be funny,” says Lyons. “One day I tweeted from my cell-phone that I was having a very good hair day. I should add, though, that within a couple hours one of my direct reports called to see if perhaps my phone had been stolen.”