David Thomas digs BHAGs – short for big, hairy, audacious goals. So much so that only a few months into his deanship at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business he was already dropping jaws and drawing stares of disbelief.
Thomas left a two-decade-long career at Harvard Business School to accept McDonough’s top post on August 1, 2011. On August 30 he delivered the annual State of the School address and laid out the school’s mission: To develop and educate principled leaders with a global mind-set to be in service to business and society. Most deans are adept at outlining pie-in-the-sky ambitions. But Thomas’ timeline was the real jaw-dropper. He was ready to overhaul the curriculum, extend the full-time MBA pre-term and retool the global experience – in a year.
The faculty was shocked. B-schools typically move like tankers – with a grudging resistance to changing course. Curriculum redesign can take years, not months. But Thomas took it one step further with another BHAG. He wanted each of McDonough’s programs to crack the top 10 in at least one of the major rankings – Businessweek, U.S. News and World Report and The Financial Times. “I had reactions that ranged all over the map from people who said, ‘You know, I’m glad you dared to say that,’ to people who asked me later, ‘Are you serious?'” Thomas recalls.
He is. The dean is two years in to his five-year contract with the school. So far, he’s managed to shake up the B-school curriculum, and he’s confident a rankings boost will soon follow. For starters, he tacked two weeks on the MBA pre-term. Incoming students now start in early-August and attend an intensive three-week module from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. They get a crash course in everything from global supply chain management and microeconomics to financial statements and ethics.
During the pre-term students are also expected to develop a global business and steer it through economic and ethical shocks. They must navigate simulated situations, such as the U.S. government flying off the Fiscal Cliff or finding out that one of their manufacturers is using child labor in China. Thomas is confident that MBAs should be exposed to global, high-level issues early on. “We’re introducing business, but the context for understanding it is a global one. Students need the experiential piece – they’re not simply going to learn by lectures,” he says.
Thomas has also revamped McDonough’s global experience. Originally students would be assigned to teams in January, they’d examine a real-world issue facing an international business, draw up their recommendations and then deliver their conclusions overseas during a seven to 10-day trip. Then it was over. Thomas wanted to deepen that experience, so the school added the Global Business Conference where, upon returning to campus, students come together to share their findings with classmates. For instance, three teams working on real estate projects might visit China, Dubai and Brazil. During the conference, they’d compare notes on how each country’s culture, government, property rights and geography impacted their work.
Under Thomas’ leadership, the school also developed and introduced a second-year course on principled leadership, which explores what it means to create a business around the idea of shared value, where everyone the business touches sees benefits – not just the shareholders.
Finally, Thomas went to employers to get their feedback. He learned they were impressed with McDonough MBAs’ education, but they really needed nimble thinkers with sharp problem-solving skills. Real-world issues don’t always offer clean solutions – people and logistics can cloud things up. So the school introduced two required courses – Leadership & Social Intelligence and Analytical Problem Solving – to give students the tools and theories to tackle issues outside of the classroom.