Roger Martin’s Transformational Legacy At The Rotman School

The University of Toronto's Rotman School

The University of Toronto’s Rotman School


More importantly, Martin transformed what was a small, rather inconsequential regional player in Canada into a world-class institution offering a more differentiated MBA program focused around integrative thinking, self-development and business design. And yet, ironically, he also built a school with the kind of faculty that churns out a lot of that “iron cage” research that gets conventional academic cred. In BusinessWeek’s intellectual capital ranking, Rotman is number one outside the U.S. It is ranked tenth in The Financial Times’ annual assessment of academic research.

Many agree that what Martin has accomplished makes him one of a handful of the most successful business schools deans in the past quarter century. Sally Blount, dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, puts Martin in the company of such transformational leaders as Donald Jacobs, who had put Kellogg on the map years earlier.  “Rotman has surpassed every expectation I ever had,” says Joseph Rotman, a entrepreneur and benefactor whose name is on the business school.

The school’s insiders are generous with praise. “We had been punching below our weight for a very long time as a business school,” says Peter Pauly, who had been academic dean under Martin and is now serving as interim dean. “He brought a vision, enthusiasm and ambition, and we have been successful ever since. He has been just transformational for the school.”


Even so, Martin himself admits that if he had any idea what it was like to be a business school dean he would have turned the job down. “In truth,” he says, “I didn’t super want the job. I knew nothing about it. I was clueless and minding my own business. If I had known what I know now about the job, I never would have taken it.”

When Martin was approached in 1998, he was in his 13th year as a director at Monitor Co., the global strategy consulting firm in Cambridge, MA. The Canadian, who earned his MBA from Harvard in 1981, had served as co-head of the firm for two years. “Not only was he very comfortable in Boston, but he had an extremely lucrative situation at Monitor,” recalls Rotman.

The president of the University of Toronto had been on the board of a company that had hired Monitor. Martin ended up working closely with the university president because he sat on the board’s strategy committee. Though it was an opportunity that Martin was not looking for, he came to believe that he could make a contribution to the school if he was allowed the chance to transform it around some key ideas that had surfaced in his consulting work. In the early 1990s, Martin grew increasingly curious about why his firm was hired by clients.

“We were young punks in our twenties when we got going,” he recalls. “I was 27, and I kept asking, ‘Why don’t they hire the big, gigantic firms that have done this 100 times?’ What is it about these problems that doesn’t allow really bright people in these companies to solve them? I came to the conclusion that we were usually hired for unique bespoke problems that no one ever saw before. If you were thinking within the context of one model, you couldn’t solve this new problem. But if you examined it through multiple models at the same time, you could find a solution. So we pulled problems apart using many models, whether they were discipline-based, like marketing and manufacturing, or the stay small or grow big model, or being low-end focused or high-end focused.”


Martin thought he could bring this “integrative thinking” approach to a business school. It was, he profoundly believed, highly valuable for leaders of business organizations, but . he also knew it would differentiate the school. “i was of the view then and 15 years later that the only real place you don’t want to be in the modern MBA business is the mainstream business school,” he says. “Change is happening more slowly than I thought. But all of the criticism of MBA education from within, I buy completely. I think it is going to get way worse because mainstream MBAs are being taught a damaging perspective on a bunch of things. It’s self-satisfied. That is why I do not want the Rotman School to be a mainstream school. I wanted people to recognize that we are doing something different.”

Of course, the job of a dean has often been compared to herding cats. So when Martin met the selection committee of six faculty members, he put his cards on the table. “I very clearly told the committee, ‘I am going to do this integrative thinking thing. If you don’t like it, do not hire me because I’ll just make you mad. This is just a course you could go on. If you come back and say ‘no,’ I’ll go back to Boston and won’t have to fly my family up here, and I get to keep making vastly more money than this ijob pays. But I am warning you: I am going to do this.” The six faculty members voted unanimously to offer Martin the job.

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