MAJOR CHALLENGES? ‘I TEND TO THINK OF THINGS AS OPPORTUNITIES’
After a career advising clients in the hotly competitive telecom and high-tech industries, Beardsley sees parallels in business education. “I think the MBA space is very competitive, especially at the top. If you look at it overall on a global basis, it is a reasonably fragmented market. There are a lot of folks offering different variants of education. and its especially competitive as you get into the elite ranks. Everybody is trying to be the best they can be and move up. I have yet to meet a business school that is aspiring to move down. It’s effectively an arm’s race at the top.”
Besides his listening tour, Beardsley had taken a deep dive into all the data he could find. “I have been asking for a lot of facts and figures to gain an understanding of the details of our programs, class composition and trends,” he says. “On the qualitative side, I’m getting lots of input from many personalities, and on the analytical side, I’m trying to look externally to see what others are doing. We don’t have all the answers here. I certainly don’t.”
Asked to identify the school’s three major challenges moving forward, Beardsley declares himself an optimist in life who views things a bit differently. “I tend to think of things less in challenges than opportunities. The first thing I’ve tried to think about is what we’re not going to change. Everyone focuses on change, but the most important thing to do is figure out what to not change. We are not going to change our mission (to improve the world by developing and inspiring responsible leaders and by advancing knowledge). It is excellent and it inspires us to deliver the best educational experience with the best faculty in the classroom.
AN UNTOUCHABLE: A WORLD CLASS MBA EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCE WITH THE BEST TEACHING FACULTY
“If I could pick out anything in the world I would have wanted to do, it would be that. You teach students to be better and to achieve their full potential. I just want to make sure we innovate to maintain that wonderful tradition of excellence. The other things I don’t think we are going to change is the desire to have a supportive and collaborative community for the students, faculty and staff.”
He ticks off the obvious challenges for every business school dean: Fundraising, leveraging technology, creating stronger links between the business school and the rest of the university, attracting and retaining superb faculty. Over the next few years, Darden will see a number of professors retire so there’s the opportunity to attract new, game-changing faculty. “But there is nothing particularly unique in those challenges for Darden,” he acknowledges.
“The challenge is how do we build on our strengths and traditions while innovating? To be honest, the way we are going to move to the next level is by doing a number of things better. It’s sort of like a tie breaker in a tennis match. What is the difference between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and the remaining 20 tennis players behind them? It’s about improving a lot of little things. The great ones succeed by doing a lot of little things better.”
GE CHAIRMAN & CEO JACK WELCH DOVE INTO HIS LAP AT MIT SLOAN
One thing is for sure. Beardsley makes an endearing impression. When he showed up last January after his announcement for First Coffee, a long-standing tradition that informally brings together students, faculty and staff during the break between the first and second classes of every day, he delivered an impassioned introduction that quickly forged a connection with students. He went through each of his passions: his love of family. his unapologetic fervor for sports, especially tennis, the Red Sox and the Patriots, and his profound fondness of music, especially Pink Floyd. While at McKinsey, he founded a rock group called McFloyd and invited students to play a gig with him.
But it was his willingness to share some early career disappointments that won over students. Born in Maine, he lived in Vermont and then Alaska before going to Tufts University as a liberal arts major who switched to engineering. He spent a summer studying in France in 1984 which is where he met the woman who would become his wife. (Beardsley and Claire celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary on Aug. 27 at an 8 p.m. dinner in Charlottesville.) A $28,000-a-year job in Silicon Valley at Advanced Micro Devices ultimately led to him MIT’s Sloan School of Management for his MBA. When Beardsley graduated from Sloan, he was $100,000 in debt and rejected for jobs by three leading employers of MBAs.
“I remember what it was like to be as student,” he told the students. “I remember all the hard work and that I struggled with accounting. I remember the camaraderie and teamwork. I remember having Jack Welch from GE coming to speak to our class and seeing a nuclear waste protester run in with a bucket with a skull and crossbones and pretend that he was going to dump radioactive fuel on him. He dove into my lap in the audience.