It’s not unusual for a new business school dean to take over the job and immediately begin working with faculty to change the institution. The change agenda usually starts with a strategic study that includes surveys and focus groups of employers, alumni and students as well as one-on-one sessions with a business school’s professors. And then there is a good bit of lobbying with faculty to shake up the curriculum, pressure admissions to hike GMAT scores of the incoming class, and possibly increase the scale of the MBA program to more quickly build and strengthen the alumni network.
Shortly after M. Eric Johnson became dean of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management three years ago, he hired Huron Consulting Group to guide the strategic study of the school and its positioning in the marketplace. They surveyed more than 1,400 alumni from class years 2006 to 2012 as well as MBA recruiters on their needs and views of Owen MBAs. He liked what he heard from employers. Owen MBAs, they told the consultants, are “every bit as sharp as the Wharton and Booth kids without the attitude.”
This time, however, the research didn’t urge a dramatic upheaval at all but rather a reaffirmation of the school’s size and culture. “The key ah-ha was that for much of the school’s life, it was often trying to create something different and special,” explains Johnson. “But we are like the Boston Pops. We are 50 faculty and we will never be 200. So how do we compete in a world where we will never rival Northwestern in marketing or Wharton in finance?”
DOUBLING DOWN ON ‘PERSONAL SCALE’
The conclusion: To double-down on what makes the school already distinctive. “What makes us unique is our culture and our size so the bottom line is to stop looking longingly at Northwestern hoping that we can beat them at marketing. It’s about creating unique, personalized experiences that students can’t get elsewhere.”
Those findings gained reinforcement when Johnson unearthed an old video of a lecture by the late consulting legend Bruce Henderson, founder of Boston Consulting Group. Johnson had been an assistant professor at Owen when Henderson, in his last year of life in 1992, taught strategy at the school and maintained an office inside the faculty lounge. Though Henderson had earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, he gained his undergraduate degree in engineering from Vanderbilt. When he retired from BCG in 1985, Henderson returned to Vanderbilt to become a management professor.
In the black-and-white video from the late 1980s, Henderson holds forth on how organizations gain competitve advantage. In his short-sleeved white shirt and tie, Henderson lectures passionately that competitive advantage dervices from “a particular mix of characteristics with some particular elements in the environment. No two species can coexist and make their living in an identical fashion.”
For Owen, Johnson views those characteristics as a combination of culture, size, quality and attributes, while the environment is a richly creative city known as a music capital. It all adds up to what Johnson calls “personal scale,” a high-touch MBA program that is young, small, well-funded and at a university and in a city that has witnessed a resurgence. The strategic study found that alumni and employers identified the school’s five core strengths as its highly collaborative and positive student culture, its small learning environment, the strength and quality of its alumni network, the authenticity of its students who are described as genuine teamplayers who are “curious, bright and a little bit scrappier,” and finally, Owen’s location in Nashville, a highly livable and vibrant city.
ADDING MORE ‘IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCES’ TO HELP CUSTOMIZE THE MBA
To Johnson, doubling down on these attributes largely means staying small, creating a nearly customized MBA experience filled with more s0-called “immersive experiences” and leveraging the school’s location in Nashville. “We really are taking this personal scale idea across everything we do,” he says. “The faculty started looking at the things we do and came up with a number of new ideas.” One example: An entrepreneurship immersion in conjunction with Nashville’s thriving new Entrepreneurship Center.
Another example is to turn what many other schools do, the annual career trek to Wall Street, on its head. For years, roughly 30 first-year students out of the entering class of 170 would venture to New York every fall to meet with executives at the top firms. But as newbies in the MBA program, they barely knew the difference between the buy side and the sell side.
So a member of the finance faculty—Craig Lewis, formerly the chief economist of the Securites & Exchange Commission—built an entire class around it, a deep dive into the functions of Wall Street from wealth management and investment banking to the buy side and sell side. “We have a chaired faculty member go to Wall Street with the students, have dinner with them every night to help them understand what they heard and saw during the day,” says Johnson. “When I tell other deans that we get a tenured professor to do that, they can’t believe it.”
Similarly, 28 Owen students led by one of the school’s other economists went to Washington, D.C., for a sitdown for Federal Reserve Board Chairman Janet Yellen. “There are some who would pay a fortune to have that opportunity,” gushes Johnson.