After an 11-year stint as dean of UC-Berkeley’s prestigious Haas School of Business, Dean Rich Lyons today (June 28) announced that he intends to step down at the end of June of 2018 at the end of his second term.
The guitar-strumming dean who returned to Haas from Goldman Sachs where he had been the chief learning officer has led major changes at the school. He oversaw an overhaul of the MBA curriculum, crafted a set of guiding principles for the school’s culture, launched Berkeley’s own Executive MBA program as well as a novel joint undergrad program with the university’s engineering school, and raised substantial funds for a new $60 million building on the Haas campus. In fact, Lyons reeled in eight of the school’s ten largest gifts in its history.
Through every transition and change, the 56-year-old Lyons maintained the school’s stellar reputation as a world class player in business education. Known for his gregarious personality and open-door policy, Lyons put a personal stamp on the school. A favorite of students, he often showed up at events to play an acoustic guitar, even using his considerable guitar playing skills to raise money for the school. Before becoming dean, Lyons was a master teacher of international finance, winning Haas’ Teacher of the Year award a half dozen times.
‘BEING DEAN HAS BEEN THE MOST FULFILLING JOB OF MY CAREER’
“Serving as your dean has been the most fulfilling job of my career, and I plan to remain engaged with Haas for years to come,” Lyons wrote in a letter to the Haas community. “We’ve made great progress together in these eleven years, and our school’s future is bright. Haas is in a good place for the next dean to carry our school forward — it’s exactly the right time for this transition.”
The transition had clearly been in the works before the announcement because the university has already assembled a search committee. The group will be chaired by Keith Gilless, dean of Berkeley’s School of Natural Resources. It will also include Berkeley-Haas Professor Ben Hermalin as well as Erika Walker, assistant dean for undergraduate programs, MBA student Erin Gums; Professors Toby Stuart, Catherine Wolfram, and Adair Morse; and Haas Board Members Jack Russi and Larissa Roesch.
They will be looking for the leader of one of the most prestigious business schools in the world. Haas’ full-time MBA program is among the most selective, accepting only 12% of applicants. Only three schools are harder to get into: Stanford, Harvard, and MIT Sloan. Last year, 3,957 candidates competed for the 252 seats in the incoming class, the smallest intake of any top ten business school.
For Lyons, the stage was set at his very first board meeting as dean. At the session, one of his board members offered what Lyons would call the best piece of advice he had ever gotten. “Don’t forget, you are the chief purpose officer,” Margo Alexander, the former board chair of the Acumen Fund, told him. “It’s part of your job.”
Lyons took the advice to heart, sending what he calls “purpose emails” to faculty and staff to remind and inspire them to a higher mission. Teaching the fundamentals of business for Lyons was never enough. He bought into the notion that a world class business education demanded breakthrough shifts in a student’s identity and purpose. Every year, when he greeted the incoming class, Lyons would talk about the need to transform students into what he called “purpose creators,” inculcating an expectation that Haas students leave the campus with a set of core values and a purpose that went beyond personal ambition.
“I think we are in the transformation business,” believes Lyons. ” We are not in the delivery of functional skills business only. Delivering great finance, marketing and strategy are necessities but that is the part that is getting disrupted the fastest. Meaning making is getting more important for leaders and managers and we can help deliver ”
Among Lyon’s numerous initiatives as dean, in fact, his effort to define the guiding principles of the school and then put metrics behind them may well be his greatest accomplishment. The four principles made clear Haas’ intention to recruit and admit students who question the status quo, who show confidence without attitude, who are always open to learning throughout their careers, and who act beyond themselves for the greater good (see The Four Guiding Principles of the Haas School).
MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR IN DECIDING TO ATTEND HAAS? ITS DEFINING PRINCIPLES
Lyons maintained that the first step to creating a different kind of business school graduate was creating a different kind of business school culture. In planting a cultural stake in the midst of the economic implosion in 2010, Lyons wanted to differentiate the school from peers but also to signal to the market that a business school had responsibilities to society and to all its stakeholders. The upshot: Surveys of MBA admits would later find that the single most important factor in their decision to come to Haas was the school’s defining principles which were more crucial than even the school’s location in the Bay Area or the school’s reputation.
Lyons also pursued a strategy to forge greater links with the larger university by, among other things, working with the dean of Berkeley’s College of Engineering to launch a new program for undergraduates that awards a dual-degree in engineering and business within four years. The Management, Entrepreneurship, & Technology Program (M.E.T.) is meant to develop a new breed of tech leaders through an integrated curriculum that consists of liberal arts, engineering and business courses. Lyons saw the program, announced last year, as just the start. “Five years from now, it’s possible that a third of our undergraduates will finish a dual degree in engineering, the life sciences, or chemistry,” he said at the time.
This fall, Lyons will open a major addition to the Haas campus, Connie & Kevin Chou Hall, an 80,000- square-foot, six-story building devoted to student learning and interaction. It was named after the couple who earlier this year pledged up to $25 million, the largest personal gift by an alum under the age of 40, to support student entrepreneurs and provide education to students of all backgrounds. Placed on the northern edge of the Haas campus, it will create a quad around the existing O’Donnell Courtyard and the trio of existing Haas buildings. Funded entirely by private donations from alumni and friends, the new building will come at a critical time. Over the past 20 years, enrollment at Berkeley-Haas has nearly doubled to more than 2,200 undergraduate and graduate students in six degree programs.
‘THIS BRINGS TEARS TO MY EYES’
Lyons’ connection to the school goes back to his young adulthood. He received his bachelor’s degree with highest honors from UC-Berkeley in finance in 1982 and later in 1987 his Ph.D. from MIT in economics. After spending six years on the faculty at Columbia Business School, he headed back to the Bay Area in 1993 as an assistant professor of finance until gaining tenure three years later. After a stint as executive associate dean at Haas, Lyons was named acting dean of Haas from 2004 to 2005 until taking a leave to become the chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs in New York where he was responsible for leadership development of the firm’s managing directors. Two years later, in 2008, as the economy began tanking, he was called back to Haas, this time as the full-time dean of the school.
At a recent address at Rutgers’ Business School, Lyons read from an email he had received from a benefactor, his voice nearly breaking with emotion as he conveyed the gratitude of a donor for funding a program at the school. “This brings tears to my eyes,” the patron wrote. “Thank you all so much for believing. You will all do more significant things in your careers because you educate and touch so many people. For me I will never do anything more significant or lasting than this. This is forever. Thank you.”
When Lyons steps down from his deanship next June, he may well realize that the job he has so successfully held these past 11 years has brought much meaning and significance to him and to others. He may, in fact, find that he will never do anything more significant or lasting.