Feel stuck and need a change? Dream of devising the plans instead of carrying them out? Need to step away to take risks and seize control of your career? For many, business school is the answer to these questions. It’s respectable and responsible break to find a path. And it’s just what people do, right?
That’s what Sally Blount thought, too. The dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Blount was following the traditional plan in 1985. After a two-year stint at the Boston Consulting Group, Blount was dashing off to business school. “All my peers were heading to graduate school,” she tells Poets&Quants. “It was clearly the next logical step.”
Just one hitch: Blount’s heart wasn’t in it.
UNLIKELY DIRECTION PREPARES BLOUNT TO BECOME KELLOGG DEAN
Instead of taking the safe and conventional route, Blount forfeited her coveted spot in business school, taking a job as the business manager for a small architecture and design boutique. Her loved ones may have called her decision a mistake, but Blount begs to differ. “I ended up loving it —the product, the people, the clients. I learned so much about design and design thinking. Plus, I learned how to run a small business – everything from pricing, project management, hiring and firing to collections. Her three-year sojourn also came with a silver lining. “When I was finally ready for graduate school and chose Kellogg, I did so with excitement,” she adds.
It was a career-making decision for Blount, who went on to earn her Ph.D. in organizational behavior at Kellogg. Later on, as dean of New York University’s Stern School of Business, she put her building background to work. She oversaw the Stern Concourse Project, which “reinvented” 84,500 square feet of existing space in three buildings. That was child’s play. Blount followed that up with even more ambitious building project: the 415,000 square foot Global Hub at Kellogg, a $250,000 million dollar project that was built from scratch. “Kellogg’s new Global Hub is such a beautiful and functional space, and it came in on time and on budget,” she beams. “I don’t know if I could have delivered it as effectively, if I hadn’t spent those early years at the architecture firm. But boy was that a non-obvious choice at the time.”
In retrospect, Blount’s leap of faith could hardly be considered a mistake. That’s not to say every judgment call will turn out as well. For every celebrated risk, there is a regrettable miscalculation. It may be an edgy pitch that costs the big account; a rounding error that skews the financials; a prediction that materializes too late; or even a taboo comment that leads to a “Come to Jesus” moment with the boss.
CLOWING AROUND GOES AWRY FOR ONE DEAN
Jay Hartzell, the dean of the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business, experienced just that in his first job after college. At the time, a recruit was weighing whether to join his consulting firm or becoming a professional golfer. Channeling their inner Beavis and Butthead, Hartzell and a co-worker would make golf jokes at the expense of their employer in the office. Sure enough, Hartzell’s boss caught wind of their antics and sat them down. “I learned that what we viewed as good-natured fun could affect the morale of those around us,” he shares. “I was mortified initially, but that conversation had a lasting impact on me. I became more aware of divergent points of view, as others took what we said much more seriously than I did.”
That was especially true when top MBA deans served in leadership roles. Wharton’s Geoffrey Garrett nearly sparked a mutiny among his ranks during budget cuts. Washington University’s Mark Taylor became “too emotionally attached” to his projects and couldn’t waive the white flag —even in the face of failure. Long before he became dean at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management, M. Eric Johnson designed sales compensation plans…learning the value of simplicity the hard way. Some deans came away with life-changing lessons long before they entered the workforce too. Just ask Emory’s Erika James, whose rite of passage came when she refused to dress up as a bug when she was 13.
Of course, some mistakes came at the most inopportune — even public — moments. Take the University of Minnesota’s Sri Zaheer, who learned to always bring written remarks after she froze up during her introductory speech as the dean. It could be worse. Just ask the University of Toronto’s Tiff Macklem, who spent months researching how the Canadian government could respond to the 2008 Financial Crisis…only to learn his branch lacked the authority to take his prescribed actions. Then again, Macklem probably wouldn’t switch spots with Stanford’s Jonathan Levin. His efforts helped a client save a billion dollars…even if he forgot to do the one thing that cub sales know is paramount.
Recently, Poets&Quants posed this question to the top leaders of the MBA world: “What was your favorite mistake in your career?” From avoiding giving bad news to dismissing style in the face of substance, here are the career errors that resonate with MBA deans even today.
“Favorited” is a funny word, but my most frightening mistake was during the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). At the time, I was Canada’s G7 and G20 Finance Deputy with responsibilities for domestic financial stability as well as international coordination. This gave me a front row seat to the unfolding crisis. As the crisis became more ominous with the near failure of Bear Sterns, we began developing a series of contingency plans in Canada in the event of a larger calamity. I formed a crack team of finance experts at the Treasury and tasked them with developing a series government interventions that could be used by the government should the crisis deepen and market failures spread. After a couple of months of intense work, I sent the package to justice lawyers for review. They came back with the message that the Minister of Finance did not have the authorities to do most of these interventions. I turned white.
I had made a costly mistake by not involving legislative legal experts in the team from the start. I had squandered valuable time. Fortunately, we caught up and by September 2008 when Lehman failed and the crisis went viral. We had a series of executable contingency plans ready to go (as well as a clear understanding of the new authorities the Minister might need). I never forgot the lessons –make sure you have all the critical skills on the team. And ability to execute is critical to design.”
– Tiff Macklem, University of Toronto (Rotman)
“Actually, I can trace my leadership career to middle school. I was student body president leading a project to encourage students to improve their grades. We called it the “BUG” project for “bring up grades.” At the launch, we decided to dress up as bugs but I was too embarrassed and came in my normal attire. My advisor was angry, saying ‘How do you expect anyone to follow you as a leader if you’re not willing to do what you asked them to do?’ That lesson has stuck with me since I was 13 years old.”
– Erika James, Emory University (Goizueta)
Go to next page to hear the favorite mistakes of business school deans from Stanford, Georgetown, Duke, Rice, Texas, Minnesota, and the University of North Carolina.