“One mistake that stands out is a rookie business mishap. Right after I received tenure, I took my first consulting job – along with a few Stanford colleagues – advising a group of cable companies on how to bid in an auction for radio spectrum. The companies performed spectacularly well, and the bidding strategy saved them around a billion dollars. Our mistake? We hadn’t negotiated any compensation based on performance. (However, we did get to write an academic paper about what we learned in the auction!).”
– Jonathan Levin, Stanford GSB
“Trained as an engineer, I used to think the answer was all that mattered and did not think about how things were presented. At the Chrysler Corporation, I worked for a guy who first looked at the appearance of what was turned in, then at the information. I would just give him the answer – I thought making it look good was a waste of time. But down to the placement of staples in a document – they had to be vertical, not diagonal or horizontal – we had to make sure things were correct, or he would just hand it back to us.
He taught me that presentation matters. Attention to detail is important. The interesting thing is that it has stuck with me – I’ve become that guy. He made me think more about the customer or other end-user of my information.”
– Rohan Williamson, Georgetown University (McDonough), Interim
“As a young loan officer in a bank, I was often the first screen with new customers. There was a time when my boss said to take care of someone because he thought they were a good friend of the bank but may have trouble getting funding. It was my first one-on-one loan opportunity, so I spent a lot of time with the customer and tried to be a good advocate to get some funding. From the beginning, my gut instinct told me this was a long shot and wasn’t going to work out. And I was right, but I didn’t follow it.
The whole experience ended up being really disappointing for this person. I really upset him and I had a lot of explaining to do. I learned many lessons from this. One, that we have a powerful urge to avoid difficult conversations. Often they’re the right thing for everybody and you have to face them head on even though it’s hard. Two, I should’ve trusted my instincts a little bit more, at least gone with honesty in the lead. I was never really authentic with him. I failed and wasted both our time.”
– Peter Rodriguez, Rice University (Jones)
“Mistakes are learning and growth opportunities and I’ve had many during my career. Early in my career I learned not to be blind to the advice or insights of others. I thought I had my life path figured out and it certainly didn’t involve a career in academia! I was at Wharton earning my MBA and had no intention of pursuing a PhD. Luckily, I had professors who saw me as a strong PhD candidate. Wharton made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: It would pay for my degree if I tried a PhD. If I decided not to pursue the PhD, my MBA would still be funded. Who could turn that down?
Long story short – I loved the research and teaching activities that came with a career in academia and ultimately felt it was my life’s calling to pursue that direction. I’m so grateful my professors were able to spot what I hadn’t yet identified about myself. I’ve loved every step of my journey that started at Wharton and took me to Duke, from the research, to teaching to serving as a dean. I feel lucky to get to work with so many colleagues who push me to think in new directions and to continually be inspired by students who are seeking to not only do well for their companies, but to do good in the world. It’s amazingly gratifying.
I learned another lesson when I became dean that has really shaped me in recent years. As a new dean, I was trying to do everything and consequently probably did nothing well. A conversation with Apple CEO Tim Cook (who I had the pleasure of teaching when he earned his MBA at Duke) helped me put things in perspective. Tim said to me, “You’re trying to do too much. You should have three things that you’re focused on, at most four.” It’s not complicated advice, but at that moment it helped me see and define my role more clearly and refocus. I now plan my days around my three or four priorities and then build in dedicated time to deal with less urgent matters. I also try to share this advice with others often (see this post on LinkedIn.) It’s simple advice that can make a big difference in our effectiveness (and sanity) as the world continues to move at a faster and faster pace.”
– William Boulding, Duke University (Fuqua)
“In my first job after college, I recall what was probably the sternest rebuke of my career (to date, at least – knock on wood). We were recruiting somebody who was weighing the choice of joining our consulting firm versus joining the professional golf tour. A friend and I thought this was quite funny – after all, who wouldn’t want to be a professional golfer? So, we made some jokes around the office (but, not in front of the candidate) at the expense of our jobs relative to a life on the golf course.
A partner set up individual meetings and called us on our behavior, citing the impact that our personalities and comments could have on our colleagues. I learned that what we viewed as good-natured fun could affect the morale of those around us. 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. I also realized that I needed to think carefully about how what I say might be received before I speak and that the amalgam of many diverse personalities and points of view that make up an organization’s culture must be taken seriously. The irony of my joking around having serious implications on others and on my future perspective was, and is, not lost on me.”
– Jay Hartzell, University of Texas (McCombs)
“A little more than five years ago, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to lead the institution that I love so much and that gave me so much. Following an international search, the University’s President and Provost selected me to become the next dean of the Carlson School.
A big event, being live-streamed internationally, was planned in our atrium with dignitaries and media, and no one knew who was being announced. I hadn’t known about it myself until just a couple of days before. I had prepared a speech in my head to deliver once I was announced — as being a professor, giving impromptu speeches is what one does. However, I didn’t realize just how emotional that moment would be, after being introduced and escorted to the podium by Goldy Gopher. Looking up from the atrium at all my faculty colleagues — some of whom had hired me over twenty years earlier as a rookie assistant professor — and seeing the hundreds of students lining the balconies, I was suddenly struck by the realization of the immense responsibility entrusted in me to lead and inspire them. I was completely overwhelmed, so much so that I just choked! I couldn’t remember a thing I had planned to say — add that to my most embarrassing moments, and one that will live forever in Google caches. Lesson learned: I make sure I have a written copy of what I plan to say with me for any major speech, even if I don’t ever refer to it.”
– Sri Zaheer, University of Minnesota (Carlson)
“I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I tend to deal with them and not look back. I think the biggest lesson I learned was when I met a hurdle as senior associate dean for academic affairs, which means I oversaw all of our programs and faculty. I participated in a leadership development program which helped me understand the difference between leading and managing – and which best suited me. As senior associate dean, I was mostly managing. I learned I was a successful manager, but had to work at it – and it drained me emotionally. It exhausted me. I’m not a micro-manager and getting into the weeds doesn’t appeal to me. But what I also learned is that leading energizes me and I am most effective in a leadership role. Helping others to succeed, setting a vision, innovating, improving – that’s all stimulating.”
– Doug Shackelford, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)
Go to next page to hear the favorite mistakes of business school deans from Wharton, Notre Dame, Michigan, U.C. Berkeley, University of Washington and Washington University.