Business School Deans Confess Their ‘Favorite’ Mistakes

New Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett offers advice to prevent you from making an MBA mistake

New Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett

“I once had to make a significant (10%) budget cut as chief international officer for UCLA. The management mantra in my head was “do it strategically, don’t do it across the board.” I spent hours in my office alone coming up with a fancy algorithm that rewarded more successful programs with smaller cuts. It might have been a decent plan, but when I delivered it there was near mutiny. Why? I hadn’t talked with anyone affected in advance, to get their views, socialize my ideas, and generate buy in. I learned that when you think strategy, you have to think at least as much about implementation as formulation, and implementation is mostly about people.”

– Geoffrey Garrett, Wharton School


Dean Roger Huang, Notre Dame (Mendoza) offers advice to prevent you from making an MBA mistake

Dean Roger Huang, Notre Dame (Mendoza)

“As the dean of the Mendoza College of Business, I learned the hard way that, contrary to what Shakespeare might say, there is a lot in a name.

In 2013, we launched a new one-year master’s program for non-business majors – a pioneering program at the time among graduate degrees. I decided to call it the Notre Dame Master of Science in Business (MSB), despite the advice of my leadership team and others. They argued for Master of Science in Management (MSM), because they thought the name made more sense. But I was stubborn. I wanted to “save” MSM for another potential degree in the future. We launched the program as MSB.

Later on, as other schools began launching similar programs under the nomenclature MSM, I got a call from a journalist who said, “Are you sure you want to keep the name, MSB? Because everyone else is calling it MSM.” It finally sunk in that sometimes there is a good reason to choose the obvious path. If prospective students and the b-school industry in general were increasingly familiar with a certain name for the degree, why persist in going a different direction? It only created confusion. For the second cohort, the program name was changed to the Master of Science in Management. And now the first cohort holds the distinction of being the one and only class of Notre Dame MSB graduates.”

– Roger Huang, Notre Dame University (Mendoza)

Dean Scott DeRue, University of Michigan (Ross) offers advice to prevent you from making an MBA mistake

Dean Scott DeRue, University of Michigan (Ross)

“My favorite mistake in my career is one from which I learned a great deal. We were launching a new product, and my CEO, among other senior leaders, was determined it would be a success. Yet, the market data we had collected suggested the new product would face significant challenges in the market. I did not speak up when I knew that I should, and others on the team who shared these concerns also did not speak up. In hindsight, this experience taught me not only to have the courage to speak up, but it taught me about the importance of building a culture where people – no matter their position in the organization—can voice concerns, debate ideas, and speak up in service of making the best decision possible.”

– Scott DeRue, University of Michigan (Ross)


Dean Richard Lyons of UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business offers advice to prevent you from making an MBA mistake

Dean Richard Lyons of UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

“Early in my career I took a job that seemed close to what I’d done before and loved, but soon realized was very wrong for me.

For background, in high school I worked summers for a small-scale general contractor who did lots of remodeling jobs and additions. I loved the work. I learned how to use the tools, worked with wood, and got a great sense of completion from tasks. I liked it so much that in college I started my own business building redwood hot tubs, focusing on the parts of construction that I loved most: cutting and building the tubs myself, designing and building the decks around the tubs, and, of course, being out in the California sun all summer.

When I graduated from college I felt I needed a real job and went to work for a large-scale general contractor. I worked in an office all day focused on tasks such as estimating costs from construction drawings. I thought what I liked was “construction,” but in fact what I thrived on was building things, running my own business, and having tons of autonomy. Getting clarity on what you really love is so important, and is often aided by big mistakes.”

– Rich Lyons, University of California-Berkeley (Haas)

M. Eric Johnson of Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management offers advice to prevent you from making an MBA mistake

M. Eric Johnson, Vanderbilt University (Owen)


“I studied engineering and economics in college and loved charting the sales process, so I went to work designing a new bonus and incentive system. Striving to eliminate “sand bagging,” I developed a complex formula that I thought would keep sales representatives from saving orders for the next day.  On paper, it looked great, but the sales team couldn’t understand it and quickly concluded this young rocket-science manager was trying to trick them. Sales plummeted. The president pulled me into his office and gave me a pep talk. He pointed out that my incentive system was a lovely theory, but he gave me a D for implementation and results. It stung but helped me learn that metrics and incentives must be easy to understand.”

– M. Eric Johnson, Vanderbilt University (Owen)


Dean Jim Jiambalvo of University of Washington's Foster School of Business offers advice to prevent you from making an MBA mistake

Dean Jim Jiambalvo, University of Washington (Foster)

“Early in my deanship, I wasn’t prepared to answer the question, “What’s the vision of the business school.”  In fact, I didn’t appreciate how important it is to have a clear, aspirational vision and communicate it over and over again.  By the end of the first year, I articulated the vision that we will be “the best public business school in the U.S.”  Best was defined in terms of “creating futures and transforming lives.”  The comparison to public business schools relates to our commitment to access and community engagement.  By the middle of the second year, virtually every faculty and staff member could repeat the vision.  It really clarified decisions.  For example, when we’d hire a faculty member we would ask ourselves, “Is this someone who’s going to help us be the best public business school or just tread water?”

– Jim Jiambalvo, University of Washington (Foster)


Mark Taylor of Washington University's Olin School of Business offers advice to prevent you from making an MBA mistake

Mark Taylor, Washington University (Olin)

“I can think of instances, especially early in my career, where I was too emotionally attached to a pet project to admit that it was not performing according to expectations and that I needed to cut bait. The time, effort and imagination that goes in into launching something can easily cloud one’s judgment into thinking, “It can’t possibly fail and turnaround and success are just around the corner.” After this happened a couple of times – and I saw that prevarication only made matters worse – I realised that having projects fail is a normal element of business. In fact, if some projects don’t occasionally fail, it means that, as a leader, you are not taking enough controlled risks. The skill is in having more projects succeed than fail.”

– Mark P. Taylor, Washington University (Olin)