Poets&Quants’ Interview With Darden Dean Scott Beardsley

After spending 26 years at McKinsey & Co., Scott C. Beardsley did on unusual career pivot. He became dean of a business school. Not any school, mind you, but the University’s of Virginia Darden School of Business. He bid his role as a senior partner and a member of McKinsey’s global board of directors farewell and assumed his new job on Aug. 1 of 2015.

Beardsley has completely embraced his new role, even moving into one of the homes in the heart of the “Academical Village, just aside the iconic Rotunda, the building located on The Lawn on the original grounds of the University of Virginia. It was designed by Thomas Jefferson to represent the “authority of nature and power of reason” and was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.

Poets&Quants’ founder and editor-in-chief John A. Byrne recently sat down with Bearsdley for a wide-ranging interview on everything from what makes Darden special to his views on what attracted him to the school in the first place. He maintains that Darden is looking for the kind of student who is not merely “a brain on a stick,” an applicant with a super high GMAT score, but rather someone who brings valuable experience and perspective to Darden’s classrooms. He wants to make Darden the most affordable premier MBA experience in the world. Our interview was on a recent fall morning, just as faculty, students and staff began gathering for a long-time tradition at Darden, first coffee.

P&Q: Tell me about this tradition of first coffee. What’s going on in the background right now?

Beardsley: Every morning at 9:30 the community comes together, the faculty, the staff and the students, and we all have coffee together. On some days croissants and bananas and fruit, and we get together and we just chat about whatever’s on our mind. It’s a tradition that symbolizes our community being together and sharing coffee together every morning.

P&Q: The greater purpose is connection, right?

Beardsley: Yeah. I like to think of Darden as a big family. Everybody likes to come together and share … call it a meal, but in this case coffee together every morning, and it brings people from all over the grounds together and everybody enjoys it. It’s a hallmark tradition, and we have great coffee here, too.

P&Q: Now, you came to Darden from a very non-traditional background. You spent 26 years at McKinsey in a very global role, in a role of leadership. How do you look at leadership and what do you look for in Darden students?

Beardsley: Well, what I first found is that there’s a lot of similarities between the way Darden thinks about leadership and the way McKinsey does. I would say the first thing that struck me and attracted me here is that Darden’s quality bar for what we’re trying to do in MBA education is the same level of excellence as McKinsey is trying to achieve in consulting in its own way. So the focus on excellence is very similar, and also that both companies if you will, ours being a non-for-profit and McKenzie being for-profit, pursue the development of leaders for the world. Darden is really focused on the holistic view of the leader. When we’re looking at what kind of student we want to attract here, it’s not just about what I call a brain on a stick, we’re not just looking for the highest GMAT score that we can find and that’s it.

We’re looking for many different things, actually. We want people with drive, we want people with integrity, interesting people that have global experiences that they can share with their classmates. We want people who know how to be on a team, who want to contribute and who have a desire to improve themselves and to really go on and be responsible leaders in the world. That’s the holistic view that we take. But my view about leaders from McKinsey is that the best leaders have values, they have character and they are pursuing noble purpose in their life. They are trying to do something for a reason. We are all about that at Darden, helping people find their why in life. Their raison d’etre, as we say in French. This is a unique place to pursue that, and I find that our leaders here go on and be incredibly successful in many, many domains.

P&Q: Many students come to business school because they obviously want to get on a trajectory with their professional career that’s above and beyond what they would be able to accomplish on their own. How does Darden contribute and deliver on that? What do recruiters say about the students that you put into the marketplace?

Beardsley: Well, the recruiters love our students in general. We have lots of different recruiters that come here from all different industries and domains, whether it’s consulting, or whether it’s all the different forms of financial services, private equity firms, but also technology, retail industry, pharma, you name it, all the different industries come here. What we hear from the employers is they like many things about our students. First of all, they have all the core functional skills. They know that when they come to Darden the education is extraordinarily rigorous and that the students are going to know how to do all the quantitative stuff, but also they’re going to have a lot of the softer skills that matter.

When we ask our employers, what are you looking for in students, they talk about things like we want teamwork, we want the ability to be collaborative, we want students and future leaders that know how to communicate, that know how to process information in the face of uncertainty, that have an understanding of the global context, and all of those things are tried and tested and worked through in our Darden case method.

The results speak for themselves. We’ve had the number one rated career placement in US News. If you look back, 2016, we’re top rated there. The breadth of choice for these students is extraordinary. Some students want to start their own companies. A good example of that would be Doug Lebda, who started LendingTree when he was here at Darden. He had the idea as a first year student, then he built it up in our iLab, and now LendingTree is a multi-billion dollar company in the fintech space. So our students are successful in many domains.

Let me give you a few statistics. The tech area is probably the most popular with our students I’ve seen. If there’s a trend, it’s that students want to do tech. That may include consulting tech, it may be fintech, it may be … everything has a tech related component to it, but about 22% of our students went on and pursued tech jobs on the west coast. So we have a large footprint. The typical companies, the Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, they all recruit here, but then there’s also a lot of smaller companies. Then you have the consulting firms. Darden has been top-rated in terms of placement into consulting firms, I think we were ranked number one last year for that. I think it’s always been a hallmark because we do the case method, it’s great preparation for consulting.

On the other hand Darden is an extraordinary place for general management, just going on and being a CEO or a founder or an owner. About 1,500 of our alumni have the title of CEO, founder, chairman, investor, owner, they’re running the show somewhere, and we’ve been ranked number one in the world by the Financial Times for general management many, many times on that dimension. It’s an extraordinary place to find what you want to pursue in your life, personalize your career choices, and the employers and the students tend to find a good match.

P&Q: Your student satisfaction over the years has been consistently high, if not the highest among any business school in the world. You’ve often been voted as having the best MBA teaching faculty in the world bar none. How does that contribute to the actual learning experience at the school?

Beardsley: Well, Darden focuses and is proud to focus on education and what you actually learn. I believe and we believe here at Darden that a good reason to get your MBA is because you actually want to learn and improve yourself as a leader and as a manager. We do place a huge emphasis on the quality of education, at the back end that helps to get you the great job that you want too, but basically students want a great education, and then they want to get a great job and go on and change the world. It’s not that complicated.

But how to deliver a great education is not so simple. How do you make that classroom environment very special? That’s what Darden is all about. You’re right John, I’m very proud and humbled to lead a school that has had the number one rated faculty by the Princeton Review just last week. We’ve had the Economist magazine rank us seven years in a row the best MBA education experience. Forbes has just ranked us also as having the top faculty among all business schools. As I mentioned the Financial Times has ranked us the best general management MBA program in the world more than once. So all of that together leads to a great education environment, but how does that happen? The rankings are one thing, but what does it mean?

Actually, in our classrooms, education is all about the experience of learning. So we use unapologetically the case method, the Socratic method of dialogue, which means that it’s a conversation in the classroom. There are no lectures at Darden. You are facing real-world problems with faculty that are engaging you in a conversation, and up to half of your grade is based on class participation. It also requires you to come together as a team to solve problems with incomplete information which is really a close proxy for what happens in the real world, and that means that our students are very well prepared to go out into a world that is full of volatility, uncertainty and changing dynamics. That is what we teach here. We teach students to think on their feet, to be critical thinkers, to use facts, to actually do analytical rigor, but to learn how to synthesize that together and express a point of view, and come necessary to deliver that are master faculty teachers.

Every business school in the world, of course, has faculty. That is true. They teach classes and many schools have excellent teachers, but some schools value research much more highly than they value teaching. Teaching at many institutions is viewed as a necessary evil. At Darden, it is viewed as job number one. So the faculty who come here want to be among the best teaching faculty in the world, and teachers and faculty that get below, let’s say, 4.4 or 4.5 on a scale of five, get worried at Darden that they’re not delivering a great class. We actually want to be the best teaching institution in the world, and we invest a lot in our faculty and the tools to how to deliver that great classroom experience, and our students love that. That is one of the reasons that they have been the most satisfied students in the world.

That’s not the only reason, I think there’s a couple of other contributing factors, but clearly, part of the satisfaction of any student when you go to a business school is, are you learning, are you having fun in the classroom, are you getting something out of your education? If you’re not, you’re not likely to be satisfied, because that’s why you’re doing a masters in business is to learn. The second reason, of course, relates to your career satisfaction. Are you getting the kind of job that you hoped for? Are you getting the personalization, are you able to self-actualize in the way that you want to change the world? There Darden is also focused on very close personalization. That’s another component of what we do.

I think of students as a segment of one. Each student has their own aspiration that they have for making a difference in the world. We understand that everybody has some kind of noble purpose. At the end of their life, they’re going to want to be able to look back and say, my life made a difference in some way. We try and find out what is the way that those students want to make a difference and help them to find out that pathway, and then allow them to find the job and give themselves the tools that allow them to do that, recognizing that it’s a journey in life.

So we don’t just help students get a job while they’re at Darden, we actually start the minute you get an offer. Let me give you an example. This year 100% of our incoming students had a career development discussion before they arrived at Darden. Every single one of them had a one-on- one with a career development person. Anyone that was seeking a summer internship 100% got a summer internship at Darden, whether they were international student or whether they were an American student, all of them got summer internships. Then in terms of placement and the types of jobs they got, our students got amazing jobs this past year.

Then what we do is we also follow them throughout life. When you join Darden, we also have the Armstrong Center for alumni career services. What that does is, anywhere in your life, you can reach back to Darden and we will help you find another job. You could be in your 40s, you could be in your 50s, you could be saying, “Gosh, I haven’t had a very successful career. Now I want to get on a board. How do I do that?” Darden has a whole infrastructure there to make you successful. You package all of that together, great teaching faculty in a small intimate environment in the classroom with the Socratic method, and it’s faculty that actually want to get to know you in a smaller setting of classroom. Our classes are relatively small compared to most, usually 65 to 70 students. All of that, combined with great career outcomes, and then a community for life that helps you to succeed, that leads to satisfied students.