Where Culture Really Matters: Berkeley’s Haas School

OB Professor Jennifer Chatman has co-authored with Rich Lyons a case study on the culture initiative at Haas

‘WE ARE IN A WEAK-DEAN SYSTEM’

It has often been said that getting a faculty to support a dean’s initiative is like herding cats. In an academic setting, leadership is by persuasion and consensus–not proclamation. “Shared governance means we have more say over things like hiring, what we teach, how we teach,” explains Andrew Rose, a Haas professor of international business and trade who was associate dean for academic affairs during six years of Lyons’ term as dean. “It also means the dean has less control. We are in a weak-dean system. When you want to get the faculty to do something big, the dean has to get buy-in from faculty.”

Adds John Morgan, a Haas professor of economics, in a case study on the initiative: “There was a lot of pushback because we’re Berkeley; we’re academically rigorous. Maybe that’s what we should be doing. Instead of talking about these defining principles, we should be getting the smartest guys with the perfect GMATs and the 4.0s, the quant jocks. So Rich Lyons had a sense that there would be these resistors and blockers and he was ahead of the faculty in a lot of ways.”

Undaunted, Lyons drove ahead. It helped that he was one of them, but it also mattered that Lyons wasn’t about to order anyone around. It wasn’t his style. With his colleagues, he launched into a two-year strategic planning process that would result in both the four defining principles and a clear vision for the school: “To become the most distinguished-by-culture business school.” Not surprisingly, there was immediate disagreement over how to define Haas’ culture.

Haas Professor John Morgan: “Lyons had a sense that there would be these resistors and blockers and he was ahead of the faculty in a lot of ways.”

DOING A ‘JUDO MOVE’ ON A LONG-STANDING CULTURAL ATTRIBUTE AT BERKELEY

Lyons felt the school’s cultural attributes had to stem from “essential elements of our culture, rather than to create some ideal because that would feel in authentic to people.” In essence, he wanted to make what was implicit, explicit, but also distinctive. “Our faculty wanted things like excellence on the list, but if excellence was the first on the list there would be very little oxygen left in the room,” thought Lyons. It just wasn’t distinctive enough. “Inclusion was another word that came up. When we actually put the strategic plan out in the first quarter of 2010 and distributed it, the first page had a preamble that said something to the effect that at Berkeley there are always words that are important to us, including excellence and inclusion, but the ones that define us are these four.”

That wasn’t an easy sell, even with Chatman, an unabashed advocate of the effort. “We had a big debate,” she says. “Rich had a kitchen cabinet of people who he was trying out ideas on. In the early version of it, my first reaction was, ‘Where is research excellence?’ We had a long debate about why that is a given, but of course that is not a differentaitor so why would you include it? I eventually came around to his way of thinking.”

Some of the principles were obvious given Berkeley’s own backstory. “Question the status quo” was one of them. “That is Berkeley’s history and there was energy in that, but you can’t have as a business school with your first principle encouraging people to challenge authority,” says Lyons. “Someone told me you can ignore that or do a judo move on it, reverse its polarity and make it something people want to hire. So when we said question the status quo, we thought that is a mindset that everyone wants. In the practical world, it says isn’t there a better way to do things. That was the judo move.”

‘THERE WAS TRUTH, VALUE AND DIFFERENCE IN IT’

The idea of producing students who boasted confidence without attitude was something that had surfaced from a corporate recruiter of Haas MBAs in 2005 when Lyons was acting dean. “Every institution has an inventory of phrases and expressions,” says Lyons. “We loved it and it was in our recruiters’ guide, but it wasn’t until 2010 that we anchored it as one of the four things to double down on. Confidence without attitude worked for us. There was truth, value and difference in it.”

One of the school’s former board members, serial entrepreneur Scott Galloway, who earned his MBA from Haas in 1992, came up with “students always” idea. “Great leaders are able to absorb and distill more insight from a given amount of experience, and we were trying to think about curiosity and openness over a lifetime,” says Lyons. “Scott proposed it and the board and others loved the phrase.”

The last value Lyons covered on was “beyond yourself.” The school was a week away from going to print on its principles when the phrase came up. It immediately resonated with Lyons and students. “People talk about skating where the puck is,” laughs Lyons. “In this sense, the puck was coming right at us.”

FOCUS GROUPS WITH MORE THAN 150, PLUS ONE-ON-ONE SIT-DOWNS WITH TENURE-TRACK FACULTY

To gain the necessary buy-in, Lyons and his team conducted focus groups with more than 150 students, staff, professional faculty and alumni. There also were one-on-one interviews with the school’s tenure-track, or ladder, faculty, board members and recruiters. Drafts were circulated again and again. After an 18-month slog of working on the strategic plan and the defining principles, which took six months, the tenure-track faculty unanimously approved it. Each of the four principles were followed by a descriptive passage that gave more insight into each value.

Question the Status Quo: We lead by championing bold ideas, taking intelligent risks, and accepting sensible failures. This means speaking our minds even when it challenges convention. We thrive at the world’s epicenter of innovation.

Confidence without Attitude: We make decisions based on evidence and analysis, giving us the confidence to acxt without arrogance. We lead through trust and collaboration.

Students Always: We are a community designed for curiosity and lifelong pursuit of personal and intellectual growth. This is not a place for those who feel they have learned all they need to learn.

Beyond Yourself: We shape our world by leading ethically and responsibly. As stewards of our enterprises, we take the longer view in our decisions and actions. This often means putting larger interests above our own.

‘CONTENT WAS 15% OF THE BATTLE. 85% WAS ABOUT THE EXECUTION’

While the unanimous vote was clearly a victory, it was meaningless without implementation. “The content was 15% of the battle,” remembers Lyons. “Eighty-five percent of the battle was about the execution. People wonder if this was just another dean chatting away or is it for real?”

To make it real, Jennifer Chizuk, then the school’s chief operating officer, systematically went through every business process at the school, including 12 different sub-processes in full-time MBA admissions, from info sessions and the school’s written communications with candidates to application essays to and admission interviews. “We went through each one of these pieces and asked how do we drive this through? We tried to go micro everywhere. How do you onboard your staff? How do we get this in the classroom and what about the co-curricular stuff. If every recruiter of our students doesn’t know this stuff, we have an opportunity there. I am not saying we got everything done, but we were as purposeful as we could be.”

Ultimately, Lyons staked his deanship on the effort. “He was quite systematic about it,” says Chatman. “Business schools are complicated little organizations. He took on admissions and now we have a very robust admissions process that emphasizes the defining principles. If people don’t pay attention to that when they are writing their applications or the admissions team doesn’t see people resonating with it, that is cause for rejection. The career management side of things is a little less specific though the dean recognized that with career management we had this vast opportunity to not just influence our community but the community more broadly and that kind of influence is ongoing.”

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.