Dean Of The Year: Jim Jiambalvo Of Washington’s Foster School of Business

Dean Jiambalvo with students


For Jiambalvo, however, it was a focus on execution—modernizing Foster’s business school complex, hiring great faculty, recruiting the best students, then putting those students in an environment where they would come into contact with Seattle’s smartest business innovators—that made the difference. “Because I am an accountant, I really focused on fundamentals and got some good advice from (the late) Orin Smith, the former CEO of Starbucks. I was talking to him one time about a strategy and he said, ‘It’s not about strategy. It’s about execution.” That got me focused on the fundamentals and trying to execute on them.”

Those fundamentals started with infrastructure. When he became dean in 2005, he inherited an overly ambitious plan for a sorely needed business school building. “The plan was too grand,” says Jiambalvo. “If we had executed on it, it would have been the most expensive business school building in America. That wasn’t going to happen.” Yet, the school’s progress, he believed, was hampered by the facilities which he describes as “horrible.” So with then university President Mark Emmert, he came up with an alternative plan to do a new complex in several phases. If Jiambalvo could raise the cash for the first building, which would become PACCAR Hall in 2010, a second building could be put up on the state budget. A recession intervened, however, but the dean got his second building two years later and has since raised most of the money for a third building to open in 2021.

“It just didn’t look like a first rate business school. Our facilities were from the early 60s and they just were not working. We would have gone downhill fairly rapidly but for the fact that we raised a significant amount of money and we got the Foster naming gift early in my deanship with no strings attached. Once we got great facilities, started hiring more faculty and raised more scholarship money, we just got to a new level.” Scholarship awards now total $4 million, more than double the $1.9 million in 2007.


With the new buildings in place, Jiambalvo put his attention on two other fundamentals: Better faculty and students. He created one simple rule for the recruitment of new professors: Don’t hire anybody you don’t expect to be better than your median fauclty member. “You don’t want anyone who just fits into the distribution,” he maintains. “You want someone better than the median or you are not going in the right direction. We had the grain of the faculty when I became dean, but we needed some new blood and started hiring aggressively. In the last couple of years, we have been able to hire outstanding people.

“They are smart, hard working and productive. (On a per capita basis, their research output puts Foster in the company of such business schools as Wharton, Stanford, Columbia, and Duke.) They definitely would not have come to Seattle if they were going to be in our old facilities. But when you come into a very exciting place like PACCAR Hall, everything looks just great and the Seattle economy is super. If we didn’t have new facilities, we would have been able to deliver a great student experience, either.”

The new buildings allowed for some 30 breakout rooms (up from just two when he became dean) for student teams to meet and collaborate. “We are doing much more teamwork in the Foster School so it’s changed our pedagogy quite substantially. It’s really changed the way we teach our students. At the undergraduate level, there is a strong sense of pride for students to say I got into Foster School. At the MBA level, there is a tremendous sense of pride that you are in great facilities and the instructors in the classrooms are national figures.”


At the program level, there were changes as well. Besides the inevitable curriculum reviews that have led to updates in what is taught in the classrooms, Jiambalvo felt he had to deliver with programs that would be more distinctive. “We came up with a mission statement that emphasizes leadership, strategic thinking and entrepreneurship as areas of distinction in the school,” he explains. “That’s not to say you are not going to have a fabulous finance or accounting group. But when MBAs come into the program, the first three days they are in all-day sessions on team building, collaboration and how to lead a team. There’s a required course in leading teams and organizations. Then, there is a board fellows program, an elective, where you become a board member of a not-for-profit organization. We have a leadership fellows program where second-year students work with the first-year student teams, a required consulting experience where leadership plays a big role, and strategic thinking is incorporated in every class. I want our students to understand the link between a company’s strategy for success and the performance measures they need to drive that innovation.”

He also looked for way to bring business classmates into contact with students from other university schools. “When I became dean, I wanted our students to get closer to the engineering students. We had some engineers who would take classes in entrepreneurship and bump into the MBAs and undergrad students.” Enter an environmental innovation challenge where teams of business and engineering students design a working prototype of a device and a business plan to improve the environment. “It is for MBAs to be at ground zero working with engineers on price, product features, strategy, marketing, financial plans, and the whole process of product development,” he says. “Whether they go into a startup or not, that is a fabulous experience when you go into a corporation. On the heels of that, we just launched the health innovation challenge to help us hook up to the university’s medical school on health care and global health issues. So we’ll have the same thing with the med school and bioengineering students.”

Jiambalvo added new centers in entrepreneurship, global business, consulting and business development, leadership and strategic thinking, sales and marketing strategy. He launched a partnership with a top five Chinese university, to create new centers in finance, data analytics and the management of innovation. And he launched new master’s programs in information systems in 2012, supply chain management in 2016, and entrepreneurship and taxation last year. An hybrid online MBA program, with an initial cohort of 47 students, was launched in 2017. All together, these initiatives have helped to boost masters’ program enrollment to more than 1,300 students, up from 750 in 2007.

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