12 Inspiring Female B-School Deans Share Leadership Lessons

The world’s top women who lead business schools share what they’ve learned

“To confront any kind of uncertainty, you need to be flexible.” 

Francesca Cornelli could tell you a thing or two about leading during a crisis. A veteran of the business school scene, previously holding positions at global heavyweights London Business School, the LSE, Duke Fuqua and The Wharton School, Cornelli has steered Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management through one of the most challenging years for academic institutions in recent history. She cites flexibility as one of the key skills needed for leaders during a crisis, as well as empathy: “You need to be able to bring others along with your vision…empathy through collaboration is what allows you to pivot together.” 

The first woman to be tenured and become a full professor in London Business School’s history, Cornelli has done a great deal to advance gender equality in academia, helping to create AFFECT in 2016, a committee of the American Finance Association, which works to promote the advancement of female academics in the field of finance. 

‘COMBINING WORK AND FAMILY IS AN ETERNAL BALANCING ACT’

Kellogg Dean Francesca Cornelli

Kellogg School of Management Dean Francesca Cornelli

She isn’t alone in her achievements. The Kellogg dean is one of an increasing number of women who have scaled the business education ladder and now lead some of the world’s most prestigious schools. In recognition of International Women’s Day, 12 of those leading female Deans have sat down to share their stories.  

Marion Debruyne, Dean of Vlerick Business School in Belgium, shares Cornelli’s take on the skills needed in crisis management. “Through all of it, it’s been an exercise in (remote) empathic leadership,” Debruyne says.

“The role of a dean contains a lot of stakeholder communication at any given time.” Like Cornelli, the Vlerick Dean has stressed the importance of being able to juggle the demands of numerous stakeholders at any one time, whether that be those in your professional life, or personal. 

“Combining work and family is an eternal balancing act in juggling demands on many fronts. Six years later, I feel my biggest achievement has been to find a way to be happy on all those fronts, and see my kids thrive as well, even though their mom is far from perfect.” 

‘INNOVATION IS BORNE OF CHALLENGE’

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou of Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou of Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business

Despite the challenges that business schools have faced over the course of the last year, Debruyne, a Vlerick alumna herself, has taken a surprisingly optimistic view of the situation: “I believe this is such an exciting time to be in education, as we will see a tremendous amount of change.”

She’s not wrong. The pandemic has forced schools to take almost a decade’s worth of innovation and make it happen in a matter of months. And for many, that can be an overwhelming feat. But not for Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou. 

“One thing I know is that innovation is borne of challenge, and uncertainty is a foundation from which we grow, thrive, and create monumental change that can impact the world.” 

Taking on the role of Dean at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business at the height of the pandemic in October 2020, Bajeux-Besnainou undoubtedly faced a mammoth task in getting to grips with a new institution which looked to her for leadership. However, much like her Belgium-based counterpart, she was undeterred. 

“Success in these types of situations demands a variety of skills…most of all, an enormous amount of courage, optimism, and passion.” 

‘RESILIENCE IS THE KEY’

Ann Harrison, dean of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

Bajeux-Besnainou and her resilience in spite of adversity finds company with Ann E. Harrison, the Dean at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Quoting the wartime British Prime Minister, Harrison insists that leaders mustn’t fear failure.

“To quote Winston Churchill, ‘never, never, never give up’. Resilience is the key,” she says.

According to Harrison at Berkeley Haas, successfully leading her institution through this crisis has been her greatest career achievement, and has come down to skills which include critical problem solving and emotional intelligence. 

“We are in a time of creative and disruptive innovation as universities and other providers experiment with new formats, including online degree programs and just-in-time education models,” she says. “A lot of universities will not make it through the current pandemic crisis, and those that do make it will radically transform their offerings. The pandemic has taught us that we can do much more online than we thought possible and that some online instruction can be more effective for some students, who reap the benefits that are unique to remote learning.”

In the case of Bajeux-Besnainou, while the Dean’s personal skillset is important, cultivating a strong team is paramount: “Surround yourself with complementary, smart people who you truly trust and empower them…a great leader is never alone.”

Durham University Business School’s Susan Hart shares Bajeux-Besnainou’s sentiments. “I have achieved nothing alone,” she says flatly.

”ADJUSTING EVERYONE’S EXPECTATIONS AS TO WHAT CAN AND COULD BE ACHIEVED’

Delphine Manceau of France’s NEOMA Business School

For Bajeux-Besnainou, online learning was nothing new. Tepper had launched its online MBA long before COVID, meaning that the school had already “worked out the kinks” of remote delivery, as the Dean notes. Similarly, for emlyon Business School in France, the switch to remote teaching didn’t come with much of a learning curve. “emlyon Business School was certainly well ahead of many business schools and universities in the digitalization process,” says the Dean, Isabelle Huault.

But that’s not to say that it was easy sailing for Huault and her colleagues. “The impact of Covid-19 was difficult for many students, especially the first-year students, deprived of the quality and intensity of life on campus,” she says. In navigating this crisis, emlyon’s Dean insists that being ambitious, far-sighted yet flexible is crucial. The importance of flexibility is echoed by a number of others, including Susan Hart at Durham. After UK lockdown restrictions forced the school to switch to remote teaching, “adjusting everyone’s expectations as to what can and could be achieved” became a significant first step. In times of crisis, ensuring that faculty and staff are on the same page through effective communication is arguably the marker of an effective leader. 

Delphine Manceau seems to think so. Dean of France’s NEOMA Business School, Manceau maintains that being able to communicate and reassure is a must for any crisis-time Dean. “We must be able to communicate what we know, without being afraid to tell what you do not know,” she says. Manceau is no stranger to leadership, having previously held a senior position at ESCP Business School. Crucially, she’s an innovator by nature which has proved invaluable during the pandemic. Under Manceau, NEOMA has responded to the demand for new teaching methods in revolutionary way, designing and launching Europe’s first digital campus. 

‘YOU CAN CHANGE THE RULES’

“You are the game changers of tomorrow…you can change the rules, modify the way things work,” the Dean says. Looking at the way in which NEOMA has reacted to the COVID crisis, no one can doubt that Manceau practices what she preaches.

Idie Kesner, dean of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University

According to Idalene Kesner, Dean of Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, “Deans are not just administrators or bystanders. Whether the occasions are happy or sad, we are privileged participants in the lives of our students, faculty, and staff.”

Discussing moments from her career that have left a lasting impression, Kesner indicates that much of her outlook on leadership has been shaped by her relationship with her ‘organizational family’. “These moments, and the unique stories behind them, also leave lasting impressions and bring perspective to the role I play,” she says. Taking a personal interest in the lives of her colleagues and students, Kesner notes that some of her most challenging moments have been when members of her organizational family have faced hard times. With such compassion for the Kelley community, it’s no surprise that Kesner has placed diversity, equity, and inclusion at the heart of the business school’s agenda. Looking at the pandemic in the wider context of a number of significant events that have shaped the US in recent years, she’s adamant that there is a lesson in all of this: 

“The events of the last several years have reminded us that educational institutions, especially business schools, can play a pivotal role in changing the business climate and creating a more equitable and just environment.”

‘IF YOU ACTIONS INSPIRE OTHERS TO DREAM MORE, YOU ARE A LEADER’

Such an awareness of the societal role of business schools is also reflected in Fiona Devine, Dean of Alliance Manchester Business School in the UK. Devine attributes much of her awareness of the external environment her school finds itself in to her alternative background. Previously holding leadership positions in the School of Social Sciences and Department of Sociology at the University of Manchester, she admits that the move to heading-up a high-achieving business school came with a learning curve: “I very quickly had to learn about MBA programmes and Executive Education. In addition, I had to develop a deeper understanding about the high expectations on the Business School.”

But it’s her roots in sociology and politics that has left Devine “attuned to the wider context in which I operate as a Dean of a large Business School.” She adds that, “As an academic committed to top-quality research and teaching, and with a sense of social responsibility, I hope this infuses literally everything we do every day.”

While on the subject of politics, for Maryam Alavi, Dean of Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business, the making of a leader can be summarized in the words of former US President John Quincy Adams: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

‘STUDENTS TODAY DEMAND MORE OF THEIR EDUCATION AND OF THEIR EMPLOYERS’

Maryam Alavi, dean of the Scheller College of Business

For Alavi, it’s about the impact you have on others. From teaching a large undergraduate class as only a grad student herself, she instantly became aware of both the “responsibility and potential impact” that educators had on their students. With this in mind, she says, Alavi and her colleagues at Scheller strive to created “principled business leaders” who have that much-needed entrepreneurial nature and tech-savviness, but crucially, “are focused on value creation for stakeholders and improving the human condition.” Alavi wants her students to become as aware as she is of the impact that leaders have on others.

Creating socially responsible leaders is also on the agenda at Emory Goizueta Business School, as the dean Karen Sedatole explains. “Students today demand more of their education and of their employers. They want purpose in their professional lives, and they want to work for an organization that is purpose-driven. At Goizueta, we build principled leaders ready to solve the biggest issues of our society.”

Alongside Isabelle Huault at emlyon, Sedatole made the bold decision to take on a new role as Dean at the height of the pandemic. Sedatole has a clear and unwavering focus on social responsibility. And despite the challenges that COVID has presented, under Sedatole’s leadership, Goizueta is taking the opportunity create a better future.

‘BUSINESS AND SOCIETY CAN WORK COLLECTIVELY TO ADDRESS CHALLENGES’

The school recently launched the Roberto C. Goizueta Business & Society Institute, created with the goal of ‘transforming business to solve society’s challenges’. According to Sedatole: “business and society can work collectively to address the challenges of inequality and climate change, two of the most pressing challenges facing both business and society today.” 

But that’s not the only way in which, under Sedatole’s leadership, Goizueta is looking to the future. “We’ve invested heavily in digital learning experiences and are launching next generation digital classrooms (Goizueta Global Classrooms) this spring, hologram technology, and virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences,” the Dean says. 

In one way or another, all the schools mentioned have innovated the way in which they deliver content to students. The WU Executive Academy at Vienna University of Economics and Business is no exception. 

‘BE BOLD AND COURAGEOUS…NOW AND NOT LATER’

“We equipped all lecture halls with state-of-the-art IT and interactive multimedia equipment in just a few weeks, enabling true hybrid teaching,” says Barbara Stöttinger, Academic Director at the WU Executive Academy. 

For Stöttinger, the digitalization that has taken place during this pandemic, whether at WU Vienna or elsewhere, has triggered development that cannot be stopped. It’s therefore key that business schools recognize and master the skills needed to deal with the many other lasting effects of the pandemic and, in doing so, exploit the opportunities digital transformation has presented. 

Offering a piece of advice to others, Stöttinger says that we must “Be bold and courageous – now and not later.” The common denominator with the tales, lessons and advice of all the Deans mentioned within this piece: courage, audacity, boldness. That is their overwhelming message of advice to others. 

You can enjoy the full interviews with each of these twelve inspiring female business school deans – just click on the individual links below:

Francesca Cornelli – Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou – Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business

Marion Debruyne – Vlerick Business School

Ann E. Harrison – Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

Idalene Kesner – Kelley School of Business at Indiana University

Susan Hart – Durham University Business School

Isabelle Huault – emlyon Business School

Delphine Manceau – NEOMA Business School

Fiona Devine – Alliance Manchester Business School

Maryam Alavi – Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business

Karen Sedatole – Emory Goizueta Business School

Barbara Stöttinger – WU Vienna University of Economics and Business

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