12 Inspiring Female B-School Deans Share Leadership Lessons

Dean Idalene “Idie” Kesner

Indiana University Kelley School of Business

“I would advise my younger self to be less risk averse…to trust your abilities to identify strategic directions and initiatives worthy of strong investments and actions, and to be willing to take those actions early, even if it means assuming the challenging role of first mover”

Where you’re from/place of origin:

Dallas, Texas

Where you previously studied: 

Bachelors of Arts in Business (BBA) from Southern Methodist University, Cox School of Business

Master of Business (MBA) from Indiana University, Kelley School of Business

Ph.D. in Business from Indiana University, Kelley School of Business

Previous roles:

Prior to joining the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, I was on the faculty of the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. [NOTE:  I started as an Assistant Professor followed by Associate Professor and eventually Full Professor.]  

At the Kelley School, I led the school’s MBA Consulting Academy followed by serving as chairperson for the Full-Time MBA Program.  Subsequently, I was chairperson of the Department of Management & Entrepreneurship, followed by Associate Dean for Faculty & Research. I was named Interim Dean in 2012, and I was appointed Dean in 2013.

How has your business school adapted to the Covid-19 crisis, and what initiatives and innovations have you implemented?

The Kelley School is home to the highly ranked Kelley Direct online MBA program. Launched in 1999, it was the first online MBA program from a Top 20 business school. Because of our extensive experience in this area, faculty members teaching in that program helped faculty members who primarily teach in our residential undergraduate and graduate programs move their content into hybrid mode or fully online during the pandemic.  Our team of course designers and learning technology experts helped faculty members bring course content online, and worked closely with them to adapt their materials for hybrid and online modalities.

In addition to moving our courses online, many co-curricular initiatives were brought online as well.  Our mental wellness initiatives are just one example.  We know that some students struggled more as interactions moved online as opposed to face-to-face; therefore, we worked diligently to provide mental wellness support services.  Academic advising and career coaching were moved effectively to the online modality as well.  Indeed, many students tell us that the ease of individual appointments online made meeting with advisors and coaches easier.  Faculty members, too, found success in bringing their “office hours” online and providing individualized appointment schedules for students.  

During this time, we also found ways to bring more executive alumni into classes as guest speakers, connecting them to students as coaches, mentors, competition judges, and speakers or panelists for special-topic webinars.  Because of the ease of online connections, alumni have been even more willing to engage frequently, helping our students in a variety of ways. 

Finally, during the pandemic, we moved our student recruiting efforts online and also our corporate recruiting (through career services) online.  These adjustments have been successful, although we hope to return to more on-campus recruiting beginning in the 2021 fall semester.  

 What do you feel are the most important skills needed for managing a business school through a crisis ?

Resilience is a very important skill needed when going through any type of crisis, including the pandemic.  Being able to adapt and change in response to new situations/new circumstances is a critical skill for every leader. Leaders also must be effective communicators throughout a crisis and demonstrate adaptability.  It is important to be able to change quickly from an action or approach that no longer works or meets the challenges to something that will work. It is also important to be a creative problem solver.  Traditional solutions may not work in a crisis, and leaders may need to identify new ways to solve problems. Organizational skills coupled with quick logical/rational thinking and decision-making capabilities, can help organize and mobilize teams of responders in the midst of the crisis.  These same skills are useful in the aftermath as organizational teams work to take lessons learned forward in dealing with future crises.

How has your career helped to shape your leadership capabilities, and your priorities for your role as Dean? Can you share an anecdote about a previous instance/moment in your career that you feel has left a lasting impact on you?

Prior to being selected dean, I had the opportunity to take on many roles in the school, ranging from leading the MBA program to leading a department.  These various roles allowed me to see our school from the perspectives of various constituents, including students, faculty, corporate recruiters, alumni, and donors.  As dean, I have tried to take these varied perspectives into consideration as I worked with others to help set our school’s vision, mission, goals, and objectives.  Leadership is best not when it is dictated by one person or one view, but when it takes into consideration the perspectives and views of those with whom the organization engages.  While there always will be differences of opinions as to the best courses of action, having the benefit of various constituents’ perspectives helps inform priorities and establish direction.  

Can you share an anecdote about a previous instance/moment in your career that you feel has left a lasting impact on you?

Every stage of my career has brought great lessons and moments of learning.  By far, the most challenging experiences for me as dean (i.e., the experiences that leave lingering impressions) are when a member of our “organizational family” (e.g., students, faculty members, or staff members) faces devastating illness or death. Being part of a very large school or university means that situations like this can happen every year.  These experiences touch you emotionally in ways that are long lasting.  During one graduation ceremony, I recall a father’s tribute to his son whose diploma was awarded posthumously.  Carrying forward with the ceremony – a happy celebration for others in attendance — while tears were running down my face was a strange mix of sadness and joy all in the same moment.

As the above story highlights, as a dean, I also get to be part of some of the most rewarding experiences — celebrations when members of our “organizational family” have recovered from illness or injury and/or celebrate important milestones (e.g., graduation or career accomplishments).  These moments, and the unique stories behind them, also leave lasting impressions and bring perspective to the role I play.  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.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for business education in the coming years and what is your business school strategy to tackle this?

Various events of the last few years have resulted in challenges for US colleges/universities.  The pandemic may cause some (e.g., those facing financial hardships) to question the value of higher education, especially at the graduate level.  The difficulty of securing study and work visas for international students may cause lasting declines in international student enrollments.  And the issues of racial and social injustice in the US have also raised questions about how higher education can better serve underrepresented communities.  All of these challenges impact the diversity of our student population.  And, as we know from research, the greater the diversity of our student population, the greater the learning experience and the better able the graduates are to lead the US’s increasingly diverse workforce of the future.  

Given the many challenges facing US business schools, each school has to increase its efforts to counter these hurdles.  The Kelley School, for example, is working diligently to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across all areas.   With regard to student recruitment, for instance, we are working to ensure our students represent diversity of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, geography, age, and ability/disability. We are focused, too, on aiding first generation students and students with limited financial means.  For undergraduate students, our efforts begin while they are still in high school by offering weekend and summer educational programs aimed at introducing business to underrepresented students.  In addition to recruitment efforts (which including financial and non-financial support for candidates), we also provide extensive programming for our students during their degree programs and for alumni after graduation.  These efforts are aimed at demonstrating and promoting the value of diversity, equity, and inclusivity.  

The Kelley School’s DEI efforts are not just focused on students, however.  We are also focused on recruiting, hiring, and sustaining a diverse faculty body and staff.  Moreover, our school is engaged in ongoing efforts to incorporate DEI into program curricula and co-curricular activities.  This includes providing training for all faculty members in content and pedagogical areas that support DEI initiatives both inside and outside the classroom.  

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.  

What would you say is your biggest achievement in your career so far?

It’s difficult to pinpoint just one achievement of which I am proud, so I’ve listed several.  But, more importantly, none of these accomplishments/achievements were done alone.  All of these were team efforts.  Thus, the biggest achievement, of which I am most proud, is having built a strong, dedicated leadership team.  This team has stuck with the Kelley School and with me through the ups and down of the last 8 years to achieve the many accomplishments listed below.    

We have increased student diversity quite significantly, especially in our Undergraduate Program.  We have developed and launched new, valuable programs (e.g., specialized MS degrees) that serve students who are interested in specialized educational opportunities.  We have developed new partnerships with organizations (both corporate and academic) that have led to enhanced educational programming and new career opportunities for our students.  We created and launched a school-wide brand, which led to stronger awareness of our school and its programs.  This, in turn, dramatically increased enrollments.  We have grown our faculty in meaningful ways that serve our research, teaching, and service missions.  We have enhanced our engagement with our alumni.  And we were successful in our school’s $200 million Centennial fundraising campaign, exceeding our goal by nearly 15%. This resulted in new student scholarships, new faculty chairs, professorships, and fellowships, and increased support for programming across all degree programs. 

If you could give one life lesson/piece of advice to your younger self/young female leaders, what would it be?

I would advise my younger self to be less risk averse; it has taken me time to accept this less risk-averse stance.  I would advise my younger self to trust your abilities to identify strategic directions and initiatives worthy of strong investments and actions, and to be willing to take those actions early, even if it means assuming the challenging role of first mover.  I also would advise my younger self to engage others earlier when working on projects, allowing them to take on more of the workload.  This is a great way to allow others to develop their talents, which, in turn, prepares the organization for leadership successions.  

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