With his wife, Bobbie, his son, Alex, and his granddaughter, Charlotte, in the classroom, Bob Bruner recently orchestrated what is likely the case study of his career.
Without a suit jacket, just a blue shirt and a red tie, as he had always done thousands of times before, he used a pair of old blackboards and plenty of chalk to distill the lessons of a leadership challenge drawn from a cold-called group of alumni.
You know from history that every once in a while someone comes along to make a true difference in this world of ours. This month one humble person who made that difference will retire from an extraordinary professional life.
FROM ‘THE DARDEN OF THE NORTH,’ BOB BRUNER CAME TO DARDEN AND STAYED FOR 41 YEARS
Robert Bruner, who taught for 41 years at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and expertly guided the school through a formative time as dean for ten years, is one of those remarkable individuals. With a mother who was an English professor and a father who once was president of Greyhound Van Lines Inc., Bruner went off to Yale for his undergraduate degree and then to Harvard Business School for his MBA and a doctorate in finance.
He arrived at Darden from, as current Dean Scott Beardsley noted in introducing his predecessor, “the Darden of the North.” Bruner came with a passion for teaching, the first faculty member at Darden to show up with an Apple 2e computer.
He was the first business school leader Poets&Quants chose to honor with its Dean of the Year award in 2011. And with good reason. As dean, starting in 2005 through 2015, Bruner chartered or led a series of initiatives that prompted the revision of Darden’s full-time MBA program, launched Darden’s Executive MBA and Global Executive MBA programs, raised the profile of admitted students, led the hiring of many new faculty and staff, improved the diversity of the Darden community, raised over $165 million in new funds and saw Darden’s rankings rise to the Top 10 of U.S. schools.
Yet, his greatest accomplishment was in the classroom as a master teacher–so much so that he earned the rare distinction of becoming a University Professor at the University of Virginia, an honor that gives professors complete freedom to educate in the way they see fit. He might very well be the best case study teacher ever. His book, Socrates’ Muse, helped other teachers master the use of cases in their own classrooms. No less crucial, he became Darden’s most prolific case writer, delivering 349 cases and tech notes — and more than a million sales.
BRUNER’S LAST LECTURE: CASE CLOSED
Over a recent weekend, in the university’s tradition of a “last lecture” for departing faculty members, Bruner led a case discussion for some 400 alumni. It was called “Case Closed.”
It went this way.
“You have been appointed leader of a troubled business unit,” he explained to the group. “A change in the business model under the previous boss forced the unit to raise prices. Though it was a quality leader, customer satisfaction suffered. Revenues fell, and the unit had to tighten its belt. This led to internal friction…Corporate HR is running the onboarding process and has scheduled the first engagement to be a town hall.
“What will you say? What will you do?”
THE BIG REVEAL? BRUNER FACED THE SAME LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE WHEN NAMED DEAN
The main points from the ensuing interaction were dutifully captured by Bruner on a pair of old-fashioned blackboards in chalk. One alum noted the sensitivity in addressing what he called a “wounded organization.” Another believed it was essential that the new boss acknowledge the problems upfront. “The past is gone,” the alum said as if addressing the employees himself, “but we are all in this together and we have to come up with joint ideas. Competition is bad enough.”
And then came the reveal from Bruner.
“The reason I present it to you is the relationship I faced when I parachuted into the dean’s office in 1985,” said Bruner. Originally, he was asked to serve as the interim dean. “One year turned into ten,” he added. “The teachable moment here is that the background is very important. Your references to wounded organizations is very wise. Darden at the time I wouldn’t say was wounded. My predecessor did a number of courageous things that made him a hero.”
In characteristic fashion, Bruner then asked the alums to applaud Robert Harris, who was his predecessor. And of course, during his last class, he also gave much credit to Dean Beardsley and his team. “I will tell you that the accomplishments in the last eight years dwarf what I was able to achieve as dean,” he said humbly.
OUTSIDE OF FAMILY, ‘SERVING AS YOUR DEAN HAS BEEN THE MOST FULFILLING THING I HAVE DONE’
“In 2003,” Bruner added, “a year that those of you in the class remember very well, he signed a self-sufficiency agreement with UVA. Darden would forgo thousands of dollars of support in state aid and in return we could price our degree programs at market. What it meant was we would be subject to the same market forces that we teach our students about. And believe me, markets are highly disciplinary. It seemed just but it would provide the institution with much more flexibility.
“I went into the town hall meeting and I remember that meeting had a spirited conversation and in fact, it didn’t finish the conversation. The conversation went on for months, if not a few years. I asked my colleagues this question: ‘On what can we all agree?’ It was a time to say what are we all about. The themes I remember coming out of that conversation were that Darden was all about teaching excellence and that we would be the world leader in the classroom, student-centered teaching. We begin as teachers thinking about where the students are and designing classroom experiences around that. We begin where the students are and focus on self-discovery by students of the big ideas in business. We modeled for the students what it is to learn professionally throughout their careers. What we teach at Darden is how to ask questions…It is a combination of asking and telling. Ask often, tell seldom. The odds are that you will learn more…
“We agreed in that early meeting to focus on practices, somewhat less on theory. We agreed we would be a school focused on leadership, and how to help lend direction to organizations, and we agreed that we would be a school of high purpose and values. We asserted we would be a school of community, that faculty would engage with students. We would see them in the halls and meet them for morning coffee every day, and we engage with student clubs and meet students in their homes and ours. All of this is the norm. This has been the norm at Darden and is part of our secret sauce. We weren’t worried about being a big school. We said better is better. Let’s focus on doing extraordinarily well on what we can do.”
Concluded Bruner: “Darden has changed. Darden should change. And yet we hang on to what is important. In my 41 years at Darden serving as a member of the faculty has been a thrilling privilege: Great students, strong colleagues, wonderful alums, and wonderful support from faculty and staff. Apart from marriage and raising kids and now watching grandkids come along, serving as your dean has been the most fulfilling thing I have ever done because I witnessed the ability of the Darden community to come together in an inspiring way.”
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