Big Think Interview With Robert Dolan
A professor of marketing, he was a chaired faculty member and administrator at Harvard Business School for 21 years. His major research interests are product policy and pricing. He has published widely on these topics in such journals as the Bell Journal of Economics, European Management Journal, Harvard Business Review, Industrial Marketing Management, Journal of Business, Journal of Marketing, Marketing Science, and Sales and Marketing Management
Dean Dolan earned a Ph.D. and an M.S. in management at the University of Rochester and a B.A. magna cum laude in mathematics from Boston College.
Dolan is author or co-author of eight books and numerous case studies. His Managing the New Product Development Process (Addison-Wesley), based on research to develop the New Product Development course in the MBA Program at Harvard, has been adopted at a number of leading business schools. A recent book, Power Pricing: How Managing Price Transforms the Bottom Line (Free Press), was developed for practitioners. Drawing on research and consulting experiences with firms worldwide, the book sets out a program for proactive management of prices for superior profitability. His case studies and notes, published by Harvard Business School, address a wide range of companies and issues, including Black and Decker, BMW, Henkel Corporation, L’Oreal, and Eastman Kodak. More than one million copies of these materials have been sold to date.
A frequent lecturer and consultant, he assists a wide variety of clients on issues of product policy and pricing. He has testified on marketing issues in a number of major litigations and has served on the boards of directors of several publicly traded companies including Knoll Inc., a leading office furniture manufacturer and Precise Software Inc.
Question: How does the Ross School integrate real world business problems in the classroom?
Robert Dolan: Well, there’s a number of ways. I guess I’ll start out by talking about the way that we do it is maybe as a little bit distinctive among business schools. I think the signature element of our school, our MBA program in particular, compared to others, is what we call action based learning.
So right now, for example, all of our 425 first year MBA students would not be found in Ann Arbor. They would be scattered around the globe in about 90 teams, working on real world problems. So what we’ve done to try to differentiate our students and really provide value added was probably about 10 years ago, slightly before I got to the school, we instituted what we called, this map project, which we call multidisciplinary action projects. So we, since, built that up and really invested in it as our point of differentiation.
And so, we source about a 120 projects a year from around the world of three different types. We have corporate ones, which would be like the Fortune 500 company, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit ones. And then, after the students take the required curriculum from August through the end of February, in March and April the only thing they do is one of these projects. So right now, we have, as I was saying, we have all of our first year MBAs out working on these real world projects around the globe so about half of them are outside the United States. And our thinking on that has been that, clearly, business schools have to be close to the world of practice. And you can get there a couple of ways.
One is, one way is to try to import the business world into your school via, for example, case studies or, as we have done recreating a trading floor that you’d find here in New York or another finance center in the world and bring that into the school.
The other way is you can take your students and your faculty and put them out in the world of practice. And so, that’s what we’ve done, really, to try to distinguish our program. And it’s a really great way of educating students and also a great way for us, as the school, to see what the interesting problems are out there in the world. Because in the course of having the students do these projects, we probably visit about a 150 companies a year to ask them if we could do a project with them, of something that’s really salient for them today.
So we get a pretty good sense of sort of what’s on people’s mind by the kinds of things they would like our students to work on. So, I think that injection of our students and our faculty out into the world of practice on a full-time basis for two months of the required curriculum in the first year, and we’re doing this over and over and over. And so, we’re able to actually get a look at some problems in detail.
So, for example, a few years back, C. K. Prahalad, who’s on our faculty, decided he really want to take a look at the issue of “Can businesses profitably served the poor of the world?” And so, the basis for his getting a look at that question was to do 10 map projects with companies, mostly nonprofit organizations, around the world. And that really was the raw data which became his book, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.”
So, I think, in the way that some other schools would try to have their connection with the world of practice be by bringing in outside speakers and making sure the faculty were bringing current events into the classroom, we do all that the same as any other leading business schools would. But I think this is what’s really kind of been distinctive for us. And it’s really been terrific in terms of a way for us to see what the interesting problems are in the world for our faculty to be out there. And also, for our students, really, to be solving real world problems and all their ambiguity and uncertainty that, I think, has really been the hallmark of the school.
Question: Are international satellite schools a necessity for business schools?
Robert Dolan: Well, I think, it is necessary to have a global presence in someway or another. And, you know, you can do it in a number of ways and various schools have chosen different routes. Harvard Business School, for example, has chosen to set up research centers all around the world. Northwestern has chosen to do educational programs in cooperation with other schools.
What we’ve done so far is really not to engage in partnerships with other, with other schools around the world because we find that you, sometimes, don’t have a perfect alignment of the agenda. So at the moment, what we have is a, we have a research center in India. We have a global MBA program that we run in Korea and China. And the major way that we go global through these map projects and other global projects courses. So I think, I personally believe it’s really important for the students to experience a particular culture. I was in India last December and I think, just what you can learn from intelligent observation of what’s going on is really important.
So we intend to be as a platform for more of our action based learning work outside the United States. We’ll be establishing more kind of small bricks and mortar investments. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to be going to another country and staying in a classroom and just studying in the classroom. What’s important, I think, is to get immersed into the local economy. So, whereas some schools are going global via setting up executive MBA programs around the world, I haven’t seen much value in that to the students who are back on the home campus.
So our strategy is much more to figure out ways to get our full-time students, who would be enrolled in Ann Arbor, to get them out and have a global experience. So we’re expanding on the map project activity. And, I think, to have a presence in country to help us with the sourcing of those projects and to help us with admissions of students from those countries to our campus in Ann Arbor. Those are useful investments that we’ll be making and expanding over the next few years.
Question: What’s the best way to teach business?
Robert Dolan: I didn’t stay doing the case method for 21 years if I wasn’t a proponent of it in some ways. But I think a sole reliance on it can be a limitation. And that’s why when we were trying to figure out, okay, how do we really differentiate our school, it’s not that we don’t do any case studies. They are a tremendous device for developing students, problem solving skills, which are really valuable.
But on the other hand, when you talk to companies, as I spent the majority of my first year doing as dean, going out and talking to companies and say, look, what really distinguishes you’re great people from your good people. It was never, well, so and so was a great problem solver, it was always, well, so and so is the person who is able to see things that other people can’t see. And he’s also the person that when everybody else is saying, oh my gosh, what are we going to do, we have nothing that will possibly be able to do to solve this issue, he or she is the one who’s able to say, well, look, actually we have, there’s three different things we could do.
So trying to think about, well, what do you, how could you develop the skills that go on the front end of a case study, that you developed the students’ ability to make sense of the situation and then really frame the problem. And so, that’s what we’ve tried to do with our action based learning projects, where, as we send students out for a two month project, there is no case. We give them a one page description of the problem. And many times, the problem is when you really look at it, it’s saying, well, go help this company figure out how they could do better. So we deliberately leave the job of defining what the issues are and providing the students the space to really find the opportunity in the situation.
So I’m a believer that the three fundamental ways that you can think about education, they’re being a professor upfront, lecturing, telling you what he or she has inside their head. Secondly, some case studies in which you are in discussion for and also an action based learning. Combing those 3 in the right way is what I think is the right way to do both MBA and BBA education.
Question: How have you created a community of learning at Michigan?
Robert Dolan: Well, that’s, I guess that’s my, what I think of as my primary job. And, I guess a couple, well, a few kind of everyday ways and a few maybe a little bit kind of more abstract, I guess, abstract ways that I try to do it. But, I mean, in terms of trying to create a learning community, one of the things we try to do is create a physical space to accommodate a learning community. And, so in our new building, what we have is its all built around, what we call, the winter garden, which is where about 450 people will be seated from about, gets going about 10:00 in the morning and it goes ‘til about 1:00 at night. And so, that’s sort of the heart and soul of our community. And I think, so that’s one, is to have the physical infrastructure there.
The second thing is, from the beginning, to be telling students about what their job is at the school. That, you know, our first test when we’re deciding whether to admit you to the school or not is “Can you learn in this environment?” So we don’t do you any favors if you don’t have the analytical skills to deal with statistics courses or the business economics courses and so forth. But we’re fortunate enough that we can fill the school up 10 times over with people who can learn effectively in our environment.
So we get to create a situation where we’re really choosing the students to join our environment based upon what we think they can teach the rest of us. So the idea of having a diverse student body in, you know, gender, race, national origin, what kind of activities they’ve been involved in in the past, it really gives us the opportunity to think not of having 180 teachers, which is how many tenured/tenured track faculty we have but if we think of ourselves as having 3,000 teachers, because that’s what our student body plus our faculty together. So I’m always trying to stress that we are a learning community. When we talked about building our new facility, it was never about we’re trying to build a great teaching facility, we’re trying to create a great learning facility by having 3,000 people who really have a teaching burden for the rest of us. So those will be two.
I guess the third one is you’re always trying to attract people who are going to bring excitement and intellectual curiosity into our classrooms in our environment.
And then, I think the fourth thing is that you’re really trying to create something which has a high degree of excitement to it, that we’re always out there, pushing new boundaries. And we had our perceptive MBA students in a couple of weeks ago and I was talking to them about what I thought was some of the different things about the school that maybe they wouldn’t see by reading our brochures.
And I told them the story about when I was on a panel of three deans, talking to new PhDs and young faculty members from around the country about what does a dean do. And it was, you know, it’s kind of an interesting question because faculty, typically, haven’t really seen it very much up close and say that they don’t know. So the two deans ahead of me spoke about, well, basically, what we have to do is we have to manage budgets and we have to make sure the priorities of the university are aligned with the school and, you know, which is something that I have to do but it’s not how I think about my job. And so, I told them that, what I said to the audience was, well, how many Neil Young fans do we have in the audience? And there were lots of Neil Young fans. So I said, well, you know, one of Neil’s songs on Heart of Gold DVD is about going out with his dog named King. And he said he loved his dog named King because he wasn’t afraid to jump it off the truck in high gear.
And I thought, well, you know, in some sense, that’s maybe the most important thing that a dean can do, is create an environment in which you can take sensible risks and really bring so much excitement and energy into the day-to-day life of the school and, you know, I had a finance professor come to me a couple of years ago and said, “I’d like to create a new course on sustainable finance.” And I said, “Well, what is it?” He said, “Well, I’m not sure,” he said, “But it’s something which is going to marry all of these concepts of sustainability with the world of finance.” And so, we said, “Yeah, we’ll go make that bet.” And so, I think it’s the idea of being willing to do some experiments, being smart enough to come back around a couple of years later and look at the flowers you planted and see whether they’re blooming or not. But, I think, to try to create a place that it’s, the academic world is great in the sense that, you know, the cost of an experiment is fairly low. And so, we have to be creating a situation where we’re going to go try things that you wouldn’t be able to try other places. So I think it’s always trying to inject that sense of excitement into the day-to-day kind of learning activities.
Question: How will university endowments survive hard economic times?
Robert Dolan: Well, I think, the short answer to that is there’s two pieces to it. One is to maintain a robust set of educational programs so that you have lots of students who want to come to the school. But the second way, frankly, is through the generosity of your alumni, that with the state budgets being cut as they are in Michigan and a number of other places, we found, a few years back, that we were just not going to be able to be within the top tier of the schools competing with the people we want to be competing with if we didn’t go out and raise a significant amount of money from our alumni. So we started a capital campaign, probably, five, six years ago, which we just ended up and the timing was good for us, obviously.
But we raised $362 million against the goal of $350. And so, it’s really through the generosity of the alumni. And, I think, more and more is difficult as fundraising may be in an economically difficult time like this. For schools like ours, as we try to stay in the same league with the private institutions, I think it’s what the alumni are going to be kind of support that they’re going to be providing. So that is, I think, an increasingly important part of the financial structure of the school as the state support has dwindled. And you would expect, you could not form a viable strategy around increase, seeing that, believing that state support was going to be increasing in the future. I think, it really is the alumni support. And we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had some terrific alumni help us with that.
And the second thing we did is we really didn’t have the physical plan that would enable us to offer educational programs in a way which had some economies of scale associated with them. And so, as part of our capital campaign and part of the $100 million gift from Steve Ross, we just completed a 270,000 square foot facility, which came online a couple of months ago. So we now have a great physical plant in Ann Arbor that allows us to do things in a very efficient way while we’re still undertaking the action based learning of dispersing our student teams around the globe, which is a reasonably expensive way of doing education.
So I think the two big things were, number one, to have a really good physical plan that allow us to do things in an efficient way and keep building the alumni relationships and kind of making the case for alumni support. And we’re very fortunate that we’ve had a great history of people being very committed to the school.
Question: How are faculties coping with decreasing numbers of tenured positions?
Robert Dolan: At Michigan, our model is that we are a pretty decentralize operation so unlike some public schools in which you would have to get presidential approval for a particular slot or the number of the tenured faculty, that’s pretty much a decision which is left to us as the business school. So we have to be able to operate as an economically sound institution. But as long as we can do that, we can grow the faculty as we wish. So we are not in a mode where we’re saying, okay, what we’re going to do is decrease the number of tenured faculty as state support comes down. Instead, we’re looking at ways to probably increase the size of some our programs.
Particularly, right now, the demand for our undergraduate business program is extremely strong. And while we were in a constrained physical position over the last couple of years as we were under construction, we really had demand three or four X what our supply was. So what we are trying to do is say, all right, is there a way for us to adjust the size of some of our programs so that we are able to maintain a sustainable economic model sitting underneath the school. And for us, I think the big benefit is that we’re an extremely diversified school in the sense of having both undergraduate and an MBA program and a Masters in accounting program.
And also, we’re, we have a lot of very strong demand for all of our programs. The program that is a little bit of a challenge for us these days is our evening MBA program, which, you know, obviously, is very geographically bound. And historically, that had served the automotive companies. And now, obviously, with their economic difficulties, their tuition assistance programs have declined and so, as a result, our enrollments in our evening MBA program have declined. But that’s about one-tenth of our overall enrollment base. So what we try to do is maintain a robust set of educational programs so that we won’t have to either cut the number of faculty lines we have. Because it’s really important to be able to continually bring in new talent into the school all the time. So for this year, for example, while we’re expecting that the state budget allocation to us declines, we’ll be hiring 6 or 7 new faculty members right out of PhD programs.
Question: Do business schools bear responsibility for the financial crisis?
Robert Dolan: Well, we’re always trying to look at the world and do better and improve. So certainly, for my point of view, I look at the economic crisis, which is unfolding, and then say, okay, well what’s the lesson for us in this. I honestly don’t subscribe to the view that the crisis is something which should be laid on the doorstep of MBA programs because we’ve trained a lot of the people who were leaders us of these companies.
But I do think there are a couple of things that I take away from it. One is around our educational programs. But importantly, the second thing is around our research programs and, you know, I think, if you look at what’s happened, we, in the academic world, have done a great job of, now, reconstructing, well, what was it that got us to this point. Obviously, that is of some value but a far greater value is if you’re kind of get out ahead of the curve. So if you try to think about, you know, what academia, what is academia’s responsibility or job in this, I think it’s quite significant. Because if you just arbitrarily say, look at the top 25 business schools in the country and on average, they’re going to have about 20 finance faculty members. And so, right there, you have 500 academic finance folks whose job is to observe and think. You know, that’s the, you know, as a research institution, our faculty spends more of their time doing research than they do teaching.
So in some sense, I think academia really has the responsibility. We are, in some sense, the largest think tank going. We’re not biased to any particular point of view. And so, for me, the question is how can we sort of adapt and get ourselves more into the world of business and having our research impact day-to-day business activity. And also, I think, one lesson I take from the recent event is that we probably need a tighter coordination between schools of business and schools of public policy. That would be another good thing for us to be doing. So, I think, for us in academia to try to move a little bit more in the direction of the world of practice. And also finding ways to adapt our communication style so it’s much more timely than is typical in our world of referee journal articles to think about, gee, we really want to have impact on the world of practice and this is the way we should be doing it.
You know, the second part of it, the second lesson I take from the current economic crisis is if there is one dimension in which I think the business model or the educational model of most MBA programs in particular could use some variation, it’s really in terms of the contact that we have with our students. And in some sense, a typical MBA program now, the average age is going to be about 26 years old. So we have you come as a 26 year old. And I think of it this way that if we said to you, as a student, look, here is the intellectual buffet of the Ross School of Business, you can eat from this buffet for 20 months anytime in the rest of your life. And you choose how much you want to consume when. If the student said to you, well, I think I’ll consume for the next nine months and then I’ll go do a summer internship for three months and then I’ll go, I’ll consume for another nine months and that will be the end of our formal relationship for the rest of my life, rest of my professional life. We’d probably say, well, gee, that student wasn’t as smart as we thought they were. And yet, that is sort of what we impose on people.
So as much as we stay connected through reunion activities, I think what we really have to do is say, we educate, if you look at people we educated in 1980, so we educated them in 1980 when they’re in their mid-20s and that would, now, put them at the point when they are the CEOs of the major corporations and in positions of leadership. If you look back to 1980, what do you see?
Well, the three largest employers in the United States were AT&T, General Motors, and Ford. The three largest employers today are Wal-Mart, UPS, and McDonald’s. So it’s a different world from when you had your educational experience with us to what it is today.
And secondly, I think, you just look what’s happened with information and communication technology, we were not talking much about the influence of the Internet on business activity in 1980. So I think this idea of us, really forming a lifelong relationship with our students, where we’re not just educating you when you’re 26, 27 years old and then saying, well, you know, I hope you read the Economist or tune in Big Think every once in a while to see what’s going on, but to really think that we’re going to have a lifelong relationship with you. I think that goes back to my earlier point about really looking at stimulation for research.
If we, everyday, had to be saying to ourselves, okay, our alumni are expecting us to provide insight into what’s going on today, I think we really stimulate a great set of research activities. So I think those would be my main take away points that the research model that we have, we got to speed it up a little bit, you know, if we’re going to have influence on the front end rather than just be explaining on the back end. And secondly, we really should be taking this notion of lifelong learning as a key part of our responsibilities to our students as an academic institution.
Question: Are fewer MBA graduates going directly into the financial sector?
Robert Dolan: In the near term, absolutely. I mean, what we have seen just this year, you know, certainly has been a significant decrease in terms of recruiting activity on campus from the financial community. We were reasonably diversified going into this. About 20, between 20 percent and 25 percent of our students, our MBA students, were going into finance. So we had less repositioning to do than some of those 50 plus schools that you’d be mentioning a moment ago. But definitely, we have seen a repositioning. And, you know, many more of our students are interested in, now, going into, really quite varied set of positions. Consumer package goods are pretty strong, healthcare is obviously growing, technology-orientated things. So we’re a general management school and our orientation to a general management and action- based learning has meant that we, historically, have been less orientated toward finance. But I suspect even for us, being a general management school, the placement of our students in the finance world, we fully anticipate that that will be a smaller percentage this year than it has been in the recent past.
Question: Will business students need incentives to choose less lucrative career paths?
Robert Dolan: Well, I don’t know that we have to incent them so much as that the market will incent them to it. I, you know, I never worry too much about us incenting students one direction or another. I think our responsibility was to educate students, make them be thoughtful about their career choice. And then, while some schools would look at their 50 percent of students going into finance and be horrified at that number or so many going into industries in which you don’t “make things,” I always felt our job was to really provide a great general experience for our students. And then, if they chose to go into one industry or another, that was really their choice. So I don’t think it so much that the company, that the schools have to, now, incent their students to go elsewhere. It’s just that there’s always going to be financial activity but just not at the scale that we’ve seen. And so, as the salaries, maybe, come down a little bit in finance, they won’t be the strong economic incentive to go. And obviously, if the jobs aren’t there in finance, the students are going to be preparing themselves, I think, to have a little broader set of options when they graduate.
Question: Should business schools sign off on students’ ethics?
Robert Dolan: Not in my judgment. I think business schools have really taken the responsibility of developing some ethical education into the curriculum in a really substantive way. Schools have taken that extremely seriously. And if you look at what’s been done over the last 20 years or so, I think the schools have done a great job.
You know, the problem, to me, with the certification, it’s almost like, well, if we can check off the box, then we can forget about it. It was almost like in the old days when everybody had to have a special little set of ethics and law courses that typically were required. And as long as the students took one or two, they were fine. And the ethical dimensions were not as, then, as present in the everyday conversation of the school. And, I think, what we’ve tried to do with Ross School of Business, and I know my colleagues at a number of the other leading business schools have really tried to do the same thing, is to take ethics and sustainability and those kinds of issues to take them not as special topics, which you cover in orientation, and then say, okay, that’s covered, now we can get on to the real stuff of marketing. But you have to embed the ethical discussions into the everyday life of the school.
And, I think, you have to create a student responsibility for doing that as well. So I worry a little bit about whether some kind of certification, program, or passing a test would lead us more back to the old days of saying, everybody saying, okay, we have this few courses and we can check them often and really get the substantive focus distracted from because everybody’s worrying about showing that 99.9 percent of their students pass some certification test.
So I think this is a dimension on which I know business schools are frequently criticized at the moment. But if people really understood what is happening in the curriculum at school and also, I think, in the wonderful, you know, the wonderful students that we, and a number of the other schools, enjoy these days, these students are really going to insist that ethics and sustainability be part of the everyday discussion of the school. So I really feel pretty good about where we are on that.
Question: How does the Ross School teach ethics?
Robert Dolan: There’s probably 3 different ways that we would be doing it. One would be, we have established, a few years ago, the Ross Leadership Initiative, which one of the associate deans run for us. And so, that is an integrated package material that we use to bring up issues of social responsibility and business ethics. So, I think, one of the important elements of our training is during your first week at school, during the orientation program, we spend one day on community service. And so, we all go out and do a community service project then we all come back together, all 450 of us or so, and discuss about, well, what do we learn that day and what’s the meaning of this kind of activity.
So, I think, from very early on, what we’re trying to do is get these issues of corporate social responsibility into the minds of students. And then, our net impact club, which is, I think, the largest chapter in the United States, you know, which fosters the triple bottom line kind of philosophy, social responsibility, ethical responsibility, and profitability as three different important measures to be bringing into discussion. That kind of thinking is embodied in our everyday classes. And so, I think, those are two important ways. And then, the third one will just be what we do in terms of bringing in outside speakers through our club activities, like we have the global corporate responsibility group. So I think it’s the way that we try to, as I was saying a moment ago, really have to be part of the everyday life of the school.
Question: How should executive bonuses be regulated?
Robert Dolan: It would be a good idea to tie bonuses to specific performance goals, I think. And that’s something which seemingly has gotten lost. That the bonuses, while people always call them bonuses, they really, in fact, in many industries, have become more or less an entitlement where there wasn’t a tie of, well, we’ll get this kind of bonus assuming this kind of performance metrics. So, I think, incentive pay in general is not a bad idea. And certainly, there have been lots of industries which have done much better because they tie the, they align the financial performance of the firm with the financial rewards to the employees. So the idea of incentive pay, I think, is terrific. But you just have to make sure that there are metrics that drive the profitability of the firm, that those metrics are the same ones that the employees are being incented to.
Question: What’s the difference between a manager and a leader?
Robert Dolan: That’s a good question and one that I’ve thought about a lot. You know, I think a leader is, a couple of different aspects to it. One is that a leader is somebody who’s developing great talent around him or her, that the organization is just getting better by this person being there. And the leader really takes it as part of their job to be developing the talent of the people in the organization.
Second thing I really think is an important distinguishing characteristic of leaders is they see new opportunities. They’re always pushing the organization out in new directions. And the third thing, I think, is that they really bring kind of a moral compass to the organization. That they’re the ones whose values that are really going to be expressed for the rest of the people and be adopted by the organization. Whereas the manager can, you know, very effectively kind of manage the status quo and do things in a way that delivers historical profitability. I really think the leaders of the people who are really seeing the new opportunities and establishing the values for the organization.
Question: What has been your biggest leadership challenge?
Robert Dolan: My biggest leadership challenge would be my first year as, my first year as dean of the Ross School of Business. You know, I had been a faculty member at the University of Chicago and Harvard Business School prior to becoming dean. But I became dean in late summer 2001. And, you know, of course, we had September 11th occur, probably about a month after I was on the job. And the job market kind of declined rather rapidly for our students. And the problem was you come in as dean and within a heartbeat, everybody is saying to you, well, what’s your vision? And, you know, the truth of the matter was that I didn’t have it yet. I had just come to the school.
And so, I think the, looking back at it, probably the hard thing for me for six months was that I was going around, meeting a lot of the alumni, giving presentations, and I was out a little bit ahead of myself because if you said, well, what’s your strategy?
I couldn’t say much other than, "I’m all for quality and Go Blue," which, you know, it's fine but it doesn’t say anything. And so, I think it was, the leadership challenge for me was to really take my time to do my homework even when the stakeholders were getting impatient. It would’ve been a real mistake for me to kind of have adopted a strategy without any edge to it in response to the kindly pressure but it was still pressure from some people to say, "okay, you’ve been here a hundred days now and if we read one of those airport books, it says the CEO only has a hundred days to really bring change to the organization."
By then, the degrees of freedom are gone. I do not subscribe to that. And so, I think it was to really stick with it and think my way through it and go out and visit enough companies so that I could really get a vision of what I wanted to try to do to the school.
And it was really a valuable exercise for me because there was one person who really help me greatly, get my vision for the school. Because he said, you know, “Business schools are great,” he said, “But what they do is they say we’re going to give a certain set of knowledge, we’re going to give a certain set of skills, and we’re going to develop student’s leadership capability.” And he drew three circles of the same size, with the little leadership pea sitting up on top of the other two. And he said, “So, what you say you’re going to give us is three grapefruits.” He said, “But in reality, what you give us is two grapefruits and a grape, with the grape being, obviously, the leadership capabilities.” And then, he said, “Now, if you could figure out a way to really distinguish yourself around developing those leadership capabilities, that would help set you apart from all the other business schools out there.” And that really became kind of the strategy. And then, saying, okay, well, action based learning: I don’t know how to make that grape into a grapefruit by keeping the students in the classroom.
If I can get them out into the world, dealing with messy problems as part of a diverse team that we put together rather than have them being able to go with their buddies, that, I think, is the way to develop that kind of leadership capability. So that was one personal thing for me. That, it took me sort of longer than a lot of people hoped it would. It would’ve been nicer if I came up with the idea a little bit more quickly than I did but, I think, for me, to be able to kind of work my way through a process that works for me and then really having a strategy, which has really served us very well in retrospect. So I think that was one personal one for me.
Question: What’s the best management advice you’ve received?
Robert Dolan: The best management advice I ever got is, you know, I’m a marketing guy so it really is around the importance of focus and differentiation. That if you try to think about being the best in the world for everybody, that’s sort of leads you to really dilute your offerings and not be great for anybody. So I think the idea of really having a focus and saying, gee, this is what we do, we honestly think we’re the best in the world at that, if this is what you’re looking for, that’s, you ought to buy our product, you ought to come here rather than trying to spread yourself out too thin. So it’s kind of basic stuff about marketing management, about segmenting the market and really picking a spot. But it’s much harder to do than a lot of people think it is because you should be saying enough about your product that some people aren’t going to want it. And if you can get yourself to having enough confidence in what you’re doing so that you say, gee, its okay if there are some people who don’t want this product at all, I think that’s when you know you’ve gotten to a point of really developing a focused offering. So, I think, there are lots of examples of the benefit of focus. And, you know, certainly from my personal experience in what I’ve done as a marketing academic, as a consultant and a dean, I keep being refocused and less on the importance of focus and really developing a particular point of differentiation that you’re the very best at that particular thing and nobody can compete with you on that.
Question: What’s the best personal advice you’ve received?
Robert Dolan: Best personal advice? I guess, in sort of recent times, I guess, it would be sort of the advice to really think about continuing to develop as an individual. And that may mean doing some new things that you’re really not very comfortable with. And I’ve always been, and it’s, it’s really what lead me to leave Harvard Business School and go to the University of Michigan because I’ve always been a preacher to everybody else about, look, you have to, if a new opportunity comes, even if it’s outside your comfort zone, you have to go, you have to go do it and develop new muscles, otherwise, you don’t grow. And so, this was something where I had, as I said, been a preacher about this to many, many people. I had been at Harvard Business School for 21 years. I had no intention of going anywhere else. I was just about to become the senior associate dean at HBS. But there was nothing about that job that’s scared me, whereas thinking about becoming dean at a school where I didn’t have a stock of good will and would require me to do things I never done before, for example, like fundraising. In the end, the things that initially scared me and made me hesitate about Michigan were the things that made me go there when I saw them as a chance to develop in ways that I haven’t really developed before. And, you know, fortunately for me, they’ve been some of the most satisfying aspects of the job. So this idea of always be thinking about the need to develop yourself, have the capability to reinvent yourself, I think that’s something that’s very important, very important to me.
Question: What should business school applicants consider when applying?
Robert Dolan: Well, a couple of things. One is they should really, they should really figure out if this is something that they really want to do at this point in time, you know. I think, obviously, I’m in the business school business and I think it’s great but it’s not great for everybody. There are some people who, you know, don’t, it’s not going to fit them very well for what they what they want to do in life. So I would say that’s the first thing, is to really do your homework to decide, gee, is an MBA degree going to get me where I want to go.
Second thing I would say is that the difference between schools, even the ones that might be frequently rated the same or mentioned in the same kind of articles, the difference among them is phenomenal. You know, I, myself, I’ve been at the University of Chicago, Harvard Business School, and the Ross School of Business. Those three places, even though we all grant the same thing at the end: an MBA, totally different set of experiences, totally different set of skills that you’re going to have when you come out.
So in terms of assessing which one or which one of the many options that you’re going to have is best for you, really requires you to be very self-aware and understand what your skills are, which one of those you want to further, which ones, where are your deficiencies, can you leave those deficiencies as deficiencies, which, sometimes, can do, or do you have to remedy them.
And then, really studying the schools in terms of how does each one going to progress you on your individual path and, you know, I know all of us as the deans of the major schools. What we really try to do is be articulate as we can about what we can do so that somebody doesn’t wind up at our place by mistake. And I would much, you know, if you want to be a quant superstar, I’d much rather tell you that, gee, the University of Chicago, based on my experience there, is probably better at that than any school I know. And if you really want to develop general management skills from an action based learning perspective, that’s what we think we do better than anybody else. So rather than looking at any one of the ratings agencies, and thinking that number four is much different from number six, to really look very closely at what one of these very different programs is going to do for you as an individual.
Question: Can you give us the top five business schools in the US?
Robert Dolan: No, I couldn’t. I will, other than, obviously, the Ross School of Business but, you know, I, as I said in answer to your earlier question about what advice would I give to somebody going to an MBA program, it’s really, the schools are really so different from one another, you have to do your homework. And I, sometimes, tell students that, you know, I have a 31-year-old daughter who actually got a Master’s degree in educational policy rather than an MBA but that’s another story. But I said, you know, there are, there are lots of great schools in the United States and around the world that I would’ve been delighted to see my daughter go to about 25 different places. And so, it’s really all an individual fit for yourself. And, as I said, I think they are terrific schools and each one is different in their own way. And, I think, if you can really do your homework on them, you’ll find one that really works for you.
Recorded on: April 13, 2009
An interview with Robert Dolan, Dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
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