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Robert Dolan Gets Personal

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.   

Recorded on: April 13, 2009

A focus on his own individual growth has guided the dean throughout his career.

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