8 Questions Executives Should Ask Business School Deans
By working closer together, business practice and business schools can make business education stronger and more relevant. Here are 8 questions for business executives to ask b-school deans that can jump-start a relationship.
If you are a business executive, there is a good chance you have been visited by someone who works at a business school, most likely a dean or director. If not, then we hope it will not be long. At AACSB we encourage “A Stronger Connection Between Business Education and Practice.” By working closer together, business schools and business can make business education stronger, as well as more relevant and impactful.
Business school deans will have plenty of questions for you. These questions are not just to feed school databases and lay the groundwork for fundraising; deans really do want you and your colleagues to be engaged with their schools’ students and faculty. But you should also have questions for them, especially when the objectives are to benefit your company, improve business education and research, and positively impact the community. With special thanks to Rich Lyons, dean of the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, for planting the seeds, here are eight questions executives should ask business school deans.
1. What makes your school truly distinctive? Start with this question. Deans love it and ought to be able to answer it clearly. An articulation of what makes the school distinctive is expected for AACSB Accreditation and necessary for it to be competitive. Probe further if you think the answer sounds too generic, or like something you’ve heard many times before. Ask how the school’s distinctions fit its strategy and are embedded in its culture. Consider how the school’s distinctions fit with your own. The good news about business schools is that their leaders speak the language of business, as well as academia. They’ll understand when you ask about the value chain, corporate culture, and core competencies.
2. What contact has your school had with my company? This question helps establish the extent to which connections between the school and company already exist. Ask about the school’s alumni and interns working with your colleagues, student projects or faculty research that involve your company, executive programs your employees have participated in or that have been customized for your own leadership development initiatives, advisory boards that include members of your executive team, guest speakers in classes, and more. It is impossible for either you or the dean to see the full width and depth of your organizations, especially if you work at a large company and they work at big school, so don’t hesitate the pose this question in advance. And don’t forget to ask your team, too. As the relationship develops, consider asking the dean to put together a one- or two-page “relationship dashboard” to regularly track the various touchpoints between the school and the company.
3. What faculty research streams should I follow? Every AACSB accredited business school creates new knowledge, but not all of it is relevant to you and your team. The scope of business school research is quite broad and, at the same time, the range of each scholar’s work can be quite narrow. The dean can act as a curator, so when you ask this question be prepared to share the most challenging business and management issues you and your colleagues are facing, what you have been reading, and how you like to receive information. Armed with this knowledge, your visitor can connect you and your colleagues to the most relevant ideas, as well as to the scholars who create them. They can also point you to research centers that represent clusters of related scholarship, subscribe you to the most relevant lists, and invite you to events that include people you should meet.
4. What is your menu of experiential learning? Most business school programs already have a rich array of experiential learning opportunities, such as internships, co-op programs, team projects, and the like. The best ones are not only about providing experiences that help students learn, but they are also designed to provide value for the companies involved. Students learn how to convert knowledge into action and develop soft skills, such as teamwork, communication, and leadership. Companies get access to analyses and recommendations, as well as get to know talented students. New managers, in particular, can gain valuable experience working with people. Having a conversation about experiential learning can also reveal new opportunities to fill gaps in the current menu. Asking the school team to follow up in writing gives you something to forward to key people in your company who can make the best use of these programs.
5. What is your school doing to impact our community? This question can reveal overlapping community engagements and new opportunities to work together. Discussing the community-facing work of the school’s alumni at your company may be particularly useful, serving as a way to connect with and engage current students. Some of the best partnerships between business and business schools are inspired by the desire to solve larger social problems, particularly those that require innovative business thinking. Asking a question like this one encourages the dean to define the communities most relevant to the school. For example, some schools focus mainly on local business and act as anchors for economic development, while others consider a larger space of companies and seek to transform the way business is done globally.
6. What can you tell us about your students' interests? Students are a diverse group—and there is a constant stream of new ones, creating a dynamic mix of attitudes, attributes, and aspirations. Tapping the dean and school to learn more about and constantly update your knowledge about current business students can provide information useful for your company’s recruitment and retention strategy. Are they thinking about the environment and social impact? How do they use technology? Do they believe that analytics will likely be a core part of their future work? Or are they leaning toward creativity and design? Getting answers to questions like these can put your company in a better position not only to recruit business graduates by offering the kind of work environment and career opportunities they are looking for but also to shape their ongoing development as business managers and leaders.
7. What other parts of the university should we connect with? Business schools can be an important conduit to other parts of the campus. Count on the business school dean to know what’s happening across the campus and, by the time you ask this question, to be familiar enough with you and your company to share what is most relevant and match you to other campus leaders. If not, ask more. Is there are program in data science? What kinds new technologies are being developed in engineering and medicine? Are there experts in public policy who can help us understand the changing political environment? By asking questions like these—and following up—you can motivate business schools to break silos and work closer with other disciplines, leading to new degree programs, research collaborations, and more.
8. What does success look like for your school? This is never an easy question for any organization to answer, including business schools, but it is obviously an important one. And you can learn a lot about a school by the response the dean gives. Does the school want simply to be bigger? More highly ranked? International? Or does the school define success based on the impact it has on the communities it serves? Does it care about the success of its graduates? How much of the school’s success depends on the extent to which local business has access to managerial talent? Do they measure the number of startups, and associated jobs, their students, alumni, and faculty create? Do they strive to create new knowledge, business models, and practices for a more sustainable world? Sharing what success looks like for your company will put the conversation on even footing, enabling a truly mutually supportive dialogue.
There is no way these eight questions constitute an exhaustive list. However, by the time you and the dean are finished talking about them, you both will know more than enough to consider opportunities to engage and work closer together for mutual benefit, and for the benefit of society. When it comes to following up, don’t hesitate to be specific about actions and items, including a first-draft relationship dashboard, list of alumni employed at the company, experiential learning menus, and more. Your continued interest will signal your commitment to developing the relationship.
I’m sure there are many other questions you would like to ask—and you should feel free to. As we say in the classroom, there is no such thing as a bad question. And, by the way, why wait for the school to contact you? There is no better time than now to send an email to your nearest or dearest business school, saying that you have a few questions for the dean.
Dan LeClair is focused on strategy and innovation in business education. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLeClair.