Chatting with the Dean: James Dean, UNC Kenan-Flagler

UNC Kenan-Flagler

Recently, MBAchic had the opportunity to chat with James Dean, Dean of The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. In this interview, we discussed UNC Kenan-Flagler, the MBA degree, women in business and more. Dean Dean gave some great life advice that I really think applies to everyone — not just MBA students or applicants, and definitely not just women. Check out our conversation below!

MBAchic: What is the best part of your job?

Dean James Dean: Certainly helping to develop young people. Whether we’re talking about undergraduates or MBA’s: at whatever level or age people come to us, it’s great to see them develop as people and develop as business people. It’s really exciting, and it’s probably why I got into education. It is really interesting helping people to get them where they want to go, and achieve their potential. A single event that typifies what’s best about the job would probably be graduation. Not the ceremony itself—what I really like is seeing the students with their parents and with their families. You see how much it means to their families, that their son or daughter has graduated a program at UNC and has an MBA or undergraduate degree; you realize that you’re really changing people’s lives—it’s extraordinarily gratifying.

Also, when I’m with alumni who’ve graduated five or ten or literally 30 or 50 years ago, they can all tell you about some faculty member who changed their lives. It’s different ones for different people, but they say that the trajectory of their lives were changed and shaped by this individual who’s on our faculty—so just to be part of that, and feel that gratitude that people have, and the affection for the institution and the business school is [the other best part of the job].

MBAchic: UNC Kenan-Flagler is a top-ranked school. What kind of initiatives do you have planned to take the school forward?

DJD: One of the major initiatives that I’ve led over my last three years as Dean is in the area of leadership development, and we believe that we are currently one of the best schools in the world for leadership development. We recently were asked by AACSB to participate in a symposium in Florida where they identify best practices in several different areas and we were invited to speak to what we’ve done in terms of leadership development.

We’ve done some interesting things here. For example, we have a course for all of the elected leaders in the MBA program that helps them do a more effective job in leading their groups – we treat that as sort of a laboratory for leadership.

Leadership immersion is an opportunity for students who have finished courses and are in their last half-semester of the MBA program to spend 8 weeks focused solely on developing themselves as leaders. We have had some tremendous people come through that. They do some outdoors stuff, some challenging physical exercises and they spend a lot of time with CEOs interviewing them and learning from their experiences. They do business challenges – if you’ve ever seen The Apprentice on television, the challenges are very much like that: nobody gets fired but you do get an opportunity to learn. In a nutshell, we want to solidify our position among the very top schools for leadership development. That’s one of the reasons that students come here, because of the curriculum. Like all other schools, we are doing an awful lot in terms of globalization and building our presence around the world. A lot of schools are doing that – you have to continue to be globalized to maintain your status as a top school.

We continue to work in the family business area. That’s an area that is important to us; we are starting to attract students from around the country and around the world who are associated with family businesses, and we have a great curriculum in that area. One of the great things that comes out of [this program] is that we often facilitate conversations between our students and their parents (sometimes conversations that they’ve never had before) about what’s going to happen and what role they would like the young woman or the young man to play.

We continue to work on sustainability. We were one of the early schools involved in sustainability (we just had the 10-year-anniversary of our sustainability center), and as the sustainability idea evolves, we continue to evolve with it.

We are always in motion. You never ever can sit back and rest on your laurels in this business, it’s just so competitive and there are so many great opportunities to do things.

MBAchic: (regarding leadership development) That sounds great…it’s one thing to get the degree, but to actually put it into practice and lead a group or project, that’s great job training.

DJD: I’m glad you feel that way. One thing I did not mention is that in those projects: I said that nobody gets fired, but they get unvarnished feedback on how they do when they’re leading these various groups—they really get challenged. This isn’t about: gee you did a really great job; it’s about: ok in this situation why did you do that? Why didn’t you do this? Why did you make this mistake? Couldn’t you have tried harder? It’s a little bootcamp-like. We really push the students, because you really don’t get great feedback on a day-to-day basis in your job; most organizations are not that great at giving feedback, especially about how people lead. So we try to instill in them the idea that you always, throughout your whole career, need to be improving your leadership skills, and that a big part of that is getting that ‘unadulterated’ feedback.

MBAchic: At UNC Kenan-Flagler, there are five ways to get an MBA. Can you talk about the online MBA (MBA@UNC)? How can you create a rich experience for this group of students?

DJD: The MBA@UNC has been a very popular subject. To create the rich MBA experience for online students, there are two or three ways we do that, depending on how you count:

The discussion classes in MBA@UNC are held using web cameras and Adobe Connect technology. All of the students and the professor are talking to each other in real time – when you look at your screen, you see all of your fellow classmates (15 or so) and your professor, and they see everyone as well. It really is a small group discussion. Technology has evolved to a point where you can have a virtual interaction that feels real.

Students have projects in which they work together and have to connect outside of classes – these days a lot of work is done this way (if you talk to major firms – IBM is a great example, many employees don’t even have offices), and we are preparing our students for these kinds of situations when they get to the workplace.

We do bring them together physically for what we call “immersions” – there are four planned around the world for this year: one here in Chapel Hill, one in London, one in San Francisco and one in Sao Paulo. Students will get a chance to get together and in different places that represent different trends in business as well.

You’ve identified a big challenge for a program like this but we’ve given it a lot of thought – we’re happy with how it’s going. We were very, very selective for the first group because it was going to be a pilot and we wanted the strongest possible group (that is why it is small). The natural constituency for the program is people who have qualifications for top MBA programs, but whose lives are such that they cannot leave their jobs and families. It is well-known that the percentage of women of full-time MBA students is far less than 50%, and I think the fact that many MBA students are 28-30 years old (when many women are getting married and having children) certainly plays a role – the online program might disproportionately be able to attract young women who can’t do the conventional MBA.

MBAchic: We’ve touched on this a bit, but: I am a woman. Why should I attend UNC Kenan-Flagler?

DJD: I can start by telling you why anyone should come here, and then answer for women. As far as the full-time MBA is concerned (that’s the biggest market), you can certainly identify some differences in needs or preferences between young women and young men, but probably there are more similarities than differences. We have been able to help place people in the kind of jobs they want to get placed in (marketing, finance, consulting) – an MBA program at the full-time level is really to get from where you are to where you want to be – we’ve done that well for a long time, which is why we’ve been always named as a top program. Beyond that, the full-time MBA means devoting your life to something for two years, but you’re also talking about joining a community forever – there’s something that’s really special about the UNC Kenan-Flagler community that attracts a lot of people and the community and its values are a little bit more friendly to women than perhaps some other schools are.

One of our core values is teamwork, and we really try to emphasize people working together for the betterment of the team, rather than for the betterment of yourself (and just competing with other people); some young women are drawn to that kind of community picture. It’s also a place where individuals can make a difference in terms of the nature of the school. We had a committee of young women who worked with me last year to think about how we can make the school more accessible and more desirable to young women and we’ve already implemented and are working to implement some of their suggestions. For example, they said that we should continue to deepen our coverage of healthcare: many women are interested in going into healthcare jobs post-MBA. Also, a presence on the West Coast is important to a number of women (as well as to men). The opportunity to have an impact on the school and ensuring that administrators are listening and acting on these suggestions is very important.

Also, I think an important element of the school is that many women are in leadership positions here, and it gives a kind of role model for these women to look up to.

MBAchic: What kind of person do you look to attract to your programs?

DJD: In a nutshell, they need to demonstrate that they are a high-achieving person (that’s illustrated through past grades, promotions, high GMAT scores), and that probably does not differentiate us very much from any other school. We also look for people who are a fit with the culture of the school and the values of the school. I’ve mentioned community and teamwork as core values and I think that people here and grads have come to appreciate that this is a group of high achieving people who look upon one another as colleagues and friends and as members of the community, who are trying to support one another.

When I first became Dean, a recruiter told me that uniquely, at UNC Kenan-Flagler, if he called someone to tell them they did not get the job, one of the first things they told him was, “Well I hope someone else at UNC got the job.” They also say that when we have receptions with recruiters, UNC students will include someone in the conversation rather than exclude them. It is a different kind of culture here than that found at other schools, but it’s that culture, connected with high achievement. It’s not just a bunch of nice people – it’s a group of people who don’t think that there is a trade-off between being a high achieving person, a person with very high standards and being a team member and community member at the same time.

MBAchic: What does UNC Kenan-Flagler do to help students obtain the MBA?

DJD: In terms of financing the MBA, we have a whole series of fellowships for students in the MBA program. We just announced a Forte Fellowship program for the EMBA – fellowships are the main thing.

Once enrolled in the MBA Program, students appreciate how effective our professors are at teaching. They also get tremendous support as well student-to-student tutoring, if requested.

Another point I should mention is that for 12 years, we have surveyed MBA students on 50 items, once per semester (so we have 24 surveys over 12 years), and the highest-rated item has been accessibility and helpfulness of the faculty. That’s a really powerful statement of the kind of culture we have here – it speaks for itself. Once we have someone in, our desire is to have [her or him] successfully complete the program.

MBAchic: How does the school help MBAs secure employment after graduation?

DJD: Our career management center has a great, highly qualified group of people organized by industry; they have responsibilities so that every single student in the program has someone to help find a job. A majority of firms people want to join come here to recruit, and we help prepare them for interviews and more. There is probably more support than students are available to take advantage of while here.

MBAchic: In this economy, everything is new. Why is the MBA still relevant?

DJD: While there’s a lot of new things, a lot of things that have always been true are still true – such things as: businesses need to be profitable in order to continue, in order to have a business be profitable you need a profound understanding of accounting and finance, businesses have to understand their customers’ needs, people want to have effective leadership – there’s a whole bunch of things in business that really haven’t changed. The MBA really grounds people in those fundamentals.

We try to continue to adapt the curriculum to changes that have taken place. We have a new course in digital marketing to help people understand that various opportunities, techniques and strategies that exist. For a number of years we’ve been teaching a course on how to work in virtual teams (working from the US with team members around the world using technology), which is now the new normal. We also teach a number of courses in sustainability because we think that sustainability is now a mainstream business discipline.

I would say that it’s a combination of keeping the fundamentals that we’ve been doing for some time that continue to be important on the one hand, and gradually introducing into the curriculum, new things that have come about. We are trying to keep our finger on the pulse of business, and trying to make sure that we’re always trying to keep (when possible) ahead of the curve.

We think about how to communicate about the school, and our new phrase we use is that the school is representing the heart and science of business. You can see why both are important.

MBAchic: There are various campaigns to increase the percentage of women holding senior leadership positions… How do you think the MBAchic reader work toward this goal and make this a reality? What advice can you offer young women?

DJD: This is not an academic question to me because I have two daughters and they are both in their twenties. This could be what I talk about with them – I think the first thing I can say as a father as well as a business school dean: given what changes have taken place in my lifetime, and the new opportunities for women, women have the opportunity to be on one hand, completely focused on career and at the other extreme, focused on, if you will, “traditional roles”, as a mother, a wife, etc… What I tell my daughters is that, no matter what point on that continuum you pick, people are going to be unhappy with you. Some people are going to think you should be more career-focused, some people will think you should be less career-focused, but if you accept that, it’s actually very liberating. If you’re going to be criticized no matter what you do, you might as well pick the one that makes sense for you. Try and think about what kind of a life you want to have, and then work toward making that happen. Don’t feel that there is any “right answer” because there is none for that dimension, for any woman. Talk to people you respect and who have your best interests at heart, and try to navigate… I think that’s very hard, to try to make sense of that – apparently there is a new movie out that is about exactly this [I Don’t Know How She Does It], Sarah Jessica Parker plays in it… the fact that that dilemma is so well known, I think that shows how challenging it is for women.

I know this is awfully cliché, but being true to yourself as a person is an important first piece. I think anything beyond that is similar to advice I would give any young man: work hard, try to make sure that you are dedicated to what you do (UNC Kenan-Flagler’s value of excellence is important), make sure to balance the work that you do with building up a network of contacts of people who can help you… have authentic relationships with those people (not in that cheesy how-can-you-help-me way), but really build lasting relationships with who you can help and who can help you.

I don’t know, when I was at the age of MBA students, if I really understood that, but from this vantage point, I see everyday that people who are good at building relationships have better lives, frankly. I think they’re more successful, they’re happier, and one of the things you try never to do is to use people as instruments… it’s important to always be thinking about how you can help other people.

One of our alumni, Erskine Bowles, is a successful investment banker, worked in the Clinton White House as Chief of Staff, and was the president of The University of North Carolina. He received a leadership award last year at UNC, and in his acceptance speech he said that his mother told him that she would assess his success by what he was able to do for other people – that kind of mentality is what we like to invocate in our students, and the kind of students we like to accept. Really the advice I give to people is that the more you think about yourself, the less likely you are to be either successful or happy, in the long run.

James W. Dean Jr., became the Dean of The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School on Aug. 1, 2008. Before being appointed Dean, Dean was a professor of organizational behavior and strategy and senior associate dean of academic affairs at UNC Kenan-Flagler (read his full bio here).

For more information on UNC Kenan-Flagler, visit the school’s website, Facebook page, or follow on Twitter (@kenanflagler and @MBAatUNC). Also, connect with Dean Dean on Twitter (@DeanJimDean)!

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  1. I really liked this interview. I didn’t realize when I got finished reading; I felt like there is some more to read. It’s really helpful for me since I’ve been planning for a long time to pursue MBA.


    1. Thanks for reading, Somesh! I hope this post and other posts on the blog are helpful to you as you consider the MBA. Good luck to you!!

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