Fast Talk: Turning the (conference) tables

Five top business-school deans grapple with questions from their own MBA application forms.


Stanford B-School Dean Beats Harvard. But Dartmouth’s Dean Gets A Rejection Notice.

In an interactive feature tied-in with this article, we invited readers to come to the website and vote whether these deans’ answers to their own business school’s application question made the grade.

The polls are now closed, and the most popular dean, according to Fast Company readers, is Stanford’s Robert L. Joss. The dean’s answer to Stanford’s question “What matters most to you, and why?” led to a 57 percent acceptance rate.

Harvard’s Kim Clark wasn’t far behind with 55 percent, while Wharton’s Patrick Harker garnered a respectable 50 percent and Kellogg’s Dipak Jain managed a 40 percent acceptance rate.

Paul Danos, Dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth didn’t fare as well, with 44 percent actually voting to give the dean a rejection notice!

Danos’ answer to Tuck’s question, “What is the most important thing you have recently learned?” just didn’t make the grade with our readers.

Click here to see the results.

Patrick Harker

The Wharton School
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Q: Describe a situation where leadership and teamwork were critical to the outcome of a project in which you were directly involved.


A: We just completed the largest business-school fund-raiser ever. In six years, we raised more than $425 million. The campaign was the effort of an incredible team, but one that had to be directed. I took charge of it three years ago when I became dean. My challenge was to create an environment where everybody felt included. With this kind of campaign, the tendency is to reach out to senior people. I made it a priority to energize the next generation of alumni leadership.

When you seek out junior voices, two things surprise you: how much those young alumni have to say and how important it is. At the same time, so many of them — people who have achieved extraordinary success — feel as though they’re not being taken seriously.

I’ve learned that lesson multiple times during my career, and it’s about listening to what I call “the voice of David.” It’s actually a tradition in Benedictine monasteries. When a decision has to be made, the abbot asks each monk’s opinion, starting with the youngest. The order is intentional. In the Bible, nobody listens to David. There were plenty of gizmos with which to fight Goliath, and David was dismissed as a punk kid with a slingshot. In the end, the kid was right. When I’ve made a good decision, it’s usually because I’ve listened to the voice of David. And when I’ve made a poor decision, I haven’t taken the time to listen.

In a position of leadership, everything that comes to your desk has been filtered. You have to make a conscious effort to go out and talk with people, and then listen and actively engage them. I spend more than half of my time outside the office. I might hang out in the MBA café or go to the Thursday pub night. Even little things matter. Does somebody always deliver your coffee to the office or do you get your own? One day, I was in line to buy a cup of coffee, and Mike Useem, a professor here, said to me, “You’re in line? Good for you. That’s the right leadership model.”

Paul Danos

Tuck School of Business
Hanover, New Hampshire

Q: What is the most important thing you have recently learned?


A: Progress cannot happen without a good narrative. When I became dean, I learned how powerful the well-communicated idea can be as a tool to inform new directions and inspire new energy.

Eight years ago, we faced an organizational growth imperative. On the basis of bringing in world-class scholars who were also good teachers, we grew the faculty by more than one-third over a five-year period. We also grew the student body by one-third, from 180 students to 240.

Of course, people were afraid of such changes. Tuck is a place steeped in history, spirit, and small-scale community; naturally, they didn’t want to lose those things. They needed convincing. And at first, I didn’t realize that it was my job to be the articulator. But I quickly learned. My strategy statement has been at the heart of all of those changes, and I rewrite it every year. The basic notion stays the same: Tuck can be both highly competitive and highly distinctive. But I articulate that message in different ways.

Leadership is an unbelievably hard communications job. You must have a firm grasp of your competitive environment, encapsulate the spirit of an organization, package it in strategic statements, and then emphasize those statements repeatedly, so that the message becomes part of the conversation.

Dipak Jain

Kellogg School of Management
Evanston, Illinois

Q: Describe your most challenging professional relationship.


A: How do you lead people who were once your peers and will become your peers again? Two years ago, prior to becoming dean, I was basically just like all of the other faculty members. And one day, when I’m done with this job, I will go back to being one of them.

In my two years as dean, I’ve found that the way to manage your peers — past and future — is through a culture of inclusiveness. In a nonhierarchical organization, it’s critical to have a structure where people who are going to be affected by a decision are part of the decision-making process.

When I came on board, I needed to focus on our academic curriculum. My first move was to open up the process. Previously, there was only one associate dean position, and the job dealt with two segments: teaching and research. I decided to create two separate associate positions to focus specifically on each segment. To fill them, I chose two professors whom the rest of the faculty could go to regularly. Then I went to the new dean in charge of teaching and asked that person to put together a task force on the curriculum. It included faculty from all departments and one student.

The truth is, a dean has virtually no power. The faculty and my senior staff have the power. I need to earn their respect to move forward. Managing faculty members has been likened to herding cats, but that’s not entirely true. Most people are behind you to help. The question is, Do you have a culture that will let them help you?

Robert L. Joss

Stanford Graduate School of Business
Stanford, California

Q: What matters most to you, and why?


A: I have one word for you: leadership. By leadership, I mean taking complete responsibility for an organization’s well-being and growth and changing it for the better. Real leadership is not about prestige, power, or status. It’s about responsibility.

Over my lifetime and in my four years as dean, I’ve become more aware of and impressed by how much of leadership is about emotional intelligence. The more you lead, the more you understand just how much of it is about motivation — and motivation is about emotions. Most universities operate in the world of the intellect: The person with the best idea is the brightest. But to lead, being smart isn’t sufficient. You have to connect with people, so that they want to help you move the organization forward.

I learned that lesson when I took over a division at Wells Fargo and tried to turn it around. I had the passion to make it better, but the old management balked and quit en masse. I hadn’t realized that they were afraid of change and that it was my role to help them understand my reasons for it.

Traditionally, we didn’t do enough to help prepare our students to take on leadership roles. We helped them confront problems of analysis, finance, strategy, and so forth. But the way you learn leadership is by leading. So today, part of our role is to help make students more aware of what leadership means, to get them excited about it, to inspire them to try leadership jobs, and to really understand themselves. Leadership is a performing art. Intellectually, it’s simple. But behaviorally, it’s complex and difficult work.

Kim Clark

Harvard Business School
Boston, Massachusetts

Q: Recognizing that successful leaders are able to learn from failure, discuss a situation in which you failed and what you learned.


A: When they admit a class at Harvard, they pick from all these unbelievable people. I wasn’t one of them. I was a regular guy who had worked in a migrant labor camp and who got a shot at Harvard because somebody said, “Bet on this kid.” I was accepted mostly because of an influential alum’s recommendation.

I came to Harvard in August 1967 and had a total disaster of a year. I was on financial aid, and I spent my first month cleaning dorms. It was not fun, nor was the rest of the year. I was completely adrift, culturally and socially. I didn’t fail any courses, but my best grade was a B in chemistry. There wasn’t a failure of effort; I worked my tail off, but I just didn’t get it.

I left Harvard, and I didn’t know if I wanted to go back. For two years, I served as a Mormon missionary in Germany. Then I spent a year at Brigham Young University. Both experiences helped rebuild my confidence.

In 1971, I returned to Harvard. This time, I was a lot more focused, and it showed. I graduated magna cum laude with highest honors in economics.

My freshman year taught me a lot about my own limitations. The diagnosis was twofold: I probably was taking the wrong classes — chemistry, for one — and I didn’t have my life together. I also learned that failure is about what you do with it. You may not be able to control the situation, but you can choose how you react.


Today, I apply that insight to my work. How you deal with failure determines part of your success as a leader — not only in your own life, but in the lives of people around you. As dean, I work hard to find ways to help our faculty, staff, and students be successful. Sometimes it doesn’t work. People get into jobs that don’t quite suit them. But people who work hard and who don’t succeed deserve our best effort to help them find a place where they can be successful.