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19: Alison Davis-Blake on Thriving in a Challenging & Lonely Role.

A peer-to-peer discussion with former President, Dean and Department Chair, and current Executive Leadership Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

Alison Davis-Blake on Thriving in a Challenging & Lonely Role.

In Episode 19 of the Deans Counsel podcast, Dr. Alison Davis-Blake discusses the loneliness and challenges when transitioning from faculty member to serving as dean. Drawing from her own experience, Davis-Blake highlights her path to leadership and offers tips for navigating some of the stark changes facing new deans.

“You don't really have faculty colleagues in the sense that you had before,” said Davis-Blake.

Dr. Davis-Blake describes the initial solitude of the role and shares advice for overcome it while finding your footing as dean. She also offers counsel on traversing the managerial nature of the role, communications and implementing a new strategy and vision. Finally, Davis-Baker imparts listeners with her top strategies for developing extraordinary teams.

Listen to Episode 19 and the personal journey of Dr. Alison Davis-Blake through an insightful conversation. Her honest insights on the challenges and rewards of the position can help deans thrive in this challenging and lonely role.

Learn more about Alison Davis-Blake:

Dr. Alison Davis-Blake Bio:


Show Transcript

Dave 0:13

Welcome to Dean's Council, a podcast aimed at supporting university leaders holding one of the more critical jobs on a university campus. Your panelists Ken Kring, Jim Ellis, and Dave Ikenberry engage in conversation with highly accomplished Dean's and other academic leaders. Regarding the ever complex array of challenges that Dean's face and one of the loneliest and most unique jobs in the academy. Allison Davis-Blake is a true leader in business education. After entering administration. While on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, she became dean of the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota in 2006. In 2011, Allison was appointed Dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, a role she held for five years. In 2018. Allison was named president of Bentley college, it's certainly fair to say she knows a thing or two about being an effective Dean. In this episode, among the many great pieces of advice we hear, we learn about how listens insights into why it is that the deanship can be lonely, the benefits of being a transparent leader, how to grow leadership talent within the organization, and the importance of being both an effective listener and communicator. She also urges us to bring joy wherever possible to our roles as team and offers tips on how to accomplish that.

Ken 1:35

Our guest today is Allison Davis. Blake, we're delighted to have you here. Allison, as many know you and I have a long and positive history together. In fact, I we know that some of the things we're going to talk about today have been on your mind and will be unusually informative for our listening audience. Gee, it's over a dozen years ago that we put together a little research document called the business school dean redefined new leadership requirements from the front lines of the academy, you and Sally Blount were wonderful contributors to that. And we talked a lot about the role of Dean. So with your distinguished career, having been a two time Dean, you know, really cut your teeth as a senior associate dean at universities, versity of Texas, and then the Carlson School of Management, as well as the Ross School, University of Michigan, Dean ships, you've had a lot of experience in the role. And I think that, you know, one topic that has been, I would say, you're not widely discussed, but that we'd love to have you. Zero in on is just the loneliness, of being the dean, sort of what it means to move from, in most cases, a faculty role, which has a certain kind of in depth around the role itself, but collegiality to being in that position where you sometimes have to be and get to be the one and only. So with that I would love to hear your thoughts on why isn't a lonely job.

Alison Davis-Blake 3:27

Well, thanks, Ken, for that generous introduction. And I would say, there are three reasons why it's lonely, but the first you've alluded to this may be your first role, where you don't really have faculty colleagues in the sense that you had before, if you're coming from a department chair, as we know, in most cases, chairs rotate in and out and you're going to go back to the faculty, you come from the faculty. So collegiality sort of stays with you, even if you've been an associate dean or senior associate dean, for faculty, you still have a lot of collegiality in this role. But if you're coming from the outside, especially, or if you're coming from one of those roles is a clear break. You do not have faculty, colleagues, you are the other. You are that administrator that people like to vilify. So I think it's a sea change in your colleagues. And it's really the first job that's wholly managerial. For most people and other roles you often teach you may maintain your program of research. But Dean's are really the ultimate middle manager sort of stuck between the provost and president and the faculty writ large and so you spend a lot of time trying to mediate between those different groups, and the conflicting and sometimes competing needs of the day. Different groups. And I think the third reason is, as you said, Ken, you're the ultimate decider. And you often have to take really difficult decisions that can't be transparent. I'm a big believer in transparency, transparency of budget, transparency of strategy. Sometimes you have to make resource allocation decisions where things are just not transparent, fully, or you have to deal with faculty, staff or student misconduct. So on those moments, you have to be off and make the decision totally alone. So be between losing your colleagues being a full time manager, and having to do things where the rest of it is not transparent. I think it's really lonely. And I know when I was in Texas sociate, and it was a very big job, which was to run the school. That was the job description. The first thing that I thought within the first month is, you know, I was I was not immune from criticizing the dean and going out to lunch with my colleagues and saying, Oh, it's so obvious, why doesn't the Dean see this? And pretty soon, I said, I wish I had been more charitable towards the Dean because this job is a whole lot harder than it looks.

Jim 6:15

So what do you say to a new dean that's never had any managerial experience that's come up through the faculty, that's been a world class researcher, that's been a great department chair and done a nice job as a department chair, even though some people might say, well, that's a managerial job, you're still being a colleague there. You have to make some tough decisions there and telling them they've got to teach at eight o'clock class, or whatever it is they don't like, but how do you tell somebody that's never been a manager? To prepare for this? And you're right, it is a managerial job? How do you tell them to prepare? What can they do? Is there there? Are there any words of wisdom you can give them for that?

Alison Davis-Blake 6:56

I think there are a couple of things, put people around you who can coach and mentor you. And you may have a formal coach at Michigan, Dean's were encouraged to get formal coaches, it may be meet the Deans and the other schools, they can be helpful meet Dean's around the country. So quickly build relationships. I know one of the things that was really valuable to me when I was at Minnesota is I had a really good friend who became the dean at another school at the same time I did, he had come up through the student ranks and I come like the Associate Dean for students, I'd come up largely through the faculty ranks, and that first year was so interesting, because I something would happen with students and I call him and I say, What do I do, I have no idea I need to do ABCD. And he similarly he called me and say, oh, I need to make a counter offer on a big pair. And I need I don't know how to structure it. So it'll work and, and I go, Well, that's my world. So I learned so much from that, I think this might be a little bit of an interesting suggestion. But I know when I was at Michigan, I put together kind of a mini executive program for deans. And I think there is some merit in to sitting in on some of those exec ed courses, or lectures, and you can do it under the guise of I'm the dean, I want to just see what's happening. But in the areas where you're weak. That's very helpful. So I think there's there for more opportunities, but don't do not delay in making alliances and connections wherever you can find them.

Ken 8:45

Allison, you had notable success as a fundraiser? There's always that sort of binary if you haven't done it before, how you didn't learn to do it? How do you learn to do it? What is it really like? Can you talk about sort of that transition, and what kind of insights you can share about sort of the transition from being not a fundraiser to to being effective as a fundraiser?

Alison Davis-Blake 9:12

So the first thing I'll say is that I've served on many, many Dean's search committees in various capacities. And one notable thing that I've seen in those committees is that the people on those committees don't have experience as fundraisers and they tend to present the job or think about the fundraising role as you're kind of a very gregarious person and you go around and you're slapping people on the back and say, Oh, buddy, oh, pow, where's the wallet? And it's nothing like that. And I think it's really important to demystify it. Most people on faculties are introverts and fundraising is a great job for An introvert because fundraising is listening. It's not talking, it's listening, what you really want to do in fundraising is you want to sit across the table or at breakfast or dinner with someone and say, Tell me about your dreams and hopes for philanthropy. What are you trying to accomplish? Once you know that, which is a listening job? Only, then only then can you say, well, let's talk about how we might partner here are a few ideas. So I think that is just a fundamental thing to understand. If you can listen well, and you're creative, you can raise money. I think the other thing that you of course, want is a chief development officer who briefs you fully on people, their whole history, what are their likes, their dislikes, and can give you a little bit of coaching on, don't talk about this, this is really helpful. So you can do it. And you can do it. Like I said, if you listen in your created, there is that big group aspect of fundraising, where you're doing Alumni Relations, and so forth. That is the classroom, I always converted that into an open q&a. And if you're good in the classroom, you'll be good at that. There is the ultimate kind of my nightmare, still the 300 person cocktail party. And I was just lost in that and tell I worked with someone who, where we really developed the strategy, we'd say there are 300 people here, some of them are green, you really need to see them. Some of them are yellow, they'll they'll bend your ear a lot, and some of them are red, they're just there to express a grievance. So we would make a list. And I would say your job is to move me from Green person to green person. Now eventually, I'd know who the people were. But I think using those tactics of understanding what it is, and having your development officer shore you up where you're weak, that was my tactic for the big, the ultimate gathering. There was no need to be afraid and don't let people tell you the job is glad handing and you know, 10 copping it's not.

Jim 12:28

Do you think that the job today, given the entitlements of students and some of the issues that are going on with students, is just that much more difficult than it was? Back when maybe people thought it was glad handing and thought it was a coronation, as opposed to a difficult five year? dessins?

Alison Davis-Blake 12:49

There's no question in my mind, Jim, that the job is harder today. And I think there's several things that make it so first, the social context has changed. And the expectation that universities will be the solution to major social problems is completely new and not one that universities can fulfill. I believe over time, universities and business schools will find their place. So their expectations that just unbeatable. I know that's not a word, but unbeatable, you cannot do this, I think that this generation of students is very, very different in terms of their expectations of what they will receive. And I think there's ample evidence, this generation tends to bring things as demands rather than as points of conversation. And it's really difficult to deal with demands because often the demands are well meaning, but there are things that the people making the demands can't see. And I think the third thing that we just know, is is a crisis of student mental health. And you got to find all the money for that or work with campus leadership to find all the money but you have so many people in crisis. There's a lot written about that. Let me just say that that adds a dimension. So between trying to fulfill for the moment society's expectation dealing with demands instead of conversations and met people in crisis, I think it makes it exponentially harder.

Ken 14:33

There's almost the intersection of the increased loneliness of the role with the increased need for communication and transparency. talk with us about what strategies deal with that sort of complexity of competing agendas and doing the job well,

Alison Davis-Blake 14:53

I think that's something that really needs even more attention than ever And I think this is what I'm about to say has always been true. But now it's doubly triply. More true, I think it's really important to set in motion mechanism, transparency to your different constituents and transparency about critical things. So I think it's really important when you assume the Deans ship and most people who go through some sort of strategic planning exercise, that that exercise be broad and inclusive of all stakeholders inside and outside the school, and that you use that exercise not only to find out what people want, but to bring people along as this plan is developed. So but when you arrive at the plan, you have a fair bit of support. And that is so important, because then you can regularly report against the plan. Remember, when we were all together, and we agreed, we do X, Y, and Z, here's the progress against X, Y, and Z. And that allows you to structure your conversations in a way that has some support from the group because they were there. And we all agreed that this is what can be done. And I like to want to get to a strategic plan and say, here are the mission vision that you may or may not have to fine tune, here are our goals. And here are the initial tactics. So essentially, and you've got as much there is no consensus in academia, but you've got as much agreement as as possible. So when you come back in your first year, and say, let's talk about this, I am a big fan of regular town halls for students, and faculty and staff have going to departmental meetings, and just tell people what you're going to tell them. Tell people, then what you are telling them tell people what you told them. There is no thing no such thing as too much communication. But I think it's easy to get lost in your own head and say, Oh, well, I know all this No, everyone around you does not know all this, you need to make the time. When you're out with alumni. What do you talk about the same things? Here's the plan, here's what we agree to, and you may tailor your message. But I think you need structured communication around things that people will recognize. It's very time consuming. But I think it's the only way, especially in these times.

Jim 17:38

I think it's really a great strategy. I think you're absolutely right. My question tactically speaking, if you back up just a second, at what point in your initial year, do you think you're really ready to put a strategy and vision together? How much time would you give a new dean to go on, quote, unquote, a listening tour, to really learn that before you really can put some in place,

Alison Davis-Blake 18:04

I'd say and this is where I tell people calm down one full year to get to the whole enchilada, which is your mission, your vision, and your strategic goals. But you don't wait until the end of that year to just go Voila, I like to stage it. So first, if we need to clarify our mission and vision and our values. Let's have conversation about that. And let's get to a mini step where we agree on that. So you don't spend a year and do nothing that will be very unhelpful. You. Then when you start on the goals, you linked that to mission, vision and strategy, the goals are then kind of a reveal. And then the tactics at the end, this is a year long job. Do not rush it, don't rush it because you won't engage in enough conversation it might feel like and people will be pounding on you and saying, where's the strategy? And your answer is, you know, we've worked on a mission vision, we have some goals now we're working on tactics wherever you are, you present the annual explain in order to do this, here are the steps we're taking. Because that is the foundation for your dealership that will set the agenda for what you do, at least for say your first term.

Jim 19:28

You know, we talked about transparency and transparency is really and you've emphasized that a number of times. Why is it that there are times when Dean's just playing aren't transparent? What happens there is that fear of giving out information that they have the power over that they don't want to let anybody else have what happens there. How do you explain that one?

Alison Davis-Blake 19:50

Really good question, Jim. And let me answer it by giving an example from my area of research. This is not my specific area, but it's related. There's been a lot of research about pay secrecy, and looking at open pay systems versus closed. And the research is really clear. When pay systems are closed. People exaggerate the differences in pay and get angry about things that aren't happening. But why our pay systems closed? Because the people in charge of pay system say, Oh, if people knew that they were rigged out. And what I tell people when I teach about this is if you will have to keep your pay system closed, you probably have something to hide. So clean it up. And let it be transparent. I think people have really big unjustified fears about transparency. If people only knew they would think ill of me, they would overreact the truth above transparency, even if you have something bad to say, this is an area where we need to improve people value knowing and the other thing that I always talk about when I teach is I see you cannot ask people to join you in a journey they don't understand. So if you need for example, to control costs, step one is to say, here's the whole financial structure. And I've done something more than once that has every CFO, I've had said this will never work. And it's worked, which is to say, here's the whole budget, and we need to really trim certain costs. I want to invite each of you to look at your activities, and my CFO may join, you can ask yourself, Is this necessary? If it is necessary? Are we doing it in the most cost effective way? Does it have to happen now. And I will tell you, it's like a financial miracle. Every time I've tried that, all those expenses that are distributed in your departments and centers, they come in lower why? Because people want to help you, as our VP do a little set in My Fair Lady, I'm willing to help you, I'm waiting to help you, I'm wanting to help you give them a chance to help you. But people, they imagined in their mind things that are not true. And I've been there so I don't want to disparage others because it's I always have that little fear when I start

Ken 22:22

Ellison on sort of a similar note, I'm gonna brag about you a little bit, but it's not false flattery, you have put together extraordinary teams, you brought people in, you've cultivated and developed them, they've gone on to, you know, greater and bigger responsibility. Talk with us some about sort of how you've done that. And this gets back to the transparency piece. Also, what do you do to enlist both the trust but also the responsibility of people who've been on your teams?

Alison Davis-Blake 22:54

So that's a really good question. And thank you for that flattery, which I will say isn't fault. It's one of the things probably that I'm proudest of in my career is the people that I've been able to advance how I build a team is I first start by talking with people around the school saying who would be good at this job? Who would be good at that job? Who would you trust, and that gets it very quickly to a very short list of people. And I don't privilege people who are like me, I really need people who are not like me, I need to be able to tolerate them. But it takes very little for that. And what I really privilege is people who have different views. And there have got to be people on the team strong enough to say you are wrong, you are about to make a major mistake. So how do I recruit and then make those people into a team. So I come to the people and talk with them. And at some point, they say your colleagues really think you would be great at this. And that usually creates an opening. And I'll tell them what I see in them. And often the people that are identified by the colleagues are not the usual suspects. They're unexpected people. And so at first, get the people and bring them in with the idea that truthful idea that they're trustworthy, and their colleagues will value their contribution. And then I work really hard at building the team using sort of the normal tactics you would teach in any group dynamics class. But the other thing that's always on my mind is for every person, I try to find out what their aspirations are, and my aspirations are usually bigger for them. They can reject that but they usually don't. When we're having regular meetings. I will just listen for areas where they have passion, and where they can grow and contribute I will give them opportunities in those areas, I really think carefully about any central opportunity for leadership development, and I never pass it up. So I think it's a process that starts with who will the Community Trust, at least initially. And it starts with valuing people, and explaining their value, building their value, even when they don't see it, but always trying to understand them, and then building a support group around it.

Jim 25:33

It's great advice. And I think that you're building that leadership team and sending them off to their next role. You're empowering them to do the job and do the job. They the way they think they would do it. I think that's just terrific. Continuity of leadership important, in that we don't see it that much anymore. You know, we see many Dean's that are one turn Dean's they take a five year appointment, and they're, I'm done with this, I gotta get out of here. How do you help a dean? Or how do you? What do you tell somebody that look, it's gonna take you five years just to make sure you can talk about your, your strategy and your vision with the alumni. As you start raising money, you can't really get too successful to get in Nevada, third or fourth year, and then all of a sudden, you're done. And that's really doesn't help the school doesn't have, you don't have a lot of what do you do to sort of assure some continuity. If this Dean's good, we want him to stay in the job. And especially now, as we've talked previously, it's a tough job today.

Alison Davis-Blake 26:30

Well, let me first confess, I'm probably not the right person, because I was recruited away from my dean ship twice, but it let's see, the person wants to stay. And I know my situation is kind of complex. So I don't think it's good for me to, to analogize, from where I sit, but I understand the question you're asking, and it is burnout, here's my take on the job, it takes you exactly what you said, Jim, three years to get rolling. And my problem was always then I became a little bored. And I think this is not unusual for high performance academics. So I would counsel people that you need to think about renewal, when you get into that situation where the machine is running. If you've done everything, right, the machine is running, and it can feel a little routine. So you need to think about an extension to your strategic plan, or an area of of contribution, that really mean something to you. Because one of the things that I tell people is this job can be joyless or joyful. If you just take the job as given to you, you will be very unhappy in a very short period of time. But what you need to do, and I think this is you need to do it initially. And you need to do it as you think about renewal. What do you really have passion for that you want to accomplish, that's within your plan that will just doing it will make you happy. So for example, I have a big because of personal experience big belief. And students should have an international or intercultural experience. And when I was a Carlson, we got that done. And just the ability to weed through the bureaucracy quickly was not only satisfying, but then I always spent time every year at a reception for the travelers and talked with students, and it was so renewing, just to hear what they learned. And that is something that you have to make your own joy. If you just do the job as written in the position description. It will be joyless. And so think about how can you be new, because usually you have some you were brought in for some issues, you've probably solved them. Now you're gonna go to the next level, which is you've got the ship running, you've got the ship, ship humming, people are calling you constantly if you're decent, and I would be hypocrite if I said don't listen to the siren song because I have. But I would say before you do that, have you built in joy in the doing and part of my joy came from developing people. Part of it came from specific things that I did in the job. And I think, at Michigan, and this is not usual, but Dean's could take sabbaticals. And I think it was a very effective tool like for a semester, but you can design a summer sabbatical for yourself. You can say, I'm putting my associate Dean's in charge or you know whenever your downtime is. Your personal renewal is very important because otherwise, first you'll be miserable. And second, when Ken green calls you, you'll say oh Oh, speak to me, and he's really good at speaking to you.

Ken 30:04

Well, thank you for that. Allison, importantly, thank you for participating here today, your, your insights, your the experience you've shared, and you've just very generous, informative, and I know our audience will, will enjoy great being with you here today.

Jim 30:25

I second that you are a pro at this job, you've, Your reputation precedes you in so many ways, and we really appreciate you taking the pledge

Alison Davis-Blake 30:32

for inviting me, I hope to the listeners that this is helpful, you can not only survive, but thrive in the danger. And that's my final message thrive.

Ken 30:55

So, Jim, what were your thoughts on the conversation?

Jim 30:59

Well, you know, she brought up some very salient points that no one who has hasn't had great experience like she's had could make those kinds of points. And I think that they, you know, particularly when she got into specifics about building, envision long that take long you should allocate to that. So many people want to get this thing done very, very quickly. And she said, You know, it's really a building building block thing, and it takes a year to get it done. I think there's a lot of people that would press and say, We need to have a vision right away, we need to have a strategy right away. She gets it she knows it's it's a long term process. And I think that advice for any Dean to just take the time to listen to your constituents and hear what's out there, see what your core competence is. And then go from there. And talk about making a joyful, oh, my gosh, I mean, she presented that with just great joy, which I really enjoyed.

Ken 31:55

Yeah, I mean, fascinating, because she certainly knows how to do the job and has done it before. You know, the other thing that I thought during the course of our conversation as well, Neil, there was a little bit of a theme of the loneliness at the top. She really is a practitioner of how to how to engage others how to develop others how to how to sort of build communication patterns, across different constituencies that are both consistent, but also differentiated, very savvy and very engaging, I guess,

Jim 32:30

very much. So you can really see are building, building a leadership team and helping people grow in a job where they didn't see themselves even being, you know, six months earlier. And she's just got that sense of how to build a team, and how important the team is to her to show her up. And I loved her, her whole conversation on transparency. I thought that was just excellent, be confident and transparent. And I think a lot of people just don't have the confidence to be as transparent as they could be.

Ken 33:01

It also in a way she also gave invitation to her team and others to be transparent with her. So being a good being a good and accepting listener, and asking for criticism actually allows for mutual transparency rather than one way friends.

Dave 33:22

Thank you for listening to this episode of Dean's Council. This show is supported in part by Korn Ferry leaders in executive search. Dean's Council was produced in Boulder, Colorado by Joel Davis of analog digital arts. For a catalogue of previous shows, please visit our website at Dean's If you have any feedback for us, please let us know by sending an email to feedback at Dean's And finally, please hit follow or subscribe on your favorite podcast player so you can automatically receive our latest show


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