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20: Joe White on The Humanness of Being Dean.

A peer-to-peer discussion with the Dean Emeritus at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, President Emeritus at the University of Illinois system and Officer at Cummins Engine Corporation.

On Episode 20 renowned dean, leadership expert, and author Dr. Joe White joins hosts David Ikenberry and Ken Kring for a stimulating discussion on the humanness of being dean with this academic icon. Current and aspiring deans won’t want to miss this episode as Dr. White details the challenging discussions and human-centered conversations deans face when leading complex organizations.

A powerful storyteller, White shares his insights through a colorful, no punches pulled conversation derived from years as dean at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, university president at the University of Illinois and as an officer at Cummins Engine Corporation.

“Usually, your harshest critics are your best friends,” said White.

Listen here or subscribe to our podcast on your favorite podcast app so you never miss an episode.

Photo courtesy Michigan Ross

Dr. White 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.

When you boil it down being a dean is perhaps one of the most ultimate challenges in leading a human organization and driving change. Our guest today Joe White brings a treasure chest full of leadership advice to our podcast, where he will share his personal experiences on what he calls the privilege of leadership. Joe has had a circuitous academic leadership journey. After earning his PhD at Michigan now known as the Ross School of Business. Joe joined the business school's faculty in 1975 as an assistant professor. Six years later, though he gave up tenure to join industry to become an executive at the manufacturing firm Cummins located in downstate Indiana. In 1987, he returned to the Michigan faculty and was appointed Dean four years later, a role he served in from 1990 to 2001. During this time, Joe overhauled the school's MBA and Executive Education operations. He also oversaw explosive growth in the school's philanthropic output. Without any doubt, Joe White fundamentally understands academic innovation. So many of the topics which are table stakes today in our business schools, such as advancing the role of women in business, elevating community service, and action learning, were all projects Joe worked on nearly 30 years ago. Over time, Joe would go on to become interim president at Michigan and serve for five years as president of the University of Illinois. In this session, Joe shares with us a rich list of helpful leadership tips and admonitions, several of which I mentioned in his book, The Nature of leadership, reptiles, mammals and the challenge of becoming a great leader. We hope you enjoy this episode. Joe White, it's a pleasure to have you join us on our podcast today. You and I have known each other for years and years and years. And as I was coming to school this morning, I was reminded of our common mentor in Gil Whittaker, who preceded you at at Michigan and of course, who I worked for for years. And that brought flooded memories to me I've just the importance of mentors in our in our life and how we can grow as leaders. And the topic I'd like you to dig into a little bit Joe is how do we how do we think about the humanity and the human elements of being in a dean? And what can we share? What can you share about your experiences and effectively leading people in both large and small in private and public environments?

Joe White 3:14

Well, it's a big topic. It's a really important topic, David, for every dean, and the simple way I would put it as this. I was on the board once of a company. And the CEO said to me, every day, I remind myself that we are both a business and a human community. And I'm the leader of both. And I think Diems need to embrace their reality, that they are the head of an academic organization, but they are also the leader of a human community. I think that faculties are really unique among human communities and work organizations because, you know, the turnover is relatively low, particularly among the tenured faculty. So a faculty after a while really becomes almost like a family. And the the dean is the head of that family. If I can only say one thing about it, David, about leading that human community. It is the importance of a dean being in the moment with regard to what's happening in that human community. I remember when we had a young faculty member died suddenly and it was a huge shock. And within a day, I organised a get together for the entire community in our auditorium where we just shared memories of him. I remember getting to work one morning when I learned that three of our students were in an apartment building where there was a fire or the night before. So I quickly got in touch with them learn, they have lost everything. And we immediately raise money from the community to help them out. You know, every day, there's something going on, on the human side of the organization, and the dean really, really needs to be in touch with those things, be responsive to them leave the community's response to them. So, again, Dean's are leaders of the academic organization of there's budgeting, there's performance reviews, there's tenure reviews, there's hiring, there's strategic planning, but through it all, there's this leadership of the King human community, that is such an important part of the job. And it's really a privilege to be in that role.

Ken 5:55

So talk with us some On a related note about change and leading change because humanity and change can be paradoxical because people are threatened by by change, particularly in a well established institutions, you've done a lot of innovation, every place you've been has been a transformation that you've been credited with, talk some about techniques you've used to make change during these initiatives

Joe White 6:26

in the writing, and speaking, I've done about leadership, I've always said I keep it very simple. I think there's some foundation requirements in terms of integrity and energy and desire to lead and so on. Then there's the hard side, the analytical side, the business side, and then there's the soft side, the human side. But ultimately, the job of every leader is to lead change, that may be changed, that is disrupting others to gain competitive advantage, or it may be adaptive change because of what's going on with your competitors and in the environment. But everything else in leadership is just table stakes, basic requirements, hard side soft side, you have to have that to have the opportunity to lead change. And I don't need to tell anybody listening to this, that you have to innovate. You have to innovate in your programs and in program delivery. And in so many areas in which the school or college operates. So yes, I have done a lot of change at the Ross School. And then at the University of Illinois. It's probably because I gave up tenure left the University of Michigan went to Cummins, the diesel engine, and Power Systems Company for seven years and then came back before I became Dean, and spell an industry in those days, prices were coming down 20 to 30%, because of international competition, Japanese in the 80s. Were setting new quality standards. And so I just saw him in a company that survival depended on innovation. When I got back to the University of Michigan and set high aspirations for how we would perform, the thing that occurred to me is that was never going to be as rich as my riches competitors, like Harvard and Wharton and Stanford and even Kellogg, but I did feel I could out innovate them. Because, again, interestingly, wealth tends to squelch innovation. Wealth creates a buffer, so that you're you don't have to innovate. I did my MBA at the Harvard Business School, 20 years after we created the MAP program, multidisciplinary action projects, and got students out into organizations so that they could get great professional development, not just a great education. I went to a reunion at Harvard 20 years after we developed the map and implemented the MAP program. And the Dean was proud to announce that once again, Harvard was leading the world by getting students into organizations with practical experience, so they wouldn't just be smart and well educated, they'd be effective. You know, I didn't have that luxury. When you have an endowment their size, you can take 20 years to innovate. Now on to your question about the human side of innovation. I think the most important thing, this might be a surprising answer to you. The most important thing is to have a handful of leaders with whom you're working, who really really really know the human side of the school. Well, I was incredibly lucky at Michigan to have Paul banjos who went on to be dean of the Tuck School as senior associate dean. I got a lot of credit for implementing the MAP program because it really was innovative. And initially, a lot of the faculty were really very negative about it. And a lot of students were not very excited. They're like, Hey, I came back to school. I like school, I know how to do school. I don't want to do real work anymore. I want to do schoolwork. Paul banjos had the patience, and the insight about every member of our faculty and every leader on the staff side, to really craft an implementation strategy that got us there. Here's one other insight that Paul and I came up with together. It's the word pilot. You guys know all Deans know that in fundraising, the most important word is consider. Because if he, if he asked somebody, you know, when you do a $10 million gift, they're probably saying no. But if you say, would you consider a $10 million gift? You know, most people say, well, actually, privately, you know, there's sort of, you know, they feel good about the fact you think they might do it. The equally important word on the human side of innovation is pilot. We piloted so much stuff where we never had any intention of undoing it. But generally, people won't go to the barricades to oppose pilots. Because you know, reasonable people say, Well, look, we'll try it, we'll try it on a small scale, we'll see how it goes, we'll find to make adjustments. If we really lay an egg, we'll just abandon it. So actually, on the road map, were a ton of pilots. And Paul was really good at that. Here's another point about the human side of innovation in our business schools. Not everybody has to come along. I always have felt that there are a variety of kinds of faculty members. And it's really important for deans to understand what's the comparative advantage of each faculty member? Where can he or she most contribute? You know, I wasn't going to waste a huge amount of time, getting a true research star, who did a great job teaching doctoral seminars and maybe in advance them MBA program, I wasn't going to spend a ton of time or political capital, trying to convince that faculty member to teach a section of map, he or she probably wouldn't be very good at it anyway. On the other hand, is you guys know and let's be blunt. Most faculty are not research stars. Such people are really relatively few. Most people do journey men, Journey woman research, which advances their careers make small incremental contributions to their fields, but they really need to be good. Utility infielders, they need to be good at research at tea chain at service. Those are the people who need to come along with map. And maybe the, in that regard, the final thing I'll say is that when I came back from Commons to be a dean at Michigan, I was startled to see how many cases of what I now recognize as Arrested Development there were on the faculty.

I really want to be very blunt with this my job my first job at Cummins was as vice president management development. And I saw the intensive efforts that an industrial organization put into developing ie making more effective supervisors, managers, directors, executive directors, officers. And when I came back to the business school in Michigan, I looked at faculty through new eyes. And what I saw was that because of the narrowness of their development experience, many faculty members, they if you were honest about it, they they did not become as good as they could be professionally. Because not enough challenges were thrown their way. There weren't enough new circumstances that they had to learn how to navigate, like you do in industry. And I was very honest with faculty members about this. I said to them, Look, you're gonna Professional School. You're not in the liberal arts or sciences, you're not in, you know, one of the underlying disciplines. In a professional school, we sit right at the crossroads, the incredibly crazy intersection between disciplinary work, and the world of practice. And we are not preparing most students to do what we do. We're preparing them to be effective in the world of practice. And I said, I can guarantee you that after a few years of overseeing map projects with students in them, you are going to be a better professional school faculty member, you will have new insights about research questions, you will have actual live examples from your own experience to bring alive your classroom lectures and discussions. Because this is going to be a professional development experience for you on the practice side of this professional school. And I will tell you, I saw it happen at Michigan. I have faculty friends there, who I knew then and I know now and I saw the growth of them, they were no longer cases of Arrested Development, or they never became cases of Arrested Development, because it was a broadening and deepening experience. So I think you have to help people understand what's in it for them. And what was in it with map this big innovation, what was in it for them was becoming a more effective professional school faculty member.

Dave 16:41

Great, great story. Joe. I just just comment, Joe, I want to circle back to this word pilot. I've heard you give that advice on several occasions, and I used it extensively in my readership roles. And I think I think you're right, it's hard to say there's no way on in hell, we're going to do this pilot, nobody goes that path. And so you get earlier by and but the other neat thing about using that word pilot, is it addresses the issue of what about failure? And it empowers people to say, in my response was, this is a pilot for heaven's sakes, if it doesn't work, we're going to shut it down. Because we are as you know, Joe, our faculty have a remarkable feel of fear of failure.

Joe White 17:29

You know, we're all we're all we're all these students. Yeah. And,

Dave 17:32

and, and we are skeptics to the hilt. I can remember one time I was developing a major program here. It's turned out to be huge. And I had a faculty member of easily 25 years of experience come up and just remap read me out, oh, my gosh, you know, this is going to be a flop and I said, Well, if it is for just shut the damn thing down, and we're going to move on to the next thing. And, and that really enabled a lot of people to say, okay, we can take risks.

Joe White 18:03

One other point, David, a really good thing about pilot is that it's authentic. It's not bullshit. It really is, you know, you really mean it. Because if you're doing true innovation, you don't know how it's gonna go. And so you actually do need to start small scale, and you really do need it. So it's not like you're flim flamming people, you're telling them the truth, we're going to try this thing out.

Dave 18:30

In your book, you really bring up the the the importance that Dean's really must have, and also develop around emotional awareness. That by being emotionally aware, it really enables them to meet people where they're at. And it was wondering if you could unpack that a little bit for us and help us all grow.

Joe White 18:53

I think of all the things that Dean's do, the role that they're most unprepared for is having really difficult and really uncomfortable conversations with people. You think as a faculty member, you're having an uncomfortable conversation when a student's not happy with a grade. Believe me, that is the minor leagues when it comes to uncomfortable conversations. You have to tell people that they're being turned down for tenure. You have to explain to people why they got zero increase. You have to explain to people why a project that they're passionate about is not going to be funded or why the fundings going to end. You have to tell people that they're just not cutting it. Whether it's in the classroom or research, or you have to tell them that in terms of their citizenship role, they're being a jerk and that's not okay. Is Not on. I remember one time, I was in my office and I heard a faculty member just reaming out a member of the office staff, because the faculty member that morning hadn't been able to find a parking place, and therefore it was late for class. And I remember walking out and just hearing the person in my office and closing the door and saying the following. Number one, you are never to speak in an abusive way to anybody in this community, and especially to staff members. Number two, when I got here at 730, this morning, there were a ton of parking spaces. So you know, go on a parking space, get here earlier. And number three, if you're going to be a high maintenance colleague, you better be on the path to winning a Nobel Prize. Because otherwise, you're not worth it. Okay. That's what I you know, that's a minor example of a difficult conversation. And the main thing I would say about difficult conversations is this. You cannot be afraid of them. You have to fully engage them. And you have to rehearse them whenever possible. Let me as comment, a lot of us are conflict averse. One of the great benefits I got to leaving Michigan and going to Cummins was the three months after I was hired, my boss took me into his office and he said, I noticed in meetings, you're really uncomfortable with conflict, you're always trying to smooth things over. And you have to understand the workplace. In large part when it comes to management, and leadership is about conflict. Sometimes you have to create the conflict, you always have to navigate the conflict. He said, You're either gonna get better at this, or this isn't gonna work out. It was honestly wonderful feedback. And the result was, I went from being really uncomfortable with conflict to being totally comfortable with conflict in usually feeling like when I was in it was a reminder, oh, yeah, this isn't a social club. This is a work organization in conflict is just, you know, it goes with territory. So you have to expect it, you have to embrace it and realize it's an important part of the role. The second thing is you really have to, you really have to engage the conflict. The first time I ever fired somebody was a commons brought the person into my office. I delivered the news in a good professional manner I'd prepared carefully. My poor wife has been fired so many times in our marriage, because I always rehearse with her the day before night before. Anyway, this person began to cry. And I made one of the worst mistakes in my career. And I mean it, I made a lot of mistakes, and I put this way up high. I was so uncomfortable with the tears that I walked out and left the person in my conference room crying. Many, many many times after that. Both the comments and in Michigan and Illinois. The person to whom I delivered bad news cried, I never left the room again. I stayed right there with that person. Sometimes Cya in silence for 10 minutes. No problem. Just go over and get the box of Kleenex and offer it. But you hang in there. Okay. You can't let you cannot be guided by your own discomfort. You have to remember your job as a leader in those situations. And then the final point I've already touched on which is you don't always have the opportunity to rehearse difficult conversations but you often do. And I am serious when I tell you I have never had a difficult conversation I knew I was going to have without having my wife Mary first rehearsed got comfortable with what I was gonna say got heard feedback, because the first time shouldn't be the real time. Should not a quick story about that. And why rehearsing so important. This is a true story, a unbelievable but true story. When I was in Commons, we had there was a huge downturn in business companies survival was at stake. We had to reduce our workforce by 1000s of people And so you know, a lot of people were having a lot of hard conversations. I had an HR, where it came back to me one day that a manager called an employee into his office to let him know that he was going to be separated the employee who was going to be let go separated, fired. By the time the employee left, he thought that he had received a positive performance review, and didn't know that he was being separated in you will say, How could that happen? Which is what I said. So we dug into it. And the reason that happened was because a manager was so uncomfortable in having a difficult conversation, though, well, then it went like this. Hey, Joe, thanks for coming in. You've been with us so many years, you've really done such a great job for us. You know, we're really grateful to you for for all you've contributed to comments over the years. Really, really grateful. Thanks so much. And you know, we are going through hard times, and you know, there's going to be changed and just didn't gonna work out. So, Joe, thanks a lot. That's what can happen when you have not rehearsed your difficult conversation. So those are my points.

Ken 26:25

Joe, we promised you at the beginning of this conversation that we were going to have, we could choose many different topics, a new topic, and one that you really bring some expertise is boards that Excel and, you know, your counterparts, the deans who are listening, they all have advisory boards, advisory boards are typically non fiduciary, you know, we know that you were able to do incredible things with resources at Michigan, your endowment, I think is we look was 10 times bigger over the course of your tenure, I would imagine that has something to do with the advisory boards, but talk with us some about the development of advisory boards and the deployment of them.

Joe White 27:10

If I can only say one thing about advisory boards, it is that often your most difficult advisory board members. Or usually your harshest critics are your best friends. We all love to get out of boys. We really love it. And generally, because the advisory board members aren't doing it out of love of the institution, and because they have competence in you, the advisory board experience is usually pretty positive, because it's one of those places. Let's just say you get more attaboys from your advisory boards than you do from the faculty. Okay, I'll leave it at that. So we look forward to it. But when I look back, on my advisory boards, I can identify the people who were really honestly a thorn in my side, not always in an unpleasant way. But just like they were restlessly dissatisfied. And I'll give you an example, Tom Siebel, the founder of Siebel systems, the biggest donor in the modern era to the University of Illinois, I believe, time is a really brilliant guy, a really brilliant entrepreneur. And I raised $100 million from Tom Siebel in a phone call. We had we were launching a campaign and our schedules didn't match. So in a phone call, I asked him if in the launch event, if he and his wife, Stacy would commit to $100 million gift because I knew we needed to raise everybody's sights and aspirations and all that time. Agreed. So yes, Tom was a really great supporter. But I gotta tell you, he was never satisfied. He was always restless. He was always in the network with senior people at Stanford and Princeton, and here and there and everywhere. And oh, in the, you know, big time medical centers. in those in those are his comparison points and his standards. And he usually found us wanting and he was usually right. So, I guess the implication of what I'm saying is, in addition to appointing the warm, supportive board members I know raise your own aspirations to some super high achievers who are, you know, who are kind of relentless, put them on the board. And understand what you're gonna get is constant prodding, and very few attaboys. And it's fine. We all need it, we all benefit from it. You know, there's a lot of things say about advisory boards, that would be my most important piece of advice, your toughest members or your biggest friends, ultimately, even when it doesn't always feel like it.

Dave 30:38

Joe, we could we could go on for much longer. But I want to ask one closing question of you that I've I've actually heard you share your views on this. But I was wondering if you could succinctly speak to our listeners about the views you have on leadership, specifically distinguishing the notion of management from the notion of leadership? What's Joe's view of what that means?

Joe White 31:06

Yeah, I mean, management is it to me management is very, it's not easy, but it's very simple management is making sure the trains run on time, and that they run safely. And there's a lot to it. But that's what management about leadership is about. aspirations, setting goals, visions, inspire, inspiring, motivating, recruiting great people. You know, I was often asked, particularly when things were going well, in Michigan, I was often asked, so what can you tell us about leadership and I'd always say, look, and this is i This is a good thing to end on, because I really envy the deans who are listening because being dean at Michigan was the best job I ever have. Had. I did it for 10 years. I loved it. We accomplished a lot. I felt close to the to the reasons I went into academic life, which was education and students, research and so on. So anyway, I can if I could just say one thing about leading effectively, it just comes down to three points. Number one, set, high aspirations, really high aspirations, as they say stretch, but possibly achievable with tremendous effort and some good luck. Number two, recruit great people to important roles. Never Settle when it comes to the quality of people in key roles. And number three, bring every single day to the workplace, your personal energy workplaces run on the energy of leaders because it's infectious. One of the one of my favorite movies, which you guys have probably seen, but it's pretty old now. But it was, it was about Bob Fosse. He's a great choreographer called all that jazz. And, you know, Bob Fosse, he was a brilliant choreographer, but he also lived kind of a debauch, you know, artsy New York Life. And so, he was up till three and for a lot of mornings, but then he was up at seven, and every hit multiple times. So who would show up possibly looking in the mirror at seven in the morning, of course, smoking like hell after being up till 3am. But every time he will go out and he just say, Show time. Every day is show time per diem. You got to bring that energy just like bossy.

Dave 33:50

What a great, great note to end on. Thank you for sharing these pearls of wisdom. Wonderful conversation. Thank you.

Joe White 33:57

Thank you guys really, really privileged talk with you and my best all the beans

Dave 34:11

can whatever remarkable conversation we just had what were some of your key takeaways with with what Joe's message was?

Ken 34:19

Oh, it was just really a great conversation. I'm, I'm taking notes. It's one that we all will remember. You know, it's interesting, he closed with the dean job was the best job he ever had, which I thought was very inspiring and and the fact that he then was able to go in very specifically to what about it was so great, you know, the the idea of being close to students close to research sort of close to that action. But then also the advice that you said high aspirations you recruit great people in key roles and that you bring your personal that Standard GE every day was wonderful advice. I mean, it was a distillation of, of a career.

Dave 35:05

It sure was, I have the privilege of knowing Joe for over 20 years. And so on and off again, I get to hear little nuggets. And I do encourage our listeners to get Joe's book on the nature of leadership, it's a quick airplane read. But in that book, he really brings out this notion of trying to meet people where they're at, whether it's a tough skin or a soft skin and deal with motivating folks. This notion of I wanted to get in, and I'm glad we could squeeze it in at the end this notion about managing organizations versus leading organizations, I think we as leaders really need to understand where we are in that continuum. Some of us actually are more gifted at managing. And while others of us were so when I think about management, managing organizations, I think tons and tons of details, sequences and deadlines, and all those steps. And that is that is without a doubt truly a gift. But leading an organization is not so much laying the track. But figuring out where the where to take the track where to where to direct things. That's a different skill set. And I think those of us who are in these roles, we ought to think clearly about where our strength is the ideal leader of the ideal Dean, of course, would have a 5050 balance there, but many of us don't. And I think if I was asked Joe, one more question, it would have been, you know, how do we how do we diagnose where our deficiencies are, and then tools or techniques to cover those, those patches. So for me, I knew, just speaking, I'm not a detail guy, I've done it, I, I don't excel at it, I hire that part, I find people that can do those details. Because your organization, you know, if you can't make the gears, grind appropriately, your organization slows down and eventually stopped. So all of these issues are quite helpful. And, again, Joe is what what pearls of wisdom we were able to get at today.

Ken 37:17

Yeah, I mean, he didn't use the term self awareness or authenticity. But those were both sort of the top of my mind is the talk because that makes one very effective. It can also tell a pretty good story.

Dave 37:33

Yeah, but you know, bringing your A game every single day and it as best you can, in every single conversation. You know, you've been in the room for eight hours. This is the 20th conversation you've had. For the person on the other side, this is probably the most important conversation. They're gonna have that day in for you. It's just one more conversation. You need to bring your A game to that conversation. Great, great, great advice. 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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