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27: Peter Tufano on Leveraging “Large-Scale” Problems to Bring Brand-Definition to Your MBA Programs.

A peer-to-peer discussion with the Emeritus Dean of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.


Deans Counsel Podcast

Dr. Peter Tufano joins the Deans Counsel Podcast to share his approach and experience building a distinctive MBA program brand. Listen as Dr. Tufano shares how he and the Saïd leadership team strategically positioned the school on its strengths and differentiated it by its areas of competence.


“So what are we going to do that is important, distinctive, and speaks to what Oxford is all about?” Asked Tufano.


Then Dr. Tufano shares how he developed and successfully implemented the inclusion of a “large-scale issues” course designed to tackle society’s most challenging problems into Saïd’s MBA curriculum. 


“If they get through their MBA program without having thought about those issues…you may find a substantial fraction of your students who are less than unhappy.” Said Trufano.


This conversation is a blueprint for deans, as Dr. Tufano discusses garnering faculty buy-in, addressing the additional impact on the curriculum, and finding subject-matter experts and mentors from across campus. Along with the valuable anecdotes and insights gained from years of experience. All with an eye towards student success and satisfaction.


For current & aspiring deans, listen to this episode and more at

Insights for current and future academic leaders. Listen to Episode 27 to find out more.




About Dr. Peter Tufano Peter Tufano is Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School and Senior Advisor to the newly created Harvard Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability. From 2011 to 2021, he served as the Peter Moores Dean at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. From 1989 to 2011, he was a Professor at HBS, where he oversaw the school’s tenure and promotion processes, campus planning, and university relations and was the founding co-chair of the Harvard i-lab. His research and course development has spanned financial innovation, financial engineering, and household finance. His current work focuses on business solutions to climate change.


Photo courtesy of the Salata Inst and Saïd Business School




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 can Kring gemellus 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. After spending 22 years on the faculty at Harvard, in 2011, Peter Tufano, was named the Peter Moores dean of the Sayyid business school at the University of Oxford, a position he would hold for the next 10 years. Yet, when Peter first arrived, the Business School is only 15 years old, making it one of the youngest business schools in the world, while paradoxically being housed in one of the oldest and most distinguished universities in the world. As a tool to address what Peter felt was a growing psychographic segment in the MBA applicant pool. And also to provide a very distinctive brand identity to SIDS MBA program. He zeroed in on a very unique case why course can gauging the entire student body to address what he refers to as large scale problem solving. In this episode, we hear a clear rationale for why and how Peter took this path. And the advice he has for other Dean's who might wish to leverage this technique to empower students with unique skills, attract what for some universities will be a key student demographic, and which offers the potential to bring true brand identity to their graduate curriculum. It's a pleasure to have Peter Tufano, currently at Harvard, but Peter had a 10 year stint at Siyad at Oxford, as Dean, they're a relatively young organization as business schools go. But nevertheless, Peter has, of course, a prolific career and sort of experiences both at Harvard and at Oxford. And he's here today to talk with us about tackling large scale problems, systemic problems. And essentially my first question is give our listeners a little bit of definition about what does that mean for you? And what's the process for trying to drive change at that level?

Peter Tufano 2:28

Sure, first of all, they thanks for inviting me to join you today. So if we think about what we teach, in business schools, we teach individuals how to manage themselves, we teach them how to manage teams, we teach them how to manage organizations, we teach them how to compete in markets. And that's all great stuff. Don't get me wrong, but there's another level at which business engages with the world. And then as collectively, we also address some of the biggest problems faced by mankind. In many cases, we address these problems with the products and services that we offer. But there are certain circumstances under which the normal competitive processes break down, for example, in climate, which I'm sure will talk a lot about the absence of really any mechanism to have polluters pay or kind of capture externalities means that the normal competitive processes don't work. And therefore, what is required is an firstly, an acknowledgment of these big issues that the world is facing. And we can talk about some class and some different classes of those issues. And then what kind of actions businesses would take individually, collectively, and sometimes across sectoral boundaries in order to address those issues. Right. So I brought up climate, but there's many other systemic issues that we might think about. And some of these are more or less open to having really important business impact on

Jim 3:58

as you bring this forth to the students and the faculty, as you decide what's the receptivity from students, who in many cases are really looking at getting an MBA so they can get a good job. And they, they're thinking so much more short term than one of these problem solving situations might bring to them. And yet, as they get farther down in their careers, it becomes so significant how they approach these big problems as they become leaders in their organizations. How do they look at it early on? Do they look at it short term? Are they are they really receptive to what you're trying to do? One

Peter Tufano 4:39

of the things that I really enjoyed was being on the GMAC board, and GMAC has done this great psychographic profiling of MBA students. My recollection was there six psychographic segments. So Jim, for sure, there's an ROI segment that really is focused on short term return to their education. There's no question that segment exists. It's a legitimate goal for them. And I'd say for all MBAs, that is an element of what there's what they're searching for. But there are other psychographic segments as well. And two or three of those segments actually are there not only to advance their careers, but also to think about how their careers will fit into how they support their families, their communities in the world, what I found at Oxford, what I find at Harvard, but I won't say as a general proposition, is that there's a very large number of young people coming to MBA programs, for whom addressing these issues is not only a nice to have, but it is critical to the way to think about formulating their careers. That's not to say that all of them want to immediately go in to become Chief Sustainability officers or work for a climate startup or whatever. But somehow, they want to have enough in their toolkit. It was somewhat more complicated and what we did at Oxford in that we made it part of the core. And there you do have a wide range of students who may have more or less interest in topics like climate or demographic change, or data privacy. Generally, my experience was, they might start out wondering, why am I doing this, and Isn't there a better way to spend my time, but by the end of the course, almost uniformly, they acknowledged that it was time well spent, and it was very different than the other things they were studying in program. So you have to be sensitive to the fact that students may have different appetites for thinking about systems change. But I think we, what I was pleasantly surprised was that the appetite was quite large and fairly broad.

Dave 6:43

Either, you brought this through the core, that's a bold move. Obviously, you don't control the curricula the faculty do. So tell us a little bit about that sales job.

Peter Tufano 6:53

If truth be told, I was probably a little bit more directive than I should have been.

Dave 6:58

Okay, okay. All right.

Jim 7:01

I love it.

Peter Tufano 7:02

Even so, let me talk about what the process was. And for sure, some of my colleagues would prefer a different process. So when I first arrived, the question I asked the faculty is, what exactly is the strategy the school? How are we going to be distinctive, right, given that there are so many great programs in the world? And how will that distinctiveness be tied back to this remarkable University, Oxford University, which is more than eight or 900 years old, and a collegiate structure? So what are we going to do that is important, distinctive, and speaks to what Oxford is all about. And it's pretty clear when we did that exercise, that many of the kind of mainstream strategies followed by many business schools are excellent, but they didn't address one or the other of those elements. In particular, what made it so that a business school, a young business school at the time I went 15 years old, in the oldest English speaking university in the world, why we would want to do that, why do you want to out LDS LDS? Why do you want to try to out HBs HBS? Those are hard things to do. So what is distinctive competence? And what was clear was two or three things. One, we had a global population of students at the time. And still today, probably less than 10% of the students in the MBA program are British, to their aspirational. They were coming to Oxford, for sure, because it was a brand that they knew about. But many of them also understood that Oxford was the home of Adam Smith, it was the home of major thinkers, it was the home of the Rhodes Scholars, it's Oxford is not a trade school. Three, there was a history of dealing with these issues in a different format, which is called social enterprise, we can get through the difference between social change and social enterprise. So wouldn't have been peculiar to think about the set of issues. For if you want to think about big systemic issues, you probably need a structure and a set of friends, those far larger structure that will allow you to connect with others, and those others have a skill set that is different than your own. And as part of a collegiate University, we had all that. So it was pretty clear that a strategy would reflect some of these elements. And therefore it wasn't the hardest thing in the world to say. Perhaps we can think about one that included not to the exclusion of other things, but then included the consideration in the system level issues where we could work across the boundaries of university, by doing so send a message to our colleagues in the university that that, yes, we were interested in profit and market values and things that business schools are always known for worrying about. But also we're worried about the kind of the health of the planet on which we live and that societies in which we exist. So Early on this along with a couple of other proposals to change the required curriculum did get through the faculty and a pretty quick process. And I think in terms of the process, one of the things that helped was that it was presented not as something that would reduce the core and shelf space available to other courses, but it was a net add. Now, maybe that was overwhelming to the students, we added another required course. But I think it was manageable. As I said, the content was sufficiently different. And we can talk about what the content was all about, that it didn't seem redundant to the students. And I staff the course had a pretty unique staffing from across the business school and across the university, so that it wasn't a major time sink for any one area. So in an uneasy, but somewhat disciplined way, we got this process through. And then we iterated over the course of the nine years that we offer the course and the 10 years that I was dean to each year and try to improve it.

Jim 11:07

One of the things that I hear from you, which is really fascinating is you're giving them an opportunity to think about a big picture issue and how they might solve that issue. And Saeed was very well known for its entrepreneurship, programming and entrepreneurs. And here you've given a true entrepreneur, something to think about, and say, Okay, I don't need to start a business that's in high tech, like everybody else seems to do, I can differentiate myself by starting a business that might have some impact on climate, or one of these big picture and climate zone we're talking about. But it's so fascinating to just envision how these students really looked at it. And so I would be interested in how you looked at the content of the curriculum, because Canada, students sitting in that classroom, see himself or herself, starting a business that addresses a problem like this, right from a scratch start, or a small business, whatever. And what an opportunity that a lot of us in other schools just never presented to our students, we were trying to get him through survival. And you're taking him to a bigger place, which I think is really fascinating. And how they reacted to that had a lot to do with the content you had in the curriculum.

Peter Tufano 12:20

Yeah. So describe the content, but I just want to maybe correct the question a little bit, it wasn't about how it is that you might found a small business to address these issues, that is a possibility. But it might equally have been, how you would change the way a large business was operating how you might work across business government boundaries. So in some sense, we define the problem, we didn't define the solution set. Got it. And maybe with that, as a as an intro, we just tell you, you know, roughly what the course was all about. Now, as you know, I came from Harvard Business School where I spent a couple of decades. And where, you know, in any 180 minute class, a case study is a self contained introduction to a problem. And the presumption is at the end of reading that case study, the students are prepared, and they're ready to solve the problem. And they believe that they can, in fact, solve the problem in the next 80 minutes of the class. So that's a pretty heroic assumption for a firm or a team. That's a really silly assumption if you're looking at big systemic issue. And so if you want to think about it, we did one case study a year. So what do I mean by case study, we would identify one class of problem, we would bring in experts from around the university to explain to the students what that problem was all about. These could be scientists, that could be political scientists, they could be engineers, they could be doctors, public health experts. But they weren't going to spend hopefully two hours preparing for an 80 minute class, they were going to spend a couple of weeks getting up to speed on an issue where then they would work on that issue. So in the first year, the case as it were, was demography and aging. So if you look at the thesis there, across much of the Northern Hemisphere, what we're seeing is a dramatic aging of populations. And the dependency ratio has gone up. And this is changing fundamentally, every business it's changing real estate, it's changing. Healthcare is changing financial services and pensions is changing consumer products. So in the first year, we brought in an experts in demography to explain exactly what is going on. And some folks to explain what does it mean to age physically at age, we were joking about this before we got on the call and some sense of what the various business reactions and proactive actions are in that space. So what One year the case study was demography and aging the next year it was, you have to understand that we're doing this in 2012 2013. So it's a way before the current day, but it was about big data and data privacy. And then we did energy, we did health, but increasingly, every time we did a topic, it would come back somehow to climate. So obviously, if you energy, it comes back to, to climate, if you do water, it comes back to climate. Even when you did public health, there's climate implications. So what happened year after year is that the students inevitably learn more about climate. And there was some years we did only climate. So first thing, one case study here. And it is, the content of the case study, in some sense, is coming from expertise outside the business school. So again, if you think about how I was able to leverage my colleagues, they didn't have to become experts in demography, or climate change or in energy systems. Because we, I wouldn't say outsourced, I'd say insourced, that material from our colleagues around the university. So I would go to my colleagues in a different department and say, You do remarkable work on x. But your master's programs are pretty small. What if we figured out a way to deliver that content to every MBA and Executive MBA student at Oxford, your content that you know, is important, and we're going to make sure that they all understand that, but we're gonna have to put it in a package and in language to pick on a comprehend, are you up for that? And I never had anybody turn me down. And you might say, you paid them off a lot. But I didn't really I mean, they, there was no massive transfer of money here. Yes, I did acknowledge the work they did. But this, once they understood that they could not only use this to teach all of our our MBAs and executive MBAs, but it allowed them to refine the way they presented this material so that they could more effectively present it to business audiences. Like I said, I never got to know. But that simply lays out the problem, it doesn't at all come up with a set of skills or tools that you need. And so over the years, we developed what that looked like. So first of all, it was systems mapping. So if you want to understand how a system works, there's certain logic to systems, they have feedback loops, positive feedback, loops, negative feedback loops. And that was really helpful to students, because they wanted a quick answer. And often when you're doing systems maps, they're very complicated. And so we would joke, and I got this from one of our school forum speakers, you need to fall in love with the pattern of not falling in love with the solution. So systems mapping, once you do systems mapping, you have to do stakeholder identification, or the various stakeholders along the way, then you have to identify what are your intervention points that might be most effective? Not to solve the whole problem. But where would you get in some way to cut the Gordian knot to have an impact? So some years ago, my students were doing a project on climate. And one sub team, one team, I should say they were broken up into teams of five or six students identified that a material fraction of emissions were coming from a very small number of ocean going vessels, these very large carriers. And so rather than think about all of climate, they focused on okay, if I want to intervene in that part of the space, what would it look like? So how many vessels? Are we talking about? Who owns them? What flags do they fly under what technologies exist to change the way that they power themselves? So it wasn't some grand climate solution, it was a very specific intervention point. So they need to understand that they need to understand influencing strategies, because most of the time, they would have to work across boundaries. And so you don't have a normal kind of organizational structure that you can work through, you're going to have to influence people to take decisions that are probably in their best interest weakly in their best interest, but in somebody else's interest as well. So influencing strategies, we could have also taught the design thinking stuff in other courses. We also taught it here, because I'm a big fan of design thinking in terms of problem solving. So if you think about that set of things, systems mapping into intervention points, influence strategies, design thinking, and then a few other things. This was the substantive elements of the course that did not change from year to year. It was refined from year to year, but it was constant. And then the case study, which is to say the big systemic issue change from year to year. And a reasonable question is who the hell could teach that stuff? Because that is so big that none of our colleagues were trained to teach it. So it became Basically an army of volunteers from not only the business school but around the university. So it used to be tremendously fun for me, because in addition to having my faculty and faculty from other parts of the university teach, there's some very senior folks at Oxford who had never gotten close to an MBA. And I would routinely go to them and say, How would you like to tutor six students who are studying this thing, which is a really high stakes thing to do. And I would explain to the students that you're going to get the head of Christ Church, which is, if you don't understand Oxford is a big deal. And he's actually going to tutor you in this topic, which is to say, work with you and your small group. So please don't screw up because you're going to destroy the reputation in school. And as a result, the students became the best ambassadors around the university for the work that they that we did, because as you all know, when MBA students are doing good work, it's a beautiful thing to see. And so it's one thing for the dean to go around and say, we'd like to do this, this is the direction that we're taking. It's another thing for kind of senior leaders around the university to experience these students and see, they really aren't trying to understand these big problems, they are trying to find intervention points. They're horribly naive about stuff like they're trying to be disciplined in this process. And so it was not only an educational offering, for the school, but it was, especially in the university where your colleagues are exceptionally Excellent. And what they do is to demonstrate that we were trying to do the same thing.

Dave 21:39

Right. Peter, what feedback have you received? You know, this has been an ongoing effort for a decade or so. But what are your alumni saying about how did it grow them and their intellectual development? And also other constituencies such as, say, campus leadership? What are the spillover effects that you've perceived over time?

Peter Tufano 22:00

Yeah, well, I can only speak to the end of my tenure. So what happened in the last two years? I couldn't tell you, right. But students would routinely tell me how this was different from everything else that they did, and, and made a difference. So in the first year, I mentioned that we did demography. And I had a student who wrote me about 18 months after graduating, saying that they had gone back to, I think it was Korea, they had realized that the suicide rate among senior citizens was through the roof, which is not something they ever thought about before they did go to because that first year, we did aging, then founded a small organization, on the ground, work with others to deal with that. And they expressed to me gratitude that I turned, we had turned them on to a set of problems they wouldn't have done. And you know, I can give other anecdotes of that sort of what's harder is to say, oh, because of that, the student body transformed. I mean, I've got a bunch of really, brain anecdotes, but I can't really prove that I suppose the closest that I can, I can to acknowledge that is that the Aspen Institute some years ago, have given us an award for the work that we were doing, and for the leadership that we shown. So I run into my students around the world, and some of them former students, and they seem to be aware of this, and they remember fondly. And so I feel that relative to the other things that they learned, there was a lot of value at it. But it's hard to prove.

Jim 23:34

So just a quick question alive. Just a very basic administrative question. And I know a lot of Dean's who are listening to you will think about this and say, Okay, how do I get my faculty member? And in your case, you were doing it as the dean and you were building this whole thing, but ultimately, you're handed off to a senior faculty member and say, Okay, it's yours, take it and run with it. Did, was there ever any kind of pushback? Like, am I totally in control of this course? Or do I have to team teach this was somebody from the policy school or from somewhere else in terms of an administrative question that always seems to come up as the full responsibility and full authority for the actual course itself? All the way that being paid for it, those thought processes run through faculty members, minds, as we know, did you run into any snags along those lines?

Peter Tufano 24:25

We certainly had to worry about those issues. Yeah. So it was required course. There's a we call that a stint tariff at Oxford, other schools. We use other kinds of metrics to measure how much faculty teach we had to establish to how much teaching credit do you get for doing this? It was clear that I as Dean was the champion of this course. I would meet with the faculty who were running it and explain how I had a strong interest in seeing this succeed. It was still there, baby. I did teach it every year. So I was maybe I should say What teaching means because this kind of does speak to the administrative part. So there was a chunk of it that was taught to all the students our lot size, our entire MBA program was 320 a year. So there was some stuff that we would do in groups of 320, and some that we do in groups of 80. But the large, heavy lift in this course was actually in groups of five or six. Okay. So we needed a large number of tutors. So the people who put together and deliver the, basically the problem statement and the core skills, that was a relatively small number. And then there were a large number of us that that met with students on a weekly basis. And there was a rhythm this week, they're going to identify a couple of different potential intervention points, and they're going to talk about why they might like to choose one the next week, they're going to lock down on one explain why that's the one they want to lock down on the we're gonna go through their systems map. So if your tutor, there was a process that you follow. So did the faculty worry that this was the Dean's pet project? There's no question about? Absolutely not. But by the same token, they knew that they would get my complete support, even if I disagreed with them. That's good. That's good. Least I hope that's how they felt. They might say that's now felt to me. But that's what I was trying to communicate. And to put it in conjunction with the rest of the school, it wasn't as if this felt out of place, given the positioning of the school, our recruiting activities, changing the composition of the student body, some other courses they were putting in place, building off of, but not being tied to the history of social enterprise. The selection of my boss, basically the chairman of the board, Paul Polman, from Unilever, all this stuff was of a piece it was all consistent.

Dave 26:54

So Peter, as we begin to wrap things up, if a dean was and you've already touched on a lot of this, but if you could give some pointed advice to a dean who might be thinking about this as a tool to bring some brand definition to their graduate program, or maybe even in an undergraduate application, what would those succinct pieces of advice be?

Peter Tufano 27:20

So I think there are some that are replicable, and others that have to be defined in context, radical parts are students today, I think have an abiding interest in these big global problems in the world. You can find lots of ways to deliver that. But if they get through their MBA program without having thought about those issues, and a signal from their programs that they matter, you may find a substantial fraction of your students who are less than unhappy. By and large, since they're MBAs, they're problem solvers. So if all you do is present a set of problems without any sense that they are solvable, or how you'd solve them, I think you will leave them in a bad place. So I think those are generalizable statements. But how you do this, I think is intimately related to the context of the business school, if you're a standalone like NCR, and I have a lot of respect for what NCR has done, they have to adopt a very different approach than lead up if we were part of a big university, I was able to have cups of tea with the hooks and agents come to work with us. That's not how INSEAD works. So if they want to do this, and they have done this, not exactly the same way, but they're going to have to work with the realities of their organizations. So I don't suggest that there is a formula or something that can turn a crank and make this happen. I do suggest, however, that the fundamental impulse, that business is being asked to address big problems in the world, and therefore business schools have to do that as well, that I think is kind of something that they can take away. And I would also offer, something that I kept in my mind, which is the core values are expressed in core curriculum. So if you believe that something is a core value of your school, but you find that it has no voice in your core curriculum, then to my mind, at least, there's something that's amiss. Because if something's important enough, that is the dean, you talk about it all the time. But yet, when you look at your curriculum, it's not there, except as a set of extracurriculars or as a set of electives, then you're not being true to your word, terms of your brand values. So to me, probably my faculty heard that pretty regularly. Core values are expressed in core curriculum. So what are our core values? When the pandemic hit, what are our core values? And how are we going to express that in everything that we do? Of course, you have to worry about rankings and you have to worry about the economics of your program. sourcing of students and all of that, but you see how to your job in a year or two if you didn't think about those things. But on the other hand, if you don't think about what is it that you're saying to the world that matters to you, and then delivering that, then that's not going to work. We see companies being pilloried for greenwashing, the same kind of considerations have to be in the mind of a dean.

Dave 30:25

Well, Peter, this has just been an outstanding conversation. Thank you for introducing us to this new way of thinking and we we wish you well as back down at your old confines at Harvard. Thank you so much. Thanks,

Jim 30:38

Peter. It really appreciate it. Thank you very much. It was great. Really great.

Peter Tufano 30:42

My pleasure.

Dave 30:51

Jim, what a wonderful conversation that was, what were some of your your key takeaways?

Jim 30:57

I thought it was terrific, I thought was very thought provoking. And what he did was he really gave us the framework to think about how you might implement a big problem solving situation into a curriculum of an MBA program. And regardless of what the big problem is, he gave us the framework. Yeah, he gave us a framework in terms of the system and the intervention and the design system, and all of that, that really put forth another way of thinking about one semester case, right, or a one year case, not a one class case. So a different way to think. And it really differentiated what he did, aside from what many of us have done in our own schools, and it puts more of a long term thought process into the curriculum, right than many of us might envision. And yet, I'm sure that everything else that they taught inside was very much to the short term and getting the students jobs and getting them ready to go into the into the business world. This particular aspect is going to help them and stay with them a long time in terms of their leadership abilities. That was great.

Dave 32:07

I totally agree. So recently, we were talking about Myers down at Cox. And in that recording, Matt talked a lot about how he sees a lot of use the word pressure on the MBA construct, if you will, that, you know, there's a gap that used to exist between undergrad and MBA programs in business is shrinking. But what I was struck by Peters comments as this may be way to really put an interesting you said you use the word differentiation. But this may really be a use useful tool to help distinguish MBA degrees more generally, if this was to be adopted more robustly, for example, I agree with and we probably should track this down a little bit more. But Peter mentioned, GMAC had done a psychometric decomposition on the marketplace. And that one of those metrics, if you will relate it to those who want to change the world, speaking from Boulder here, were infiltrated with that kind of demographic. So I think it opens. It was just me and my mind was traveling a mile a minute trying to visualize some of the really interesting things that he was raising. And I think it must also create a given the the nature of some of the problems they've been addressing must give them a sense of joy.

Jim 33:34

Yeah. Yeah, I agree. Yeah. Well done.

Dave 33:38

Well done. Yeah. Well, what a great session. 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 council.com If you have any feedback for us, please let us know by sending an email to feedback at Dean's council.com. And finally, please hit follow or subscribe on your favorite podcast player so you can automatically receive our latest show











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