top of page

30: Lillian Mills on Becoming Dean Via an Interim Appointment.

A peer-to-peer discussion with the Dean of the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business.

Deans Counsel Podcast

Dr. Mills shares her journey from interim dean to dean, talks about finding enjoyment in philanthropy and discusses business school strategies in a growing state with its own economy.

“I wanted them at the end of that year to have felt no loss of affection from the McComb School.” Said Mills.

In a revealing conversation from a seasoned and experienced dean, listen as Dr. Mills talks about leading with humility and how a few simple actions are keeping staff and faculty engaged across her large and complex organization - and how this has positively impacted the students at McCombs.

“We're enrolling students in Texas instead of other places, because they have bought into what we are willing to do here.” Said Mills.

For current & aspiring deans, listen to this episode with helpful observations on key themes in business education and becoming Dean via an interim appointment. Insights for current and future academic leaders. Listen to Episode 30 here -

About Dr. Lil Mills:

Lillian Mills, an internationally renowned expert in tax and accounting, serves as dean of The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, a leading business school in one of the country’s largest public research institutions. She is recognized as a top-ranked scholar whose policy-relevant research influences accounting, economics, and law; an inspiring and committed strategic leader; and an award-winning educator and champion for instructional innovation in multiple, diverse settings.

Mills is responsible for the development and execution of long-range strategic planning for Texas McCombs, launching comprehensive rebranding, facility expansion, and operational oversight; innovating curriculum; and engaging the business community for faculty thought leadership and student experiential learning. Mills took the helm at the height of the pandemic, successfully transitioning McCombs’ 600 faculty and staff members and 6,000 students to online learning and executing a safe return to in-person education. She oversees a more than $170 million budget and in two years has raised more than $120 million to endow critical facilities, scholarships, and programs. Prior to becoming dean, she served as chair of the school’s Department of Accounting from 2011 to 2015, continuing its decades-long rank at No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report.

Photos courtesy of UT Austin

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. Lillian Mills is a remarkably accomplished accounting academician, as evidenced in part by being named the 2023 outstanding accounting educator awarded by the American Accounting Association. After spending periods of time both inside and outside of academia during the career. Little join in Macomb school faculty at the University of Texas at Austin in 2009. In 2011, she was appointed chair of the accounting department, a role she held for four years. However, like many institutions COVID through UT Austin, an interesting curveball in the spring of 2020, as COVID was blossoming across the world, turnover on campus leadership suddenly thrust from a college beloved Dean at the time, Jay Hartzell into the president's office. promptly after that Lil was named interim D, and in a few short weeks, he was in the role during a hectic period of time on campus. In this episode, we hear her perspective about the role of demeanor NT, and her approach to initially taking on this job. However, exactly one year later, we'll became the first woman to lead in the comms as its permanent Dean. Transition we hear about as well. Along the way, there are several nuggets of insight in learning this episode, including how real guru and her leadership style over time, and how her time is department share informed peer leadership. We also pick up some useful tools on how to manage large, complex organizations.

Lil Mills 2:06

Well welcome lil Mills, Dean of the McCombs School of Business at University of Texas, Austin. We're just delighted to have opportunity to speak with you here today.

Thanks, Ken. And thanks Dave Ikenberry. You bet.

So, I mean, you have the distinction of having been an interim dean, and then being appointed to your first dean role during the global pandemic, which is a chair had its own set of challenges, and perhaps opportunities. And yet, we also know you've had a tremendous start to your role as dean with success across a number of measures. And all also mentioned, by the way, the 2023, outstanding accounting educator by the American Accounting Association, so you've had a chance to do a lot of things juggle a lot of balls, while earning that distinction at the same time. So we were really hoping to hear from you about sort of the startup of your dean experience, sort of what you've learned, and what what the secret sauce has been to helping with the success this year.

Well, thank you, Kim. For that lead in. I will say I have big shoes to fill and work at that every day. My boss is the immediate former dean of the Texas McCombs Business School. And in spring of 2020, shortly after all of us shut our campuses down in March of 2020, the president and provost of UT Austin announced they had been recruiting and had accepted jobs elsewhere. So in April of 2020, President J. hartsel, was named as the interim president to start June 1. And a few weeks later, UT called me and asked me to be the interim dean of the Texas McCombs business school also starting June 1. We so J hartsel. And I each have about a month to be mentally and organizationally ready to take those new roles. One of the things that made it extra bumpy is I think we each thought all we had to do was open campus in a pandemic, because we reside in a state that was going to get back to person as quickly as possible. But about five days before we took office, and George Floyd was held by Minnesota policemen. And that changed the nature of the summer of 2020. And it happened with a very long five days before we took over. So while universities and businesses were responding with commentary around that national event, we have a very long five days of silence at UT Austin. And so that also made the the parachuting in extra challenging. A, and I was really honored to be the dean in place on June 1 of 2020. Because it was the job of how do you hold the heart of a university and a college in a fearful and turbulent time that summer, so I was glad to be the dean that that year. Now, I came in to only be the interim, because there was some expectation that the regents would conduct a national presidential search and appoint someone else. And I was willing to serve as the Interim Dean, who would happily and willingly give. Interim Dean President hartsel, his Dean shipped back if he were sent back. But the region's highly valued every skill he brought to Texas. And it was a time where stability and a known proven quantity was such an asset in place. And so without a full national search, our regents appointed J heart soul as the permanent president in August of 2020, which meant the Macomb school could breathe into conducting a national Dean search for the next six plus months.

And we know that that left you in suspended animation for a fair amount of time. Yes, well, you assumed all the activities of a dean though serving as interim, maybe you can talk about sort of what that interim period was like for you and sort of what mindset you brought to it?

Well, I knew that one of the large roles of a dean is holding the heart of a college and its students, but also the heart and inspiration, and then loyalty of the alumni base. And I liken that to the alumni were happily married to Jay and he had to leave them for someone else. And they were going to have a year or two search for their next person to get married to and I wanted them at the end of that year to have felt no loss of affection from the Macomb school. So I went into it. They said you don't have to do fundraising, I consider that cheap talk. I didn't believe it for a second. And I leaned into the fundraising because accounting department chairs which I used to be, do raise money independently as a department. And so I knew something about that. And it's the most fun part of the job. I love individual people. I'm interested in their stories. The thing about fundraising is it's not transactional selling. You just ask people why they have affection for the college, and let them talk long enough to see where their affection matches up with your need. And a decade ago, long before I became department chair, I had read this book fundraising for nonprofits. And it talks about the arc of stewardship. So you spend a long time making friends and an even longer time thanking people for meaningful gifts. The actual fundraising is a very small moment in the middle of that very long arc. So to get closer to your question, Ken, I don't know how to be halfway about anything. I am all in. Even though I thought a year later, I would be turning the reins over to somebody else. But if I'm at the dance, I want to dance every dance and so that's how I approached the year.

Dave 10:00

Well, at what point in that arc of those that first semester, did you make that transition from thinking and embracing the interim to pondering the full time appointment? And did that change your leadership approach?

Lil Mills 10:19

While I was raising 10s of millions of dollars on Zoom and having fun, and occasionally in person meetings, and alumni started saying, well, you're going to put your hat in the ring, aren't you? So Well, that wasn't the deal that I was told. I was told I'm not eligible. And without any, I didn't say it with any edge in my voice. And so they started texting and emailing other people at UT, saying, We're hearing this Can't we unwind this. And, and the other part, Kim was nice enough to mention this Teaching Award. There are even even in and especially in COVID, the skill of making people feel seen whether they're remote or in person is a critical skill. And I was discovering that I was able to whether on Zoom or in person, or on teams, we are both the zoom and a Microsoft Teams user here, connect with the internal people in the college as well. And I was joking with some of you, I was discovering I was a true extrovert, who had accidentally trapped herself in a tax accounting scholars career for 30 years. And I was great at that. But this was more fun. So I'd say by October, November, I was hopeful that I would be allowed to entertain applying for the job. Now, I'll tell you a funny story, which may or may not be podcast, may not be relevant to everyone. But I went to my husband who was a fully retired introverted physicist, and I said, I think I'm going to be allowed to apply. But if I don't, I can exit next year. And I am not a young young woman, I could begin that glide path that professors sometimes exercise toward, they're sick, you know, and in their 60s toward their 70s. And I said to Jim, we could have more fun. If I were at the office less. And 24 hours later, he came back and said, Lil, you've terrified me. This 10 minutes we talk and dinner, and this 15 minutes a night that we work on a jigsaw puzzle, because this was COVID. Remember, he said, That's all the fun I'm ever going to be. I am not going to be any fun or if you retire, and you're scaring me. So go, Dean, all you want the dog and I will be here. Happy to see you when you're home for dinner. And it was exactly what I needed to hear. So I am married to someone that when I'm home for dinner takes great care of me and if I need to travel, he and the introverted but very tail wagging Labrador retriever, just completely supportive. So that was a key moment, and am I going to apply for the job, but you have to apply with your 100% spirit that you want it and you're going to be great while holding on to that little 10% of your heart. And can you were part of my search team, where I say People to People, if the college chooses someone else, I will give that person my fullest support, because they are going to be exceptional in the job. And I love trust in the process that if they picked somebody else that would be someone better than what I would bring to the table.

And I do really recall that you navigated very carefully being so deliberate in your messaging, that you would support any outcome and and not competing for the job but doing the job. Yes. And that was that was a clear differentiation. You were never campaigning. Right. You were doing I think

campaigning would have been tacky, which is why lots of colleges are weary of having an interim be eligible for the permanent job?

Dave 15:05

Um, yeah, yeah.

Lil Mills 15:06

But it's an important distinction. And one we hope our listening audience also pays attention to because it was exemplary the way you served as interim. And you know, a number of over 50% of appointments come from within within the institution. Yeah. And so there is a learning curve that you can show others away on?

Well, I would be willing to, to do a reasonable amount of entertaining questions. If people who are thinking about a dean ship, or they're in an interim role, if they wanted to email me, I've got some capacity to respond to some of those questions. Although Dave Ikenberry and gmls can clearly provide as sage advice, but happy to talk to colleagues.

Dave 16:08

At some point, you've made this mental transition from an interim to the full time appointment. But you were, that was happening probably right in the thick of COVID.

Lil Mills 16:20


Dave 16:21

What was your approach to leading the college forward? Was it like free? No, no, for so many colleges, waking up in the morning and dealing with the day's crisis was about as as much as one could, too. But But what was your approach? Did you did you begin to set an agenda? Or did you wade through things or take us through that time period?

Lil Mills 16:44

Well, the COVID part, I started June 1, so I think a lot of the crisis thinking had been already occurring in March, April and May. So people were effectively at home. And I'll give you an example. We have a faculty member who was due to retire in early May. And he was into his late 60s or early 70s. He threw himself into our quickly convened online educational sessions around how to teach effectively on Zoom. And he did that even though he was only going to be a professor for four more weeks. Like I think he could have told the department chair, replace me and pay somebody in overload. He did not say that. So beginning in July of 2020, that's when we bring our MBA students and masters students back. And we were in person in classrooms by late August with the undergrads. The the quick decisions the university was making, had to do with how densely populated the classrooms could be. So the decisions were rapidly made to take the largest classes, put them online, and take the medium size classes and offer them in person in the larger classrooms. The thing I am most proud of about my faculty, and this is the Business School faculty at Texas McCombs, 70% of them said they would teach in person if asked, and we didn't have a vaccination available until February or March of 2021. And here I want to give a shout out to my science colleague, Professor Jason McClelland, who discovered the spike protein that quickly got deployed into the COVID into the Pfizer and Maderna vaccines. And yet Jason McClelland will say he has extended family members who would not get vaccinated. So the scientist at UT Austin, who made the vaccine possible, when I heard that from him at a speech gave me a little more of an understanding of what an uphill climb we had in store for us in this nation around trust in science. So we opened in person unvaccinated in a state where you're not allowed to require masks. And so it's a courageous Business School faculty here. And I think part of what I did in a leadership function was be on campus every day. Starting that first August, and be willing to take some personal risk for myself and keep channeling the optimism, that it's a personal choice. I'm choosing to wear a mask in large crowds. And, and we're going to navigate this together. And I think it helps some. I also think business school faculty, they understand two things. They're better at risk assessment than the average faculty member without a business background. And so the data are around, are you elderly? Or do you have a comorbidity, et cetera, they can assess those risks. And the second thing is we understand value propositions. Kids, we're enrolling students in Texas instead of other places, because they have bought into what we are willing to do here. So our customer base wanted residential education, and, and business school faculty needs step up and, and provide it. So anyway, I was really proud. So we ut set most of the concrete policies. And for me, most of the leadership function was expressing the appreciation for faculty and staff that that show up to steward that mission.

What kind of messaging Did you deploy? I mean, you know, comms is a uniquely large Yes, and more importantly, multiple programs across across multiple levels. So messaging must have been and must be important to you.

Well, I've got it is large, which means there are multiple associate Dean's, the undergraduate programs, 4500 students, they have an associate dean to assistant Dean's, the MBA program across all of our cities and methods is 1000 students, and the MS and Master of Professional Accounting. That's another 1000 students. So I've got about 6500 students plus the PhD students. And it means some of the messaging was decentralized. So we were having the 20 person leadership team meeting weekly, that first summer, and then once every two weeks, and then once a month. So some of the messaging would happen through decentralized channels. But I am the academic senior associate dean and the administrative Senior Associate Dean held town halls that summer, so that there could be some live, but mostly pre submitted questions. It's a little hard with six or 700 employees to have the free for all of an open Zoom meeting town hall. So I think as I did more of those through the year, we would pre announce it, ask for questions in advance, look for commonalities and make sure we did that in a fireside chat sort of a format.

Dave 23:30

Well, now that we're, I don't wanna say we're on the backside of COVID. Because I actually think there's maybe a little bit of stirring going on right now. But But how is your strategic agenda shifted? I mean, how are what are the what are the issues that McCombs is is tackling right now?

Lil Mills 23:53

Well, I'll start with all the upsides. We are in a city in a state that has double digit growth, and headquarters are moving to Texas venture capital, money is moving here, high wealth individuals are moving here. It is an exciting ecosystem to have a business school. In many respects, there's nowhere else I would rather be a dean right now than in Austin, Texas. So one of the advantages of that opportunity is we now have 900 entrepreneurship students from across campus, as well as MBA venture fellows, as well as an MS in technology commercialization. And across all those platforms, whether you think the end result is entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship, where you still go work for a large company, but you get lots of opportunities to innovate in It's an exciting time with eager students back on campus. Because we're on a decade, where 18 year olds believe they can invent something, deploy it, and commercialize it quickly and do well for themselves. So we're taking advantage of that here. The other thing that's a challenge nationally and somewhat in the state, but where we have some natural advantages is the whole sets of arguments around how does one think about diversity. And here, it's great to be a business school, because our mission to educate students to navigate a global workforce, where you will need to be hosting teams or zoom or out of anyone still uses Skype. But meetings across time zones, cultures, ages socio economic, and yes, racial and ethnic diversity puts us standing on solid ground about what we're doing with our people and in our classrooms because we're educating business leaders. The endowment of students at the undergraduate level here is highly diverse, and that attracts employers. So the state legislator Lakeshore, says 90% of our fall freshmen have to be Texans, and the top 6% of our graduating high school classes get to come to UT Austin. So we're 30% Hispanic and four or 5%, black and the business school just by virtue of those state rules. And that means we're excellent and a wide set of well to do to low income. It's it's an exciting set of students we educate. And so a challenge that I think is giving lots of Dean's pain. I am working to navigate optimistically here

are their challenges that you face around student outcomes related to their placement made if the demand is so high in Austin, what does that do to your ability to create more diaspora in in student placements?

Oh, so my East Coast colleagues place lots of their MBA and undergraduate students and financial services in New York and up and down that corridor. My West Coast colleagues place a huge number of their firms in Tak, Texas, sins students at all levels to the east and west coasts. And in Texas, there's healthy investment banking, and tech and consulting. But our placement industries are broader than a lot of the top 20 business colleges. And the upside of that is when there are huge Wall Street layoffs, it doesn't hurt us as badly when there are huge California tech layoffs doesn't hurt us as badly. So all of our students are getting jobs. We just warned them you might have two to three offers not 10. So it's affecting how large is the choice set. But like I say we've had double digit growth not just in Austin, but in Fort Worth and Houston and San Antonio. So the local environment for job placements very rich.

Dave 29:08

Little we're we're going to run out of time here pretty soon. But I want to ask a closing question. You had a nice run as a department chair. Yes, in your own institution. And now you've had several years both in an interim and now a permanent role as dean to the extent there's permanency and direction. But what pearls of wisdom would you offer to to those considering a dean ship coming out of a out of a chair? What what pearls of wisdom would you pass along?

Lil Mills 29:43

Oh, so some things about department chair transfer perfectly managing faculty who might not want to be managed experience with students. Many department chairs get involved in fundraising The part I was less well equipped for was external politics. department chairs aren't viewed as responsible for policies very much. So the emails that come to my inbox are from a white, often from the political tales. So that was new to me. But the main pearl of wisdom, and this is coming back to that Outstanding Educator Award. The thing I'm doing now, that is increasing my satisfaction, and helping the heart of the college is, once a month, the 20 McCombs leaders report back into me what's happening in their unit. And in that is a space for them to give a little shout out to their staff members for jobs well done. And once a month, I get a research newsletter of everything that's gotten published, I take time, and it's always a pleasure to contact the staff member that's doing something well, tell them why I'm proud of them, that they got a shout out to the whole leadership team. And I copied the supervisor that put that in, so that my, I can't touch all 700 employees a month. But the people that are making this place shine, the Dean sees them and I let their supervisor know that I see them. And with the faculty members, I click through to their research. And I engage with them. Congrats on the publication. I've read the abstract. Tell me more about this aspect. And whenever I can I send the paper to an alum who works in that industry. And say, here's something interesting and relevant that you might want to engage on our faculty. So the pleasure of the job is not for me, one human being at a time. I know there are people who are Dean effective Dean's they're introverts and what they prefer is program development. For me, it's it's always a people development job, even at huge scale that I'm working.

What a great place to end on the topic of your generosity as a one on one leader. It's really, really great.

Dave 32:37

I think it's been a just a great, great session. We appreciate you carving out some time to to be with us today.

Lil Mills 32:52

Dave, that was a great conversation. What were some of your takeaways?

Dave 32:57

I agree. It was interesting. It was really interesting to hear her journey. And how she kind of evolved over time and into her receptivity for this kind of leadership role. She self self confessed introvert in the accounting, space and remarkably successful at that. But then she, over time gravitates into this extroverted role as dean. And moreover, she's, she's not only an introvert in an X, oftentimes, extrovert oriented job, she's, she's thriving at it. And you can just see that in her how she embraces everything she does, and similar to some of our other interviewers, you can tell how important the humanity of her relationships with whoever she's dealing with students, staff, faculty, donors, even in the dynamic of the stressful environment, these jobs present, she's, she's she still has that, that that value system that I think is so important to be an effective leader in terms of the managing human relationships.

Lil Mills 34:14

Yeah, it's interesting, like others, you know, you see that her, you know, her generosity comes out of, you know, being really grateful and her you felt her grace, which is really great quality. You know, interestingly, we sort of went off into the transition from in from which, you know, I was involved in and watched but I thought it was important to note because she really had to navigate very difficult landscape, not the least of which was, you know, her past president Mayer, past Dean and now President was beloved in the role and she was, you know, by some eyes sort of holding the place and she Just you know, never campaign she just did the job and did it in a way that was also still true to true to herself, and very respectful of others great quality and yet, you know, she can make tough decisions and frankly, you know, sometimes the internal candidate who has established credibility and relationships can have a fast start.

Dave 35:23

Thank you for listening to this episode of Deans Counsel. This show is supported in part by Korn Ferry leaders in executive search. Deans Counsel 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


bottom of page