20 minute read

Raising the Dean’s profile

Focusing on the figurehead of a business school, the second episode of season two of the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast sees International BizEd Guru Matt Symonds, BlueSky Education’s Stephanie Mullins, Kerry Ruffle and Peter Remon discuss how Deans can be positioned externally to great effect along with Sarah Seedsman, Executive Director of Engagement, Insights and Consulting at Media Minds Global, and returning guest Jonathan L. Simon, Director of Marketing and Communications at The Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.

Here’s what they had to say

Matt: I've been fortunate throughout my career to meet and discuss with Deans from business schools all over the world. I'm convinced that they are the primary spokesperson for the values and the vision of the business school. Across stakeholder groups – university students in their programmes, of course staff and faculty, alumni, all of the corporate and societal connections both at a local and a global level – look to a Dean and there is a reason why, when Harvard Business School announces that Nitin Nohria is standing down and they're looking for new Dean, that becomes news in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. This is the head of the school.

When you hear Frank Bournois talking about the solidarity that he witnessed at his school ESCP in Paris, just moments after the Paris attacks of five years ago, that is a very powerful statement about a community and its values. Think of INSEAD’s Ilian Mihov talking about business as a force for change, or Erica James, of course, who has recently joined Wharton as the first black woman Dean of a top US Business School – and her messages on diversity, inclusion, and everything else that Wharton has a voice on, really, really matters.

I have a personal favourite on this one. I had the opportunity to interview the Dean at the Rotterdam School of Management, Ansgar Richter, who, as a young boy who grew up in a separated Germany, both East and West. He spoke in our interview about politicians that were trying to solve societal and economic challenges by building walls and why that was not the answer, and certainly wasn't the future. That interview had a massive response, not just in the readership on Forbes, but engagement on social media. Over 35,000 people followed and commented on those comments and others from the Dean, and they included alumni, corporate partners, staff – in fact, one of the staff wrote and said that they were proud to work at a school with such values.

So the Dean, his or her profile, both through the channels of the school, clearly through the media and, increasingly, I think through social reach, is absolutely fundamental to sharing the visions and value of a business school.

Kerry: There's no doubt that the experiences and perspectives of a Dean of a business school is a considerable tool for business schools to wield in the media. But of course, business schools in doing that face a challenge over how to leverage that perspective in the most responsible and the most influential way. Sometimes it's not always an easy practice, it's not always an easy thing to do. So that's the topic of our edition of the podcast today, how do you leverage your Dean's profile in the worldwide media? And to kick off the discussion following that lovely introduction from Matt, we return to our interview with Jonathan Simon.


Steph: Something else that I actually want to speak to you about, that we've spoken about before, is how Deans have led changes and have built their profiles, and been seen in the press talking about changes and really making an impact and being seen as the top of an institution. I just wanted to ask you about how you've seen communications help raise a Dean's profile and how effective you think that is?

Jonathan: We're in an age with social media, and how quickly our attention changes!

Students and people in general are very familiar with people making sure that brands seem accessible, and aren't institutions anymore. They're not a building. So fortune 500 companies are trying to put faces behind the brands and now we know famous CEOs behind companies. We know people like Elon Musk. Steve Jobs was one of the best with where we understood the mind behind it. And so when you're trying to pick an institution to go to, school or business school, there's so much choice around the entire world to go, depending on how much money you want to spend and where do you want to locate. There's just so many choices that one of those things that moves the needle a little bit is that students have a personal attachment in some way to the school. Now this could be through alumni relations, with their parents that went to the school, if this was traditionally how it was, or their friend was going there, and that was good. So now with, institutions having the ability to go online through social media channels or other types of channels and put the people behind the school, it’s not just the building. It's the academics behind it, the research that comes out of it, it's the students’ accomplishments, it's the job to come out. At the very top, it's the dean that manages a very complex system of appeasing everybody, and making sure everything works. I think some of the best Deans in the world are using social media to put a face in front of the institution, a personality in front of the institution about what the vision of the school is, what they're trying to accomplish with the school. I think it's a huge opportunity for Deans who aren’t scared of the spotlight, first of all, and have a little bit of notoriety. But it's kind of part of a Dean's mandate anyway. They're always at events, doing speeches, showing up and shaking hands, meeting people – what's the difference of recording that or putting that online? It's just wasn't something that I think a lot of marketing departments in schools thought of doing because it wasn't traditionally used in education. And now it's just becoming a little bit more commonplace that you can have your Dean on LinkedIn talking about the latest things. You're putting them in the media, you're getting them to comment on the next things that are happening in the world. And that also shows the value that you bring to an institution, the vision you have for your school. And hopefully, that impacts recruitment numbers and donor numbers, which is very important as well.

Steph: Definitely, I don't think I could have put that better myself, the Dean is literally that figurehead who gives people an idea or a topic that they can really resonate with, whether they're a student or donor or a corporate partner, it can really have such a massive impact. And you put that wonderfully, thank you.

You've given us some great information, thank you so much. Is there anything else that you would like our listeners – who are engaged in the business education community, who are really interested in the industry and learning new things – is there anything else you'd like them to know or think about?

Jonathan: I think what I'd like to leave with is, yes, there's a lot of uncertainty, but with uncertainty there's opportunity. And because of that schools, which used to be more rigid in how you can market things and there were certain rules and things like that, a lot of that has been thrown out the window a little bit. And so I urge my colleagues at other schools and marketers who, and communicators who work with schools, to go back to the drawing board again, to experiment, to go back to that idea you had five years ago that everybody said was crazy and don't do it, to go back again and say ‘Hey, remember that idea? Let's try that’. So starting a podcast for your school content, putting out things, it's never been easier to do and there's less risk if you fail. Well, you know what, we're willing to experiment these days, because we have to try many different things. So I think that's the advice I would give my colleagues and I'm always willing to share new ideas. And hopefully, through this, I'm hoping to learn different ways of how things are happening.

Steph: That's a wonderful note to end on. We live in a world of possibility now and yes, what if you fall, but what if you fly? So perfect. Thank you so much, Jonathan.

Kerry: Jonathan says something really important, that schools are just buildings, and particularly now, having a visible Dean is vital in helping a school to forge its identity and be seen as engaged in the wider world and stand out from the competition.

Steph spoke with Peter Remon, one of our PR consultants here at BlueSky, who has spent a great deal of time working directly with Deans to boost their profiles in the media. Let's hear what he has to say.

Peter: It's been a couple of years I've been doing this with numerous Business School Deans of the top European schools. It's something that's really valuable to schools, to have their Deans front and centre, showing their face, getting their voice out there. I think it's something that a lot of schools don't really think about or don't really do a huge amount until they start working more with a media agency who pushes their Dean's voice and their Dean's opinion and the corporate news out there, and it's incredibly valuable for business schools to ensure their Dean is front and centre.

Steph: I agree. I mean, they're the figurehead after all, so when they've got messages they want to put out there, those messages carry so much weight.

I know you've worked with Deans in a number of ways to help them get their messages out there. One of which is announcements, isn't it, for the school?

Peter: Yeah, of course. So I see three ways in which you can really utilise the Dean's voice and their opinion and insight and really get as much value out of out of them as possible for the business school.

The first way you sort of mentioned there is exactly that, in corporate news and announcements. It's something that we've done a huge amount with, with Deans from our schools, our clients. Whether it's corporate news, something new going on at the school, an announcement of a new programme, whether it's just a nice success story of the school. A good example would be a really high ranking in the FT. We do a lot of work with Deans, getting quotes for them. A good example of corporate news would be working with the Dean of Durham University Business School around the new campus announcement, something that generated a huge amount of first local press – which is obviously a really key stakeholder for business schools – but then working a bit further afield. For instance, this announcement featured in the Financial Times where we've managed to secure quotes and it really leverages the Dean's voice. I think having the figurehead of the school speaking in these press releases, these announcements, just shows how important these announcements are and how influential they are at the school. Other corporate announcements around things like new programmes and new rankings, having the Dean’s voice in that, again just shows how important an announcement is, and how involved the Dean is in the day-to-day business school.

Steph: Definitely and having them talk about these messages really helps business schools to meet their target audiences and get their goals achieved, because the Deans are really helping in that mission. And ultimately, that's a huge part of their role.

Peter: Yeah, exactly, and if you have the Dean buying into public relations and media as well, it's going to encourage everyone else at the school to do the same and get them on board, get them doing more media work. The Dean getting involved and leading it from the front is really just a positive for everyone else at the business school to get them engaged.

Steph: Helps with the whole institution’s brand, having so many people engaged, willing to promote their work, and then the school as well.

Tell us about another way that you've worked with Deans.

Peter: Of course, as I say the first way, and the first port of call really, is around these corporate announcements, because you can really put a nice, interesting, insightful quote in from a Dean that really garners more attention because it's coming from the lead figure and lead authority of the school.

But another way that we work with Deans tends to be, specifically with higher education press and biz ed press, is talking about the industry in general and trends that are going on across the board. Really, making Deans of the schools we work with, a figurehead in the industry, which gives a huge amount of authority. It's something we do with a lot of the industry press, whether it's QS TopMBA or BusinessBecause or AMBA or the other accrediting bodies as well. It puts the Dean, again, front and centre of the industry. These publications are hugely read, not only by other people in the industry, but also by students as well, potential applicants, business employers too. It's good to have your Dean that you work with from your business school front and centre of the industry. It's good for students looking at the publications, but it's also good for stuff like conferences.

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You've had the same as well – working with Deans and professors – you get some coverage for a Dean and then people start realising ‘Oh, they've got some really interesting stuff to tell us. There's some really cool stuff going on at this business school. Why don't we have them come and talk at our conference?!’, which just generates more interest in the business school, more notoriety that the brand goes off, and they've just become more well-respected in the industry.

So the first one is around announcements, corporate news, new stuff going on, programmes, which hits a wide range of different publications, whether it's local press or national or specific trade ones. Then the industry one is more about making yourself known in the industry, just boosting your reputation there, and this tends to be industry press, whether it's specific education or more specific to strictly business. We've done a huge amount of work with Leila Guerra, who's the Associate Dean at Imperial College Business School. Lots of stuff with her around what's going on, especially in the EdTech and digital learning space, something Imperial is really at the forefront in the industry of, talking about trends for the year, what's going on in the industry, recruitment trends – and BusinessBecause, QS TopMBA, etc. are places that are really interested in what the lead figureheads have to say about this.

Steph: Definitely, I agree with you entirely. It's so important to have that aspect of PR and media visibility to really support a Dean and their institution and helping get their messages out there in their own circles, circles where they should be seen. Some of my favourite examples of Deans to have featured in the FT or in AMBA or Biz Ed magazine, they've been surprised at how many people have reached out to them about the topics and the ideas they've been speaking about. It's so influential and so important. But that's not the only way, is it? I think there's a third way that you want to speak about today.

Peter: Yeah, I’ve gone over the other two ways, around corporate announcements and industry trends and talking specifically in the education industry – but you can utilise Deans in the same sort of way you utilise other academics really. In business schools, the Dean is obviously top of the school and runs the whole thing, but they do have their fields and areas where they are professors in. Whether it's finance, accounting, marketing, across the board. They obviously spend a lot of time and work and effort working on the school and what's going on there, but a lot of them like to do their own research still and have that academic field of their work still. So this is something we do with a lot of Deans too, utilising them to speak about their specific field that they're an expert in. Not just business education – the trends that are going on, what's going on at the school, new programmes or anything like that – more talking about the economy, finance, what's going on in the marketing space. It makes quite a nice change for Deans to talk about that instead of their school and their institution as well.

A good example of this is some of the work we've done with ESMT Berlin's President Jörg Rocholl. He’s an economist, an economy and finance expert, and does plenty and plenty of work specifically obviously in German press, where they're located, around the economy, what's going on, but a lot of work we've done with him as well. Whether it's helping to pitch out for articles or comment, a good example is something we recently did with him in Forbes, talking about the impact of Coronavirus on the German economy specifically, where he's a leading expert. It makes a nice change to Deans to talk about their industry as opposed to that school. Because, at the end of the day, that's what they're passionate about and they've made a living working in that field. But it's great to utilise these themes because not only are they really well-known in business education, but they're incredibly well-known in their field as well. So I there's an abundance of opportunities when it comes to speaking about their fields and a lot of people want to hear from them. That's the sort of work that hits other types of press as well that usually you won't be able to hit, whether it's finance specific press like Bloomberg, for instance, or business and management press, and even some smaller but well-read trade press that's specific for other industries, not just biz ed – and it's great to leverage the Dean's voice in these places too.

Steph: Definitely, I think sometimes we’re surprised by how many Deans are actually still active researchers – and they work in such varied areas from sustainability to finance to economics, so it's really interesting. That work is great to promote as well as their viewpoints and their ideas about the school and about the industry in general. It's been really great to explore all these different ideas with you, so thank you so much.

Kerry: So you've secured your Dean a spot in the media, be it at a top tier like the Financial Times or an influential trade press like International Finance Magazine, but the job doesn't stop there. The next step is working with your Dean to share this effectively.

We all know the power that social media can have in driving engagement. Sarah Seedsman is Executive Director of Engagement, Insights and Consulting at Media Minds Global. She's been doing some research into how a Dean can best leverage platforms like LinkedIn, to boost their influence and drive engagement with their institutions. She's here now to tell us more.

Sarah: Yes, so at media minds, we do a lot of tracking and analysis of what business schools are doing on social media organically, across a range of channels. On LinkedIn particularly, as well as tracking what is done by a school's main account, we’re tracking and following over 100 Business School Deans and looking at what they're doing, and what sort of insights we can get out of that. We can see things such as the reach of their audience, and how much and how rapidly that is growing. We can look at the level and type of activities, how frequently they're on LinkedIn posting, commenting, and what sort of material they're actually choosing to communicate with their audiences. It's quite a fascinating exercise because there's quite a wide array of practices that Deans are adopting on channels like LinkedIn.

Steph: Definitely interesting to see different ways that they're engaging. You have some top tips, I believe, for how Deans can really make the most of their platforms. Could you tell us a bit more?

Sarah: Yes, if we focus on LinkedIn, because that really is recognised as the most trustworthy platform when there are question marks about social media generally, LinkedIn is highly trusted. It is a professional network. It has almost 700 million users now, largely in business one way or the other. So of course, that encompasses almost all of a business schools’ key audiences, whether it's prospective students or prospective Executive Education participants, corporate recruiters, corporate partners, and of course, alumni, one of the most significant audiences for Deans, that they need to cultivate and communicate with, they're looking for fundraising and school support.

The first thing is, Deans need to be present and active there if they want to make the most of it. We found out of just over 100 Deans, all of whom are ranked for at least one programme in the FT, probably three quarters or so have a LinkedIn profile. Then there's a small group who don't at all, for whatever reason. Of those who then have a profile, of course, it's then a matter of finding the time to be active and to use that channel, or working closely with your communications team or someone in the Dean's office, so that they can authentically work on behalf of the dean. It's a matter of then of thinking about who's the key audience? And what do I as Dean want to share? How can I communicate here? Recognising that LinkedIn is just one of the channels that you use in a portfolio of channels as Dean. So if you're thinking about communicating with alumni, the school may well have newsletters, it may have web pages, it may have other social channels – but LinkedIn is another good one for the Dean to talk directly to the alumni community. So posting at a reasonably regular interval, so that they are present, engaging in other people's posts, because LinkedIn in particular works in a way that it recognises and rewards engagement. So if you post and people comment on your post, people share your post, then it will ensure that your post gets distributed more widely to your audience. So being a little bit active in looking at what others are doing. We see some Deans, for example, who've got a decent sized audience of their own and they use that to help amplify what their own faculty are publishing and writing on LinkedIn. Many business schools have got quite a lot of faculty who are very active in putting their own posts out about their work or teaching or consulting and so we'll often see Deans share that work with an added comment. It's not a massive amount of work for the Dean to do a one- or two-line comment to share that post, but they can help that faculty’s work reach a much wider audience. Think about the audience and then consciously choose what you're going to do on the platform, writing or sharing or commenting, and work with whoever in your office, you might need to if you need to create some capacity to do that.

Steph: You make some interesting points. It's a similar thing that we do with our clients when we're talking about choosing the right channel to share your messages on.

It is clear that LinkedIn really targets the right audiences. In the same way, when we're talking to clients, we're saying the FT and the Economist and business education media is really important – and all of the other places where your target audience is reading. You can reach them on LinkedIn as well and share those messages and have a very holistic approach across all these platforms, really getting them out there and helping a Dean boost not only their own visibility, but that of their school as well, because it helps an institution too, would you say?

Sarah: Oh, absolutely. We're all aware it's a very, very competitive market, the business school market. It's under increased pressures this year as a result of the pandemic, particularly I suspect, for most schools on the executive education side with the corporate audience. If you think about that corporate audience for a moment and business schools positioning and trying to sell exec ed to corporates, and you think about competition. If you look at LinkedIn, you'll find the management consulting firms are absolutely prolific in sharing what they consider to be their knowledge, their thought leadership, and they publish not just daily, but multiple times a day, articles and posts written by their consultants and researchers on all of the business topics that are occupying business leaders’ minds. Many of them then offer professional development and training. So if the business school is trying to sell exec ed, if you're not present on LinkedIn sharing and showing what you're able to offer and the impact you have, you've actually got competitors there who are occupying mindshare by sharing what they do. That's another reason that Deans should do it. We see the chief executives or the Managing Directors, managing partners of the consulting firms, very active under their personal accounts on behalf of the firm. In a similar way, Deans can play that same role to represent the school personally.

Steph: I’m an avid consumer on LinkedIn! I like reading these posts and this advice from CEOs and the chief execs of Accenture and these other consulting firms. I also like reading the business school Deans’ advice and their insights as well, but they need to make sure they're being seen because the competition is fierce. They need to make sure that ultimately, they're having that impact on their exec ed courses, on student recruitment, on corporate partnerships, on all of these things that land at the Dean’s feet, that they have to make sure they're delivering on.

Do you have some examples of Deans or other people that you've seen are really effective on LinkedIn at sharing these ideas?

Sarah: One Dean I enjoy following is Marion Debruyne at Vlerick. She's very active, very regular on LinkedIn. It is very authentic, it is Marion writing and talking. She covers a range of topics from what's going on at the school – months ago, I might have said what's going on at campus! In fact, she's been great at shining a light on how the school adapted to what it was doing digitally. How she was convening town hall meetings with staff, faculty, group meetings, faculty adapting the teaching online, a real picture of what is happening at the school, and messages for her own school community and beyond, all the way through to occasionally when she has time for her own research, which as Dean you don't often do but her research will come up her reading list for summer. Very authentic, very genuine, very regular in that she's a regular voice on LinkedIn. She's definitely one of the Deans that stands out as effectively using it.

I think one of the other Deans we're watching with interest is the new Dean at Wharton, Eric James, who was at Goizueta in January and had just over 2000 followers on LinkedIn, and was using it occasionally. Then, in the course of subsequent months from the announcement of her appointment at Wharton to actually starting there last month, she's moved from just over 2000 followers to over 65,000. She's probably closer to 70,000 followers. So absolutely exponential growth. There was a significant jump there because in her first week, she was interviewed live on Good Morning America, and then the school and she herself shared clips of that on LinkedIn. It's going to be very interesting to see how she uses that communications platform and that size of audience to communicate. She's only weeks into her new role and many things on the mind of a Dean at the moment, trying to reopen campus or teaching, but she’s got a significant platform there. Her predecessor at Wharton, Geoff Garrett, has just gone to USC Marshall. He is the Dean with the highest audience following on LinkedIn, he's got well over 400,000. He posts daily. When at Wharton and now at Marshall, we're seeing similarly, he does a real mix of business content, where he'll share current affairs around the global economy and what's happening. He'll pluck something that was in the Wall Street Journal or some sort of chart that's just come out about US-China trade and he'll just add two or three very pithy lines and share it – so there's business content daily, but then he'll mix that up with messages about what he's doing as Dean and what his school is doing; which guest speakers they might have welcomed, new classes they're welcoming back. He blends both content for the audience with school updates and has an absolutely, in the business school world, astronomical following.

Steph: You can see why that's so effective and how the way he goes about it has really worked and pulled in an incredibly impressive audience. I just wondered if there was anything else you would like to add for our listeners?

Sarah: Within business schools, there are probably quite a lot of staff, particularly in the communications and marketing teams, who would love their Deans to be more active on social channels. I think there are others within the school who would also see that communications practices are changing and the role of a leader is to communicate effectively with your community. Social media these days is very much one of the areas that's open for leaders to communicate. I think, with the marcomms teams or others, perhaps nudge your Dean along, hold their hand a bit, show them what some other Deans are doing, show them it can be quite easy. It's not an all-in commitment that has to take hours a week and consume all of your time. It can be done effectively in a reasonably light touch way. If you just choose one channel like LinkedIn, if you think I'm just going to go on it a couple of times a week for a few minutes, and my comms team are going to feed me a couple of pieces that I just add one or two comments to. Start with some small steps and then what we do see is that as people take those small steps and become accustomed to it, realise that it's something they can make more use of and start to expand it.

Steph: I think that’s a wonderful piece of advice to end on, especially considering that we really do see these people who have just tried to a post a little bit, and they start to see the engagement build, and they think, yes, they start to see results and then continue on with it. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Sarah: My pleasure, Steph. My pleasure, thank you.

Steph: That was a really great conversation with Sarah and I think it's so important to really emphasise that building a Dean and boosting their profile, it's important to take a holistic approach. We want to share their stories and share their insights, not only in the media, online, in print and so on, but we really want to make sure that their social media profiles are up to scratch as well. To make sure they are consistently communicating across these platforms, really to engage their key stakeholders and meet the goals of the school. That's really what this comes down to.

Kerry: Yeah, I agree entirely. It certainly makes sense that when you have all of these tools at your disposal, you have LinkedIn where you can self-publish and promote and share ideas and engage in these wider discussions. It's, from my perspective, it's a no brainer that Deans should be getting involved in this and sharing their ideas and using themselves as a representative of their school to share their ideas, to boost the mission statement and the values, and show that actually, they have a wider perspective on the world and something to share. It helps engage the school outside of its current existing social circles and really help put an institution on the map beyond its own borders. It's a really, really valuable tool – and I think we've heard from some really fantastic people today.

Steph: Agreed, and where better for these messages to come from than the Dean? They're the top of the institution. They can really carry those messages with weight and with importance so that they reach the right people.

Kerry: Absolutely. Like Matt said, right at the beginning of this podcast, when it's done correctly, and cleverly, it can cause great effect. Look at the response of the RSM Dean speaking in Forbes. That's the proof of the pudding right there.

This has been a really great discussion on how to raise the profile of the Dean. In our next podcast, we're going to be looking at another key issue for business schools, particularly at the moment, equality and diversity. So I hope you can join us all there.

The BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast -  Season 2 Episode 6

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