Becoming a Business School Dean

This post was originally written by Lee Davidson and published on the AACSB International blog under the title, “Becoming a Business School Dean: Annette L. Ranft Shares Her Journey.”

The path to business school dean is, necessarily, unique for each person who wishes to take on the role. An aspiring dean’s background and skill set must align at the right time and place with the distinct mission and interests of an individual school. Yet, some basic features of the dean’s role are common across schools, such as strong leadership and vision. The new dean of North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management knows these truths firsthand. Annette L. Ranft came to the Poole College after serving as senior associate dean at the University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business. She attended AACSB’s Lessons for Aspiring Deans Seminar in 2013 and, just two and half years later, participated in the New Deans Seminar. Ranft began her new deanship on July 1, and she has the following insights to share on her experiences leading up to the role and her time in it so far.

annette-ranft
Annette L. Ranft is the Stephen P. Zelnak Jr. Dean of North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management

Are there any particular skills or knowledge you believe helped you achieve your new dean position?

In 1992, the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University was established with an initial charter to build innovative programming with a particular focus on technology, and to partner with other colleges across campus. I believe my experience in industry, at companies including AT&T and EDS, and my training as a strategic management scholar studying acquisitions of high-tech firms gave me a knowledge base that fits very well with the Poole College’s mission. My prior experiences as a senior associate dean at the University of Tennessee helped round out a deeper understanding of a business school’s role on a broader campus, a perspective I expect to build on at NC State in leveraging partnerships with other world-class STEM-based, analytics, and entrepreneurship programs on campus.

My particular journey to the dean’s office reflects a key message that was emphasized at the Lessons for Aspiring Deans Seminar I attended—fit is perhaps the most important consideration in being selected to join a college as dean, and in choosing to take on the role. The unique experience base, skill set, and knowledge you have should fit with the needs and nature of the college you are joining. In my case, a background in technology, strategic management, and building cross-campus programs elsewhere seemed to fit the needs and aspirations of NC State and the Poole College at the time of my appointment.

Do you feel you were adequately prepared for your new role, so far?

My experiences in industry and as a faculty member, department chair, and associate dean have certainly helped prepare me for this role. Having served in each of those various roles for a period of time helped broaden my perspective and taught me about societal and industry trends that affect the business school as a whole.

In addition, I have worked with and have known very generous deans who were mentors to me and encouraged me to get involved with college- and university-level matters, with development and fund-raising opportunities, and with AACSB workshops and conferences, such as the Annual Accreditation Conference, the International Conference and Annual Meeting, the Lessons for Aspiring Deans Seminar, and the New Deans Seminar—all of which have helped prepare me to take on this role.

In what ways is the deanship different than you expected it would be?

I underestimated just how much fun and how rewarding this job would be. I am spending one-on-one time with individual faculty members, alumni, and other leaders across campus, getting to know them and their perspectives, hopes, and aspirations for the college. The talent and passion I am encountering in our faculty, staff, alums, and students is incredibly motivating. Being in a position to help facilitate and support that talent is a humbling and exciting responsibility.

What essential leadership abilities should a person possess to take on a deanship?

Communication—being open to learn and understand the perspective of internal and external stakeholders is very important and highly related to being an effective communicator. Being able to listen to and learn from a variety of school and broader community members is especially important in the early days. Over time, being clear and consistent in messaging to stakeholders about strategic priorities and direction will go a long way.

Strategic thinking—being able to see the big picture and not getting too caught in the details and noise of day-to-day operations. This also requires the ability to build a strong operational team around you.

Respect—having respect for the dean’s role, understanding and respecting those around you, and appreciating the responsibility we share to make the world a better place through our role as leaders in business education.

What personal development lessons are helpful in transitioning to any new role?

Be clear on why you are taking the new position and what you want to accomplish in that role. Transitioning to a new dean’s role can be all-consuming, exciting, and exhausting. Be sure to carve out time for yourself and keep some balance in your life. You’re in this for the long haul, so patience and pacing are critical.

Talk with current and former deans. Educate yourself about trends facing business schools. Get involved with AACSB. Attend the Lessons for Aspiring Deans Seminar. You will begin to develop your tool kit, as well as your network!

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