Listen to this article
Follow @ProfThomas on Twitter and on any given day you might read a restaurant review, a movie recommendation — or a meditation.
Recent ponderings from the dean of McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington DC have included: “The only enduring success is that which fulfills a sense of purpose for being in the world and benefits others.” And on another day: “Each of us privileged to lead others should reflect on what we owe those who labour and justify us keeping our jobs.”
Few business schools can boast of a dean who meditates and tweets, but David Thomas was less keen to communicate with search consultants.
“I started getting a continuous stream of calls from a search consultant that started last November, but she didn’t get me on the phone until February,” says Thomas, who didn’t immediately see an obvious fit with Georgetown.
But having started in August, Thomas now articulates a good match: a thoroughbred academic in his first deanship; and a young school with pedigree, ready to push into the top tier.
Educated at Yale and Columbia, before gaining professorships at Wharton and Harvard Business School, Kansas City-born Thomas got his first taste of academic leadership in 1999 at Harvard, running the first year MBA leadership curriculum. “One of my roles was mentoring new faculty and for the first time I could see the multiplier effect – the ability to impact not just students, but all the classes.”
Further stints as senior associate dean of faculty recruiting, then head of the HBS organisational behaviour unit yielded more insights into creating good teaching and learning environments.
“But, at 55, I was asking myself, how do I want to spend the next decade and where can I have the most impact?” Thomas says.
At a year younger than Thomas, McDonough is one of the youngest schools at the top end of rankings. It teaches undergraduate, MBA and two executive MBA degrees, including the Georgetown-Esade Global Executive MBA (GEMBA) in partnership with the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Esade Business School, which sends students to nine cities on four continents.
Thomas replaced George Daly, whose accomplishments, aside from creating GEMBA, included recruiting more than 30 new faculty to raise the school’s research profile. But Thomas admits there is still work to be done for McDonough to enter the top tier.
Thanks to its schools of law and foreign service, Georgetown enjoys strong brand recognition. “But, relatively speaking, compared with schools like Harvard and Wharton, McDonough is just a baby – we’re still in the process of growing into our full potential. What will propel this school forward is its people and their commitment to making this a great place – as opposed to it being a well-oiled machine.”
Thomas says he wants to develop McDonough’s strengths, such as its strong emphasis on undergraduate education. “If you are intent as a business school to develop and educate leaders who are principled and have a global mindset and orientation to serve business and society you can more fully impact that project at the undergraduate level,” he says.
Likewise, he wants to accentuate the benefits of Georgetown’s Jesuit roots and principles. “Because of the Jesuit influence, it seems natural for us to be creating leaders who are responsible for what happens in society.”
His five-year to-do list includes developing a “community of philanthropic leadership” to support the school – McDonough is a top 20 research university in terms of quality, but 61st for endowment – and is working with Jesuit universities around the world to increase under-represented minorities on graduate programmes,
A specialist in strategic human resource management and diversity – some say Thomas’s research on the importance of diversity in IBM’s turnround success shifted the conversation on the topic – he says that trying to walk the talk is both humbling and gratifying.
“It’s humbling because I see now why executives often don’t do what they know to be the right thing. And gratifying because when I do live up to what my research tells me, I find I’m able to create an inclusive environment that gives people a voice, without abdicating my leadership.”
Get alerts on Executive MBA when a new story is published